Category Archives: downtown

Greg McConnell: Is Oakland Worth It?

This guest post was written by Gregory McConnell, President and CEO of the Jobs and Housing Coalition, which represents major businesses in Oakland.

Many Oakland business people are asking whether Oakland is still a good place to invest. As I talk to small and big business people all around the city, I hear the constant question. Is it time to pack up and leave?

Phil Tagami told me that several tenants have talked to him about leaving the Rotunda and taking hundreds of jobs out of the city. The small shops in Frank Ogawa Plaza report that business is off 30 to 50%. The Tribune Tower managers say they can no longer tolerate the fact that their building is frequently forced to close because Broadway between 13th and 14th Streets is usually the epicenter of unrest.

On Wednesday, a client attending a conference at the Marriott called and asked if it was safe to eat at Jack London Square, I told her no, it had been shut down. Another business group that has invested in Oakland brought its national board of directors to the Bay Area. They too had plans to stay at the Marriott and visit potential sites in Oakland for new investment. Instead, they went to San Francisco fearful of riots and unruly mobs.

City officials are assessing the impact of the occupancy on our fragile economy. They will be looking at reduced sales at restaurants, lost revenues at retail outlets, lost leases, and lost jobs. We will have empirical evidence soon, but for people who lost a lot in broken windows and shattered confidence, and workers who have been told to go home, or have been laid off, the impacts are already known.

All of this begs the question. Is Oakland worth it?

No, if our leaders allow long-term unlawful occupancy of our public spaces. No, if the police are forced to hide away in the City Center parking lot under a “minimal presence” order, thereby forcing property owners to arm themselves and risk their lives. No, if graffiti and broken windows are acceptable. No, if the city does not protect the people that employ the 99% and serve the residents.

On the other hand, there are many reasons to say yes. Oakland is still one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It is rich with caring, intelligent people who work hard and engage in community affairs. We have young entrepreneurs who are opening small businesses. We have new innovative companies like Pandora, Sungevity and BrightSource Energy that are bring thousands of jobs to the city. Large corporations have established foundations that give back, Kaiser foundation and the Rogers Family Foundation are just a couple of examples.

Most Oaklanders share the outrage at the failure of our economic system. It rewards a small segment and seems to ignore the plight of every day working people who are losing jobs, homes, investments, and worse, the optimism that has always allowed us to think that our lives will get better. The Occupy Movement has brought this to our nation’s attention. For this, we are grateful.

Nevertheless, we have to distinguish between our shared anger at Wall Street and the occupancy of Frank Ogawa Plaza and lawlessness in our streets. Oakland’s business people are not Wall Street profiteers. They are people like you and me who wake up in the morning and work to feed their families.

The owner of Café Teatro hires four people to sell coffee and sandwiches. She is not rich and she is not exploiting anyone. The owner of Rising Loafer is in the same boat. Well before the occupancy, she frequently talked to me about her outrage at corporate America. Tully’s supported the occupancy with donations of food and cleaning supplies, before their windows were smashed. Each of these businesses will be forced to shut down, and the people they employ will be jobless, if the unlawful occupancy of Ogawa Plaza and violence in the streets continues.

I believe that this too shall pass. It needs to happen soon. If it does, YES, OAKLAND IS WORTH IT. But, if we don’t do something soon to change our downward spiral, we may lose the city.

On Thursday night, I took visiting business people to Pican Restaurant. My mission was to help a local business, which has seen a 40% decline in sales over the last few weeks, while trying to give potential Oakland businesses confidence that the city is still functioning. I hope others will do something similar to support Oakland businesses that create jobs and revenues for this struggling city.

We all honor Oakland’s long history of promoting peace and justice. Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge that there is a big difference between supporting efforts to change Wall Street and the unlawful encampment that is destroying the city, our local business people, and their employees.

I urge the residents of Oakland to tell our leaders that support for changing Wall Street and ending unconscionable corporate greed, does not equate to support for an on-going unlawful occupancy. Please write the Mayor, the Council, and the City Administrator. Tell them to end the occupancy and lawlessness in our streets. Let them know that this caring community also cares about working people and businessmen and women who bring jobs to the city.

When we make that clear, I trust that our leaders will find a way to end the unlawful occupancy. If they do not, perhaps we will need to end the occupancy outside and inside city hall.

A better Snow Park

Last night, I attended a community meeting about improvements to Snow Park, 20th Street, Lakeside Drive, and Harrison Street.

Where is Snow Park?

If you spend a lot of time around downtown, you’re probably familiar with Snow Park. If not, here’s the area we’re talking about.

Snow Park area map

It starts on 20th street, between Harrison and Lakeside Drive. Across 20th Street is the Kaiser Center, and across Lakeside is Lake Merritt. If you walk in this area much, you are well aware of what a tremendous pain this intersection is for pedestrians.

