Alleys, Archways, and Art in Uptown

You guys know this alley? It’s where 18th Street would be if there were an 18th Street right here, and it goes between Broadway and Telegraph. There’s an entrance here to the 19th Street BART Station. Despite its location, however, the alley does not get a whole lot of use.

BART Uptown Alleyway

Probably because it smells bad, it’s often filthy, and it is poorly lit at night. BART owns it.

When you come out on the Telegraph side, you are right across the street from the Fox Theater. You would think, then, that it would make sense for visitors taking BART to Fox shows to use this spot to enter and exit the BART station. Instead, they mostly use the exit at the corner of 19th and Broadway, right in front of the Hat Guys and where Oaksterdam University used to be before they had to go get bigger digs.

Since you can’t see the Fox Theater from that exit and there is no signage anywhere directing people, they often stand there asking each other which way the theater is. Then after the show everyone pours out of the theater and walks back to Broadway to go back on BART at 19th Street again.

17th Street Gateway

I suppose there’s nothing really wrong with the way this works right now, but it definitely doesn’t make for the world’s most enticing welcome to Oakland for visitors coming to check out this thriving Uptown arts and entertainment district they’ve all been hearing so much about.

BART Uptown Alleyway

Happily, the City is doing something about it! Using Redevelopment Funds, they’re going to brighten up the alley with landscaping and cool light art! From the staff report (PDF) about this, which came to Life Enrichment Committee two weeks ago:

The focus on redeveloping this particular site, in addition to its strategic location, arose from the concerns of local property owners regarding the cleanliness of the site, the need for BART patrons to feel safer, and lack of sufficient signage alerting pedestrians to the existence of this entrance to the station. Long-range planning efforts for the Uptown District have also consistently identified this location as a key opportunity site for public art.

Redevelopment Agency staff and City Public Art staff have developed a project to revitalize the site through a collaborative design team between the project landscape architect and a professional artist, with input from community and other stakeholders. The landscape architect/artist design team will collaborate on the transformation of the existing space into a memorable, distinctive arts-centered gateway for Oakland’s re-emerging Uptown arts and entertainment district. The artist selected for the project had to demonstrate experience working with a six or seven figure budget, experience working as part of a design team, experience working with integrated architectural design and experience in the creation of light-based/new-media art installations, with transit-related project experience a plus.

Skeptical? Yeah, I totally don’t blame you. I mean, we all remember the last time the City tried to get involved with art in the Uptown neighborhood.

This is no Champions for Humanity!

So you’re probably thinking that the Redevelopment Agency would want to do one of two things. Either slap a quick mural up on the wall and call it a day, or find some kind of hideous and terrifying sculpture to stick there that will frighten all the visitors back into the BART station. Or maybe just close off the BART station exit entirely and turn the alley into a parking lot. That’s three things, I guess. Anyway.

Happily, they are doing none of those things. They’re actually investing a substantial amount of money into ensuring that we’re able to have something genuinely nice right here that will really draw the attention of visitors and make a strong impression. The art component of the alley improvements is $600,000, which is close to half of the whole project budget.

I know what the tea party contingent is thinking right about now, and you can relax. This isn’t money that would otherwise be going to policing. In Oakland, when the Redevelopment Agency spends money in an area, 1.5% of the money they spend gets set aside to be used specifically on public art in the area. Since the City has invested a significant amount of money already in the Uptown neighborhood, there is a decent pot of funds sitting there already, waiting to be spent on art.

Anyway, so they put out an invitation for artists to apply listing all their requirements, and they got 148 applications, which were then reviewed by a selection panel and they picked this artist from Seattle, Dan Corson.

What will it look like?

Well, that part hasn’t been decided yet. But I have high hopes. At the Life Enrichment Committee meeting, they showed some examples of other light-based work the artist had done, and almost all of it looked really neat.

Luminous Conjunctions by Dan Corson

This one was my favorite, though. It’s in Ft. Lauderdale. The lights on the trees change color when you walk past them. And then there are also the tiles on the ground nearby that you can press which will initiate one of four different little light shows among the trees.

