I have been mystified by the wasteland that surrounds the Lake Merritt BART Station since like two days after I moved to Oakland.
A friend and I were sitting in my new downtown apartment and about to go…I don’t remember where we were going, but it was somewhere on BART. I suggested we get lunch downtown beforehand, and asked which BART station we should go to, since my place was roughly equidistant from the Lake Merritt and 19th Street stations.
He didn’t have any specific place in mind to eat, and suggested we try the Lake Merritt station so I could see a different part of downtown than I had been frequenting. “There’s a BART station, tons of apartments, and a community college right there,” he said. “Of course there will be plenty places to get something eat.”
So we headed down that way. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t what I saw.
There was nobody outside, nowhere obvious to buy anything, no activity around the station — nothing. It made no sense to me.
Ten years later, it still doesn’t make any sense. I moved away from the immediate area a while back, but I’ve worked in close proximity to that BART station for I think a combined total of four years now, and I still marvel at how empty it always feels. The station itself isn’t a failure — more than 5,000 people are using it every day (PDF), but whenever I find myself down there, I end up having to buy my coffee at the Metrocenter cafeteria, which is just totally depressing. (I did notice recently a new coffee shop across from the station, but haven’t had the opportunity to visit yet. But hey, that’s progress, right?)
Lake Merritt Station Area Plan
So the City also thinks that it is a problem that the neighborhood around the BART station is so dead. In hopes of making the area more successful in the future, they are currently in the process of creating an Area Plan for the neighborhood around the station:
The City of Oakland, BART and the Peralta Community College District, through a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, have come together to prepare a Station Area Plan for the area around the Lake Merritt BART Station. The Plan will consider land use, buildings, design, circulation, BART improvements, streetscape improvements, parks and public spaces. It will identify actions the City and the other public agencies should take to improve the area, and it will establish regulations for development projects on private property. The project also involves the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report for the Station Area Plan.
The planning area is a one-half mile radius around the Lake Merritt BART Station, which encompasses Chinatown, Laney College, civic buildings of Alameda Photo of Laney CollegeCounty and Oakland and the channel connecting Lake Merritt to the estuary. Many diverse residents, businesses and students make up the community of this area, and Chinatown functions as a citywide center for the Asian community. The Station Area Plan must address the needs of the community, as well as the needs of BART related to ridership, and the needs of the College District related to education and maximizing the use of their land. BART has stated that it envisions the area transitioning from its current status as an “Urban Neighborhood Station” to a “Regional Center” station type. Completing the environmental review process is also a critical component of the project, so that issues are resolved and development can proceed by tiering off the environmental analysis.
You can learn more about the planning effort on the project website.
Add your voice to the plan
If you’re interested in being involved in the planning process, you have an opportunity to do so this Saturday, February 26th, and next Saturday, March 5th, interested parties will have another opportunity to weigh in on the Station Area Plan at two public workshops. Both will be held at the Laney College Student Center at 900 Fallon Street. They’ll begin with an Open House from 9:00 to 9:30am, followed by a meeting from 9:30 to 12:30pm.
For discussion purposes, the plan area has been divided into two subareas: East and West. In the image above, the East subarea has been shaded in blue, and the West subarea in orange.
This week’s meeting will focus on the East subarea, and next week’s will focus on the West subarea. Helpfully, the project website already contains some materials to help you prepare.
I’m more interested in this portion, since the West subarea is for the most part, a much more successful neighborhood. There’s no reason I can see for the East subarea to be so sad — after all, aside from housing a BART station, it also includes Laney College, the School District Headquarters, the Oakland Museum, the County Courthouse, and the Oakland Main Library. People are clearly around. But walking around the area, it appears that for whatever reason, they’re unable to support normal neighborhood amenities.
The map below highlights the existing uses in the area.
If you’re having trouble reading that, click here to download a bigger PDF version.
A discussion guide (PDF) on the project website gives you an idea of the types of issues that will be discussed at the meeting, and offers some specific questions to prompt discussion.
The questions are divided into three different sections. The first section asks about street improvements:
What we’ve heard so far
- Improve the connections between the many unique places and destinations in the area, such as Chinatown, Laney College, Lake Merritt, the BART stations (including Lake Merritt, 12th Street, and 19th Street BART stations), Alameda County facilities, and the Jack London District
- Ensure the safety of people walking, riding bikes, and driving ars throughout the planning area.
- Incorporate distinctive street design into the area that reflects the community
- What streets do you think should change?
- How would those changes improve your ability to get around the neighborhood?
- How could the streets you use be safer, more attractive and pleasant for walking and biking?
- What are your top three street improvements?
Improved connections seems like a no brainer.
The Jack London District is right down the street from the BART station, but you certainly wouldn’t know it just standing by the station exit.
One thing I wonder about sometimes when I’m in the neighborhood is if part of the problem is that the streets are simply too wide for the existing building stock. They appear to have a great deal of excess capacity as well.
I’m not sure what the solution to that is. Widening the sidewalks would be one option, I guess, although for the moment, there seems to be no shortage of capacity on the sidewalks either. Maybe it just needs taller buildings?
The second part of the discussion guide asks about development and services:
What we’ve heard so far
- Promote a vibrant and thriving neighborhood, including new businesses, new shopping, restaurants, and other commercial services.
- Expand and strengthen Chinatown and establish more businesses around the Lake Merritt BART station.
- Promote a night market or farmers market, and promote businesses staying open later into the night.
- Accommodate a diverse community by providing a wide range of jobs, local services, and housing — both affordable (low cost) housing and market rate housing.
- Where should new shopping and dining areas be located?
- What kinds of entertainment and attractions would you like to see? Where should new entertainment or attractions (such as a farmers market, night market, performance spaces, or other nightlife) be located?
- Are there specific types of housing you would like to see in the area? (Examples of housing include family and student housing, and ownership and rental housing, etc.
- Are their specific types of goods and services you would like to see in the area? (Example of goods: home repair supplies, appliances, office supplies, etc,; examples of services: health services, senior services, child care services, etc.)
- Are there specific types of new jobs you would like to see in the area?
- How tall (i.e., number of stories) would you like buildings to be?
The final section focuses on parks and public facilities:
What we’ve heard so far
- Existing parks should be improved and new parks should be added to accommodate future population growth.
- Parks should provide space for multicultural and multigenerational programs and activities (such as space for tai chi, community gardens, and athletic fields).
- Provide an additional multi-generational, multi-cultural community center, and a youth center, either as part of the same center or as a separate facility.
- Preserve, celebrate, and enhance the heritage of Chinatown, as a cultural asset, regional community destination, and an anchor for businesses, housing, and community services. Highlight these resources and ensure that new development complements these existing resources.
- Existing community resources include the many historic or cultural assets in the neighborhood, such as the Buddhist Church, Lincoln Square Park and the Lake Merritt Channel. Which of the many existing community resources would you particularly like to see highlighted and enhanced in the planning area?
- What new parks, public spaces, and/or community facilities (such as youth center, cultural center or community center) would you like to see in the area, and where would you like to see them located?
That should give you plenty to think about in preparation for the meeting. I’m going to do my best to make it, although I’m not 100% sure I’ll be able to get there.
If you want to participate in the process, once again, the workshop will take place this Saturday, February 26th from 9:30am to 12:30pm at the Laney College Student Center located at 900 Fallon St..