The Lake Merritt Master Plan envisioned a redesign of this intersection that would allow for a more natural pedestrian connection to the Lake from downtown and an expansion of Snow Park.

Snow Park Lake Merritt Master Plan

The Snow Park/20th/Harrison project was included in 2002′s Measure DD project list. The image below shows more clearly the planned change to the street alignment.

20th Street Plan Measure DD

Basically, that chunk of 20th Street between Harrison (on one side of Snow Park) and Lakeside (on the other side of Snow Park) would be removed, and the extra space from where the street used to be as well as the pointless triangle of land on the other side would become part of Snow Park. Lakeside Drive would be narrowed and moved a little farther away from the Lake in order to create more park area along Lake Merritt.

Design Concepts

I wasn’t sure what to expect from last night’s meeting. The flyer I had seen advertising the meeting did a poor job of previewing the planned changes. I went in with a vague sense that I disliked the plan already, although not for any good reason.

It turned out to be pretty cool.

Right now, the project is in the community input stage. So if you want to provide feedback, now is the time to do it. Some elements of the plan are not negotiable (bike lanes, the closure of 20th Street). But others aspects may still change, such as the amenities included in the refurbished Snow Park.

Snow Park Design Concepts

As it stands now, the plan is to retain the Snow Park putting green along Harrison Street, add some walking paths, and put in a tot lot. I am super in favor of walking paths! It is impossible to cut through Snow Park right now if you’re wearing heels. They just sink right into the mud. The concept also includes playground equipment for the tot lot themed like animals, a nod to the park’s history. It was the original home of the Oakland Zoo, founded in 1922 by naturalist Henry A. Snow. I thought that was a cute idea.

Where 20th Street sits now, the design concept places a wide tree-lined promenade to guide pedestrians from downtown to the Lake.

20th Street Promenade

On the other side of Lakeside Drive, the plan is to take the new park space and terrace it with seating and planting areas. I think that was probably my favorite aspect of the plan. Lake Merritt is just so pretty, and such a nice place to take a lunch or grab a cup of coffee and sit and read, but there is a terrible shortage of benches on that part of the Lake, and they are always full!

The numbers

Altogether, the removal of that strip of 20th Street and expansion of Snow Park would create a 70,000 square foot increase in contiguous open space in the area. 60 new trees would be planted, and 10 existing trees would be removed. There would also be a minor loss of parking. The project is expected to start construction sometime around the end of 2012 or beginning of 2013, and take somewhere between eight months to one year to complete.

The response

The meeting last night wasn’t particularly well attended, but did generate some interesting suggestions. Attendees were given little dots to place on boards parking the aspects of the proposal they were most excited about. The tree-lined promenade seemed particularly popular on the dot boards. I was a little disappointed with the lack of enthusiasm for the putting green.

Snow Park meeting dot boards

During the Q&A period, a couple of other suggestions for use of the space came up. One person suggested a volleyball or basketball court, someone else asked about a community garden, and a couple expressed a desire to be able to take their dogs to the park, even if it was on-leash. A friend I was talking to after the meeting said that he thought the tot lot had no place in the park, and that programmed space should be reserved for adults, since that’s most of the people in the area. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

There was a fairly lengthy discussion about the placement of the jogging path along the Lake (should it be on the inside or the outside of the walking path), and what the ideal material for the jogging path would be. I kind of tuned out of that part, because I really have no idea about the difference in all these types of materials.

New, pretty things are all well and good, but of course then you’re left with the task of keeping them pretty, which Measure DD does not pay for. I live three blocks from Snow Park, and walk past it most days on my way to work, and the state of it right now is deplorable. It is just nasty and overgrown and like this giant mud pit. It would be a shame to put all this money into making it nice only to have it fall apart again right away due to continuing cuts to park maintenance staff.

So I asked if the City had a plan for park maintenance. It turns out that they don’t have much of one, but assured the audience that they would figure it out. I did not find that particularly comforting. Volunteers were referenced, as well as the CBD. If the CBD were able to take care of park maintenance there, I think that would be awesome. But my understanding was that the City has been unwilling to let them do so because of union issues. Last I heard, that issue had not been resolved, but of course hope springs eternal.

Learn more and give your feedback

If you want to learn more about this project, want to ask questions, or have strong opinions about what should be included, but weren’t able to make it last night, you’re in luck! The plan will be presented to Oakland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee at their meeting next Thursday, April 21st. BPAC meetings are held in City Hall Hearing Room 4 from 5:30 to 7:00 pm.