You can see more of the artist’s work on his website.

Anyway, we’re going to have to wait a little while to see what he’s going to do here. When the final proposal is ready, it will come back for review by the City and the Cultural Affairs Commission. A friend of mine went to a planning charrette about it a month or two ago, and they said that everyone there’s big idea for a cool thing to do with the alley was some kind of archway. Lame! But I trust that Dan Corson will come up with something a bit more creative than a stupid arch that says “Uptown” or something equally dumb.

Anyway, I’m glad that they’re doing something nice with the alley, and I look forward to seeing the proposal when it is ready. And if you want to watch the video of the meeting, well, there it is, above.

17 thoughts on “Alleys, Archways, and Art in Uptown

  1. Don Macleay

    My son and I go past it at least once a week to go skating.
    It is often filled with street people who use it as a bathroom.
    Maybe a public restroom, or more access to BART’s bathrooms could be part of the plan?

    This is right next to where the 2 Asian men were beaten and just up from a couple clubs on Telegraph there. One of which is the Van Kleef where a friend of mine was attacked, robbed and beaten right next to the bouncer. Other friends have been robbed trying to use the ATM up at 14th.

    All to say, this area is not known for being safe at night. Or clean. I do not know of reported muggings in this alleyway, but would be surprised if there were none.

    Anything done in this area needs to keep an eye out for public safety. The status quo does not provide much.


  2. Karen Smulevitz

    In the late 70′s, early 80′s there was some attempt at temporary art displays in the alley, and it was nice for a minute. The building on the north side once held a Jack in the Box which had entrances on both Telegraph and Broadway, and with Capwells and other stores open, foot traffic was more abundant. The 21st century looks more promising now that Oaklanders are paying more attention to parks, open spaces, reusable buildings, and all the unique paths, nooks and crannies that give character to neighborhoods.

  3. V Smoothe Post author

    I don’t know what would give you the idea that this area is unsafe, Don. Hearsay about a handful of incidents, probably stretched out over many years? That’s not really a great thing to base conclusions about neighborhoods on.

    The Uptown neighborhood is quite safe.

  4. Ralph

    Thank god. I think I attended the meetings last year when this alleyway came up for discussion. As is, it is by far the least safe exit from 19th St BART Station. I am looking forward to the new landscaping and anything done to improve the safety of this exit. Now, if they can just get rid of some of those ghetto businesses and improve the storefronts, then we will really be making progress.

  5. Naomi Schiff

    There was some discussion about the alley during the uptown project and Fox project discussions. I’d suggest speaking with BART, Jeff Chew and Jens Hillmer of the City of Oakland. They were supposed to be investigating some solutions.

    I’m not in favor, Ralph, of chasing out any businesses. The uptown neighborhood has been hit hard for several decades by redevelopment encouraging ejections and disincentivizing local businesses.The idea is to recruit new ones. Some of the storefronts can be rehabilitated with help from the city’s facade improvement program, and some already have been. There has been considerable change and work on the block between 17th and 19th in recent times, and if the landlords can get some more tenants in, the business mix will likely take care of itself.I notice my old office at 1761 is under construction now. Hope Mr. Brog can sell some of his condos next door; that would really help that end of the block. Improving the BART alley would really help!

  6. matt

    I never see anything out of sorts at this BART entrance and I use it pretty often. The lighting has always been blinding and orange. I find the alley ugly and utilitarian but not substandard or dangerous. Art and new lighting is very welcome. Keep us posted V.

  7. Ralph

    Let me be very clear, when I advocate for eliminating ghetto stores, I always mean replace with something more appealing and relevant to the surrounding community.

    I am not in favor of replacing ghetto stores with empty storefronts.

  8. Ken

    I’ve used this alley plenty. It could be much better. Storefronts. Flower stand. SIGNS. Non-orange lights.

    Mostly I see guys using it as a smoke break (if working) or other recreational drug enjoyment lounge. Plus a pissing bathroom.