Those who can’t make it to BPAC are encouraged to send their comments to Ali Schwarz of the Public Works Agency at

To help guide your input, here are the questions that were provided on the feedback form:

  • Which improvements do you want to see along Lake Merritt in this project area? Answer choices: seating, lighting, public art, separate jogging trail, landscaping, other
  • Where do you prefer to locate the separate jogging trail around Lake Merritt? Answer choices: lakeside, roadside
  • What material do you prefer to jog on? Answer choices: decomposed granite, mulch, concrete, asphalt, dirt
  • What types of improvements do you want to see along Lakeside Drive? Answer choices: bike lanes, stormwater treatment, pedestrian safety/crossings, other
  • What improvements to Snow Park would you like to see? Answer choices: children’s playground, walking path, putting green, restroom facilities
  • Rank the design elements presented in order of priority: Snow Park Playground; Snow Park Putting Green; Snow Park Walkways; Snow Park Restroom upgrades; Lake Merritt Separate Jogging Trail; Lake Merritt Landscape Improvements; Benches, Lighting, Furniture

How can we improve the area around Lake Merritt BART?

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.

Lake Merritt BART Station Neighborhood

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 BART Station

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.

Lake Merritt Station Area Plan map

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.

East Subarea

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.

Alameda County Courthouse

The map below highlights the existing uses in the area.

Lake Merritt Station Area Plan East subarea map

If you’re having trouble reading that, click here to download a bigger PDF version.

Discussion Guide

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


  1. What streets do you think should change?
  2. How would those changes improve your ability to get around the neighborhood?
  3. How could the streets you use be safer, more attractive and pleasant for walking and biking?
  4. What are your top three street improvements?

Improved connections seems like a no brainer.

Lake Merritt BART Station neighborhood

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.

Lake Merritt BART Station & Laney College

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.


  1. Where should new shopping and dining areas be located?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. Are there specific types of new jobs you would like to see in the area?
  6. How tall (i.e., number of stories) would you like buildings to be?

Madison Square Park

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.


  1. 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?
  2. 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..

What criteria should be used to select public art?

You guys know that Oaksterdam University sign painted on the side wall of their building by 17th and Broadway? I think it’s cool. Certainly, it’s an improvement over the big blank wall that was there before.

City staff does not think it is so cool. Well, I suppose I don’t know their personal opinions on the coolness of the sign. But whether or not they think it’s cool, they do think that it violates Oakland’s zoning.

You see, under the new downtown zoning code that was adopted in July 2009, there are some pretty strict limits on the allowed size of signage. I personally think they’re too strict, and thought so at the time they were adopted, but I just really like signage in general. In any case, it’s law now, so whether or not the rules are good is not really relevant to the discussion.

Oaksterdam University current sign

The zoning code determines the permissible size of a sign for any business downtown by the size of the front facing portion of a building. For every foot of building street frontage, you are allowed one square foot of sign. If there are multiple businesses in the building, the allowed sign size applies to all of the businesses together. So, if zoning says signs on the building can be a total of 100 square feet, then than 100 square feet is for the combined size of all the signs for all the businesses.

Under the zoning, the building Oaksterdam University is in would be allowed a total of 60 square feet of signs for all the businesses in the building. Given the size of the other signs already on the building, the permitted size left over for their side wall sign is 20 square feet. You don’t need to take a measuring tape to it to see that the actual size of the sign is a great deal larger than that.

The staff report from July’s meeting (PDF) explains:

That Code section permits one square foot of sign area per linear foot of frontage, up to 200 square feet. The new wall sign exceeds both standards. The 60-foot wide frontage would allow 60 square feet of aggregate sign area for all businesses in the building. Since there is already a 20 square foot sign for another tenant and a 20 square foot OU sign, only 20 square feet of sign area remains available. Thus, the new sign is about 35 (thirty-five) times the maximum 20 square feet allowed.

The sign area originally reported by the applicant is 513 square feet, the area of letters and logo exclusive of the white wall space in between letters and logo. The appeal now states that the signs are really only 470 square feet. However, the sign consists of 20 green 24 square foot letters spelling out OU’s name, plus the 12 foot diameter 125 square foot green-and-yellow school logo, on a white background, located at the second and third story levels of the 3-story office building. Therefore, using the simplest rectangles as measured by staff, the area is closer to 725 square feet. This is the method of measurement used for signs in Oakland.

Of course, a 20 square foot sign on that particular wall would look ridiculous. It would be smaller than each individual item of graffiti that I took pictures of there this morning. So Oaksterdam University applied for a variance (PDF) that would allow them to keep their giant sign. Staff said no, and so Oaksterdam University appealed the decision to the Planning Commission. The appeal came before the Planning Commission staff report from July’s meeting (PDF)in July (PDF).

Presenting the issue, staff bent over backwards to stress that they didn’t have any problem with Oaksterdam University specifically, but that no matter how popular any given business is, it has to be treated the same as everyone else, and they just could not find a way to make findings for a variance for this particular case without setting a precedent. I’m sympathetic to their wariness about setting precedents, although I think they may have been somewhat overly dramatic about their phrasing:

Potentially every other office or medical office in the downtown area would then want a sign the size of a drive in movie screen. And there are just not enough walls to handle all that.

Right off the bat, Commissioner Michael Colbruno asked why it had to be considered a business sign at all, rather than artwork or some kind of mural.

Signage as placemaking

He got into a little back and forth with staff about examples of other signs that, although they may name a business, really serve in practice to designate an area or district, and suggested that this might be the case here.

So then, Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee comes up to speak, and says that they didn’t realize they needed a permit to begin with, that they felt it was unfair that they were being evaluated by the size of the front of the building when the sign is in fact on the side, and that they see Oaksterdam as a place, and that the University attracts people to Oakland from all over California.

Anecdotally, my own experience from living in this neighborhood suggests that yes, Oaksterdam is very much a place and people do come here to see it. The University is a huge attraction to Oakland.

When I moved into my building, there was a sad “pharmacy” below me that was closed on weekends. At some point it closed altogether. There was never anyone around on weekends, and it was actually kind of depressing around here.

Then Oaksterdam University took the vacant pharmacy space. All of a sudden, there were tons of people around all the time! Instead of being deserted on Saturdays, my neighborhood was full of life. After a while, Oaksterdam University outgrew that spot and moved into the larger space down they street they occupy now.

My corner is a little less exciting now, but people still come to visit Oaksterdam. Every other weekend or so, I’ll be walking to or from my apartment, and some lost looking person will stop me on their way out of BART or something and be like “Hey. I want to see Oaksterdam. Where is it?”

I always feel kind of bad when I have to tell them “Oh yeah, you’re actually here. There’s a coffee shop across the street you can go to and a gift shop a couple of blocks away if you want to buy a shirt. There’s not much more to it. We’ve got an ice rink down that way. You could go skating.”

Nobody ever wants to go ice skating. But they always ask where Oaksterdam University is. So I point down the street and I’m like “Just go that way. There’s a giant sign on the wall. You can’t miss it.” Often people are so excited about their visit to Oaksterdam that will ask me to take pictures of them standing in front of the sign, and I’m always happy to oblige.

Business Sign or Special Sign

The Planning Commission was clearly sympathetic to Oaksterdam University, and wanted to find a way to help them out.

So the conversation turned to a discussion of whether the Oaksterdam University sign was in fact a “business sign,” which is subject to size limits, or instead a “special sign,” which does not have the same size limitations.

Staff listed a couple of different options for ways the Commission could go about allowing Oaksterdam University’s sign, emphasizing that they would prefer that it be done in the manner that is the least precedent setting.

Commissioner Sandra Gálvez suggested that they sidestep the variance process altogether by declaring the sign a mural, and while the rest of the Commission seemed sympathetic to the idea, the consensus among the group seemed to be that there was simply now way to declare a sign that contained nothing other than the name of a business anything other than a business sign.

After some discussion, the Commission decided that Oaksterdam University should work with staff to come up with something that would be more of a mural than a sign.

You can watch video of that whole discussion below:

Oaksterdam: The Mural

Since the Commission never actually voted on appeal itself back in July, the issue had to return to them for resolution. This happened in January (PDF).

In the intervening months, Oaksterdam University put out an RFP for mural proposals, and returned with eight concepts (PDF) for what a mural on the building could look like.

The proposals were reviewed by City staff and representatives of the downtown Business District, and this is the one that “everyone liked the best”.

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

In their comments in support of this option, CEDA offers (PDF):

The artist has presented a beautiful wall mural of Lake Merritt that demonstrates the University’s commitment to nature and beauty and presents a contribution to beautifying the landscape of Downtown Oakland.

I found this really sad. I mean, the whole original discussion about the idea of sign or mural was about placemaking. And whether one thinks this mural is pretty or not, it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the neighborhood. Oaksterdam is not on Lake Merritt, nor is it at Oakland City Hall. I live in the heart of Oaksterdam, and I cannot see either Lake Merritt or City Hall from my apartment. The only thing about the mural that identifies the neighborhood at all is the text with the name of the business.

The representative from Oakdsterdam pushed gently for a second option.

Oaksterdam Mural Conept

Judging the mural just on its own, and without thinking about how it relates to the neighborhood, the one they picked is fine, I guess. I find it underwhelming, yet inoffensive. I have no strong feelings about it either way really. I am fairly certain nobody will ever ask me to take their photo in front of it. My hands down favorite was a different option entirely (although I would never expect it to get selected):

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

I’ll mix the other proposals in through the rest of the post so you can see what else was on the table.

So this was a pretty interesting discussion. Well, most of the discussion was about whether the words “Oaksterdam” and “University” constituted the area considered a sign or if only the word “University” should be counted towards the 60 square foot maximum signage area out of the 800 square foot mural. So that actually wasn’t really that interesting. (They ended up saying that both words were part of the sign, but that Oaksterdam University could have a little bit of flexibility with the square footage allotment, in case you were wondering.)

What makes good public art?