    It really is a dead space so I’m glad RDA is paying attention to it and giving it an “RDA” of resources.

  9. Oakland Space Academy

    While I agree this looks promising, especially if the final design can avoid gateway arches and figurative sculpture, I can’t help but think this may be a bit of a lost opportunity. These small urban space redevelopment projects are perfect opportunities for emerging architecture, urban design, and landscape architecture firms to stretch their creative wings and find an economic foothold. This would have made a amazing small design competition, perhaps restricted to designers located in Oakland or the East Bay. For a very nominal amount (maybe 1-2%) of the project cost to conduct a competition and offer a small stipend to a few runners’ up, we could have made the whole walkway “art.”

    Instead, we’ll end up with what will likely be a very serviceable urban design. Sasaki, the firm hired for this portion, does decent work. But the impact will be expected to come from the art. Which is fine, but at the end of the day isn’t a very compelling attitude toward city building. Let alone the fact that we are shipping this design money up to Seattle, and to Boston via San Francisco.

    How cool it would have been to be able to have a public exhibition of the proposals for this space from dozens of local designers at some future Art Murmur or Art Attack or Art Scream…

  10. dto510

    The alley would not be 18th St., BART tore down a building for ventilation. I don’t see why Oakland should pay to clean up BART’s property, but I suppose BART never will do it on their own. This looks like a very cool project and will definitely improve the perception of safety in Uptown. Now if only the Redevelopment Agency would install the sidewalks and bike lanes promised years ago!

  11. Naomi Schiff

    Regarding the BART alley: I agree with Space Academy. Especially please no more heroic sculptures. It doesn’t have to be a huge project to make things a whole lot better. It is especially important to train BAT personnel NOT to dump collected trash in the mysteriously fenced area that I suppose is secured from terrorism or something.

    Re: public restrooms. City Hall! (During the day.)

    It’s a scandal that we don’t provide restrooms here. I’m not sure what folks are supposed to do, who aren’t themselves business owners or employees.

  12. Max Allstadt

    BART Bathrooms are all closed because of terrorists. Except for West Oakland BART’s bathroom, because apparently terrorists don’t want to blow up West Oakland. In fact, Linton Johnson, who is like BART’s version of the Iraqi Information Minister, has said, on record, that if people riding BART in SF need to pee, they should go to West Oakland, pee, and then ride back to their destination in SF.

    I did not make that up.

    As far as Art goes… in that alley, my immediate instinct is to take advantage of the way the walls box out the sky. Rather than burying us under an arch, I want a project that calls attention to the sky and really makes us both small and presents us with a soaring feeling at the same time. Extending a sculpture up from the existing walls, as far into the air as possible, but leaving the top wide open… well that’s one idea. It does seem to me though, based on V’s links, that we’ve chosen an artist with great vision. More than anything, I say: get out of the way, don’t micromanage, don’t try to demand anything of him. Let him just go at it. He’s clearly good at his job.

  13. Naomi Schiff

    I think indeed there is a danger of too much signage. Art is more interesting and can indicate an opening in the blockface without being too literal.

    I feel we have overdone the bannerization of Oakland, and we probably don’t need a lot more archways either, because we already have a few. Some other approach would be refreshing. But clear visible indication that there is a BART entrance there would be good. And I do think that signs to lead people to the Fox and Paramount should start inside the underground station, like they do in NYC.

    Overall, though, it is just great that attention is finally being paid to this forlorn alley, and I thank V. for posting about it.

  14. Brad

    I agree with Ken and disagree with Naomi. We need signs. Let’s stop trying to force Oakland to be a small town – it’s a city, get over it. Cities have signs.

  15. Max Allstadt

    You’re right Don. It isn’t hearsay, it’s anecdotal evidence, which is worse. Anecdotal evidence provides you with an emotional backup for faulty information, making your faulty information seem more beleivable than the faulty information provided by pure hearsay. That’s really dangerous.

    There is data. We believe in data. Come back with some data.