But I was really fascinated by the discussion over which mural to pick.

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

So Commissioner Madeline Zayas-Mart said that she preferred the first option because it had a broader appeal, and that we have to be careful when putting up a mural of that size to not offend anyone.

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

Then Commissioner Doug Boxer said that he agreed we should pick the option with the broadest appeal, but that he wasn’t sure the postcard was that one, suggesting that perhaps the second option was more unique to Oakland.

Zayas-Mart responded:

The principles that I was trying to espouse was that it should be something that would have a broad appeal, that it shouldn’t be something that’s on the edge, not in this particular case — not because I don’t think that is a worthy thing, but that’s why I go to museums.

In Oakland, of course, we do have an existing process for reviewing public art, which is that proposals are considered by the Public Art Advisory Committee, a subcommittee of the Cultural Affairs Commission. City Public Art staff came to the meeting to politely inform the Planning Commission of this process, and offered to schedule a review of the proposal before that body.

The Commission said no, justifying their decision by saying that it would be unfair to Oaksterdam University to drag out the process any longer. Which is a fair point after this issue has gone on for nearly a year, so perhaps it’s too late to do anything now. But of course, the Planning Commission should never have been picking out murals in the first place. That, at least, seems like a no brainer to me.

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

The Commission ended up deciding that Oaksterdam University could go with either the first or second option, after working with staff to refine the concepts.

But I thought these were interesting questions, and worth talking about. What should the criteria be that we use to select public art? I am certainly not some kind of expert on art, and I don’t know the answer to that question, but it seems to me that the criteria definitely should not be to select whatever is the least likely to bother anyone.

It seems to me that art, even public art, should be designed to be somewhat interesting and capture people’s attention. In this case, when the original discussion focused on placemaking, it seems like the mural should have some connection to Oaksterdam as a place. I don’t know how well any of the proposals necessarily accomplished that, but I didn’t see how the one that was selected did so at all.

Here’s the video of the full hearing in January, if you’re interested:

I’m interested to hear about what readers think about criteria for selecting public art. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

One more chance to help keep downtown Oakland from becoming even more blighted

This Wednesday, the Oakland Planning Commission will consider, hopefully for the final time, a proposal to create something called a Temporary Conditional Use Permit (TCUP), which you can read all about here, here, here, here, here, here, and here if you’re interested in the details. The short version is that these TCUPs will allow for the creation of new surface parking lots in downtown Oakland.

Parking lot blight

Under the recently adopted new downtown zoning, parking structures are allowed, but new surface parking lots are banned, in accordance with the policies for downtown Oakland laid out in our General Plan, which specifies that parking facilities in the downtown area should be “designed to enhance the pedestrian environment.”

Surface parking lots are gross

On Saturday, I took a little walk around a relatively small section of downtown, surveying the state of all the surface parking lots between 19th and Broadway and 13th and Madison.

Parking lot blight

It was really, really gross.

parking lot blight

Some lots were better than others, and some were especially super gross. But out of all the lots I visited, there was only one that was actually clean and totally free of trash. Only two were free of graffiti.

parking lot blight

The most common argument I hear in defense of adding new surface parking lots downtown is that even if surface parking isn’t an ideal use, it is at least better than having some an empty lot, which will inevitably become blighted and covered in trash and graffiti.

parking lot blight

Observation indicates, however, that in reality, the opposite is true. The existing fenced vacant lots downtown, while hardly an ideal use of land, tend to remain relatively free of such things, perhaps because fences lend a sense of ownership to the land and present at least a small barrier to entrance for littering and/or other gross purposes.

parking lot blight

Surface parking lots, on the other hand, are large expanses of open space that appears unowned. Their large blank walls welcome taggers. Their dark, open corners invite those in need of a place for sleeping or conducting other personal business. Their vast expanses of uncared for asphalt are treated as trash cans for anyone who passes by.

parking lot blight

The deplorable condition of these lots only invites more blight. A space full of trash day after day sends a message to everyone who passes by that it’s okay to add to the pile.

parking lot blight

As we have seen with the recent addition of a “temporary” parking lot at 14th and Harrison, it doesn’t matter what kind of conditions the City places on these permits — Oakland simply does not have the resources to monitor or enforce these conditions. And then you end up having piles of feces sitting there for three months and 20 foot tall graffiti that remains for six weeks even though we were promised the lot would be cleaned daily and all graffiti would be removed within seventy-two hours.

parking lot blight

What kind of message does this send to people who come to our downtown? Is this the kind of welcome we want to give visitors?

parking lot blight

I had originally planned on doing a larger section of downtown for my little parking lot blight survey, but after just going through this small section, I had to stop. I was so disgusted that I just couldn’t take it anymore.

parking lot blight

How you can help

If you don’t want more of this kind of blight downtown, well, it would be awesome if you could come out on Wednesday night to speak at the Planning Commission against the TCUPs. The meeting starts at 6 PM.

parking lot blight

If you can’t make it on Wednesday, you can still help out by sending an email to the Commission. Here’s a sample message to get you started, but I encourage you to personalize it with your own views.

Dear Planning Commissioners -

I am writing to ask you to vote against adopting the Temporary Conditional Use Permits that would allow for new surface parking lots in downtown Oakland. Allowing unlimited surface parking downtown would be unpleasant and unsafe. Parking lots are a magnet for blight, graffiti, and crime. I enjoy downtown and don’t want to see more cars and more curb cuts. There is no good reason to do this, it’s not part of any transportation or business strategy, and is in direct opposition to Oakland’s stated goals of created a more pedestrian-friendly and vibrant downtown. Please recommend against adopting this proposal.

The Planning Commissioners emails are as follows:,,,,,,

So please send an email. Or don’t, if you want more of this:

parking lot blight

parking lot blight

parking lot blight

parking lot blight

parking lot blight

parking lot blight

parking lot blight

parking lot blight

TCUPs return to Planning Commission

This Wednesday, January 19th, the Oakland Planning Commission will consider a proposal (PDF) to allow for the creation of “temporary” conditional use permits to allow “temporary” new surface parking lots downtown, which would otherwise be banned under the new downtown zoning.

The Planning Commission discussed this proposal at their October 20th meeting, and decided that it should come back for further discussion at a later date. For more background about the proposal, you can read this post and this post that I wrote in October. That later date is this Wednesday, and although I would love to be able to talk to you today about the specifics of whatever revised proposal came out of that discussion, I can’t, because even though the meeting is only 54 hours away, the staff reports are still not available on the City’s website.

So instead, I’m going to talk to you about a different surface parking lot, located at the corner of 14th and Harrison downtown.

1331 Harrison

The lot is entitled for a high rise building, which the developer doesn’t want to build right now because of the current market conditions. So while he is waiting for the market to rebound, he wanted the City to allow him to use the lot as a surface parking lot temporarily.

When the proposal for Temporary Condition Use Permits (TCUPs) first came before the Planning Commission’s Zoning Update Committee last February, this lot was used as an example of why the TCUPs were necessary. However, the applicant ultimately choose not to wait for the TCUPs to pass and instead just applied for a variance.

So this concept of having these new surface parking lots for only a few years is predicated on the idea that current market conditions do not allow developers to build the “highest and best use” of vacant property, so if we allow them to make some money for a little while through paid parking, that can hold them over until we’re ready to build skyscrapers in a few years.

I’m somewhat skeptical about that, especially considering that a large part of the reason surface parking lots are not allowed under the new downtown zoning is because permitting surface parking is pretty much universally understood to discourage development and encourage property owners to hold on to vacant land indefinitely. My thoughts on the matter are pretty well summed up in the comments Commission Doug Boxer made at the June 16th, 2010 Planning Commission meeting when this particular lot was considered.

But when this lot came to the Planning Commission, I did not object to the variance, even though I am obviously not a fan of new parking lots. In fact, I ceded my speaking time to someone who spoke in support of the application.

My logic went like this. First, this lot had already been a parking lot, so the curb cuts and all that were already there, even though it wasn’t being used for parking at the moment. I could never support an application that created new curb cuts for surface parking, but in this case, that damage had already been done.

Second, the applicant offered a lot of mitigations that I thought were good. They said were going to remove litter from the site daily, keep it free of graffiti, provide landscaping, devote a space to city car share or a similar service, include secure bicycle parking, and line the Harrison side of the lot with art panels. Here’s the parking operator telling the City Council about their plans.

So I thought, you know, as much as I would like to see as little surface parking as possible downtown, this did sound like a genuine improvement over the existing situation. The art panels would shield pedestrians from the parking on a least one side, landscaping would combat the visual blight from an empty space, we can definitely use more quality bike parking, and they seemed to have a genuine commitment to keeping the lot clean.

Additionally, I really agreed with what Daniel Schulman said when speaking on the item at Planning Commission, about how the project was better for having been forced to go through a public hearing process, and that we should encourage this kind of process for people who want temporary uses rather than just awarding them the TCUPs automatically.

The only thing that bothered me about the whole thing was when Commissioner Sandra Gálvez asked the applicant if he would be willing to add some lighting to the lot so people would feel safer at night, and he said no, because nobody would be parking there at night. With two nightclubs and a restaurant on the block, it seemed improbable to me that there was no potential nighttime use for parking, so I was a little irritated at their unwillingness to make that concession.

But I wanted to be reasonable, and I appreciated the fact that they went this route instead of the TCUP route, so I took their promises in good faith.

The Planning Commission was unable to make a decision for or against approving the lot, so it got forwarded to the City Council, who approved it unanimously in July. (You can watch the full video of that item here.

A big mess

So. I see this lot all the time, since I walk past it on my way to and from work. You can imagine my irritation when one day I walked past, and saw that the fence was gone and the space was now a parking lot, but there was none of the promised landscaping, art panels, or bicycle parking. There was, however, graffiti.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

But as much as I would prefer that the community receives their promised benefits as soon as the property owner starts to get his, I tried to put aside my annoyance and remind myself that it could take a while to arrange for and install art, so I should just be patient.

It was frustrating, though, to walk past every day and see the lot constantly filled with trash. I had thought, with someone taking responsibility for maintaining the space, it would be cleaner than it used to be and have less graffiti. It turned out to be the opposite. It’s dirtier than ever! The promised daily litter “removal,” in practice, turned out to be a regular pushing of all the trash into the back half of the lot. Day after day I would go by and see the exact same litter sitting there. Some larger items stayed for weeks.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

The place is, in short, a filthy mess.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

A few months after the lot opened, and a couple of days before the Planning Commission considered the T-CUP proposal, a bike rack finally appeared. Now, as far as I understand the rules, if your rack isn’t in the public right of way (which this one isn’t), then you can use whatever kind of bike rack you want. Still, when they talked about “secure” bike parking at the Planning Commission, I just assumed (apparently, in error), that they were talking about double point of contact racks that would comply with the City of Oakland’s Bicycle Parking guidelines (PDF).

Instead, we got this. For those not acquainted with bicycle parking design principles, you’re really not supposed to use these kinds of racks anymore because the offer only a single point of contact and are therefore less secure.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

I never see any bicycles parked here, day or night, although I really couldn’t say whether that is due to the nature of the rack or simple lack of demand.

Graffiti has remained a problem. This lovely piece of work was up for over a month.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

Posts for the promised art panels went up a couple months ago, but we are still waiting for the art.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

So this bothers me. Like I said before, I think it’s reasonable to allow some period of time for the property owner to get it together. But they have been operating a parking lot here since August, and it is now January. How long is it reasonable to make the public wait for you to do something that was part of your conditions of approval? Is six months reasonable? Is it too long? I want to be understanding, but I lean towards the side of it being too long.

The promised landscaping has also not materialized, unless you count the weeds growing all up along the edge of the lot. Instead, it’s just the same thing day after day — trash.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

And graffiti.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

And more trash.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

And more graffiti.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

And broken glass.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

And more trash. Sometimes really disgusting trash, like in this photo that I took on November 17th.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

Or in this photo of the same spot in the lot that I took this morning.

Trash at 1333 Harrison

I could go on. I have literally hundreds of photos of the trash and graffiti all over this lot over the past six months, but I think you get the idea.

TCUPs at Planning Commission

I think the case of this specific lot should serve as a warning as we consider broadly allowing new surface parking lots downtown under the TCUP proposal. The argument for allowing them is that they reduce blight, but in this case, that clearly hasn’t happened. It has increased blight. Why should we expect anything different of any other new surface parking lot? Sure, we can put whatever conditions we want on them with public art and landscaping and litter and graffiti removal, but if the City lacks the resources to go around enforcing those conditions, they become meaningless.

For those who do not want to see more surface parking downtown, the Planning Commission meets this Wednesday, January 19th at 6 PM. I have a really hard time predicting how long things are going to take at Planning Commission — every time I try to predict, I get it wrong. So while I can tell you that TCUPs are item number 6 on the agenda, I really cannot say when they will probably be heard. I would recommend getting to the meeting shortly after it starts at 6 PM.

I’ll post again about this once the staff report is available. If you can’t attend the meeting in person, but feel strongly about the issue, you can e-mail your thoughts to the Commission — all the Commissioners e-mail addresses are listed on the Planning Commission roster.

Update: Art on the lot

So the day after I posted this, work apparently began on installing the promised art panels on the lot. As Carlos notes in his comment below, he sent me some pictures, so I’m updating the post to include them. Note the graffiti still present in the background.

Art at 1333 Harrison

Art at 1333 Harrison

Art at 1333 Harrison

Should a sex shop be allowed in Uptown?

A couple of years ago, I had this short-lived obsession with how Oakland needed a Good Vibrations in Uptown.

It started when I read an article somewhere about…well, honestly, I don’t remember very many details about it. I don’t even remember enough to make it worth taking a stab at trying to locate it to link to. But it was about some neighborhood that used to be dead and now is like super hip and thriving and so on. Maybe in New York or something, I can’t remember. Anyway, someone in the article, maybe a real estate broker or something, talked about how one of the things they did to try to make the neighborhood more marketable was to bring in all these sex shops, which this broker or whoever reasoned were good for the area’s image because they made it seem edgy. I realize that may not sound like it makes a ton of sense, but that’s only because I can remember so few of the details. It sounded totally reasonable in context.

Shortly afterwards, a friend from out of state came to visit me. And what was the number one thing on her agenda for her Bay Area vacation? A trip to Good Vibrations. Seriously. They don’t have classy sex shops where she was from. We ended up spending well over an hour there, and she easily dropped more than a thousand dollars.

And that’s when I decided we needed a Good Vibrations in Uptown. At that time, Uptown was full of potential, and not a whole lot else. Cafe Van Kleef was there, of course. The Fox Theater and Uptown Apartments were on the way, but there wasn’t much in the way of eating, and the shopping options were pretty much limited to the world’s worst Sears, a couple pawn shops and wig stores, and Bibliomania, which I of course love, but doesn’t exactly draw huge crowds to the neighborhood.

I reasoned that Good Vibrations would be the perfect store to stick on Telegraph because it’s the type of store people will travel to go shop at, and being so conveniently located near BART would make it an even bigger draw. Plus, their clientele probably has more disposable income than the people who go to the pawn shops, so I figured bringing those customers in would give a spillover boost to other businesses in the area, assuming any ever opened.

I babbled about it to anyone who would listen for about a week, and even made some effort to contact Good Vibrations to make the pitch, but since back then I didn’t know how to do anything, my efforts never got very far. Soon, I got bored with the idea and decided that what my neighborhood really needed to take off was to get Amoeba Music to move here.

Feelmore Adult Boutiuqe

So you can imagine my delight when I saw an item on this past Wednesday’s Planning Commission agenda about a Good Vibrations style sex shop opening up at 17th and Telegraph. Here’s a little description of the store from the staff report (PDF):

The applicant is modeling this activity after “Good Vibrations” in San Francisco and Berkeley, and other similar Adult retail stores. The business would sell adult sex toys, books, videos etc. from wall shelves, and provide room for small seminars on sexual health education. Larger educational and social groups coordinated by the business would meet at off-site locations in a convention format. The primary market is women aged 25 to 44, although other groups of adults would not be prevented for visiting. There is an adults-only entry policy. There are no massage, clothing-optional or direct sexual activities proposed. The business proposes to operate 7 days a week from 11 am to 11 pm, although midnight on weekends may be requested later.

It would be located on Telegraph, right past the intersection at 17th Street.

The store, called “Feelmore,” had to go to the Planning Commission for two reasons. One, sex shops (“Adult Entertainment Activity” in planning-speak) always require a Conditional Use Permit (CUP). Plus, they aren’t allowed within 1,000 feet of a residential zone or within 500 feet of a school. Since this store, at 17th and Telegraph, would be located less than 500 feet away from the Oakland School for the Arts and is also within 1,000 feet of the residential zone containing the Uptown Apartments, it also needed a variance.

I thought the whole issue was pretty interesting, and I kept sitting down all last weekend trying to write a blog post about it. But I kept having trouble with it. After all, you need conflict to tell a good story, and there just didn’t seem to be much of that here. After all, the City didn’t seem to think this is much of a problem. From the staff report (PDF):

In addition, the downtown area, especially nearby along Telegraph and Broadway above 14th Street, has seen a transformation within the last 10 years with an influx of bars, restaurants and residential units (catering primarily to young professionals). At least 2 bars within 6 blocks of the location cater primarily to a gay clientele. Given this transformation, it is not unreasonable to introduce a low-key retail establishment catering to adult items and sensuality. With the business model of the applicant, along with conditions of approval as accepted by the applicant, this Adult retail activity should not have adverse impacts at this location.

Additionally, the City received a number of letters of support (PDF) from acquaintances testifying to the owner’s character and work ethic. Not all of them are particularly persuasive (my favorite begins “I know that I may not be a California resident…”), but many specifically address how this store would benefit Oakland. Like, for example, helping stem our retail leakage:

As it stands if I require intimate adult products I go to San Francisco or Berkeley to make my purchases. I am thus supporting the economic growth of another city because my city does not provide this basic service.

But even though everyone seems to love the woman opening this store, and even though this particular shop is expected to be a classy operation, with flowers in the windows so on, I thought I might be able to make something of it, since issuing the CUP and variance for it is not without risk.

The catch

You see, Feelmore could close. It could be a failure and shut down, or it could be such a massive success that it needs to expand beyond its little 750 square feet and therefore perhaps move to a new location. And when that happens, since this particular location already has a CUP for adult entertainment, a seedier sex shop could potentially lease the space and move in. From the staff report (PDF):

However, a Conditional Use Permit and Variance runs with the land, not with any particular business. If “FeelMore” is successful and grows out of this space to relocate (or closes), this space could accept an Adult Entertainment Activity which meets the same conditions of approval. The applicant reports a 5 year lease, renewable to 5 more years. Under the First Amendment, the City could not censor content, only “time, place and manner” of business. Thus a store for a niche market of women customers could be replaced by the type of general Adult store familiar from other cities. Such stores have been reported to have blighting effects.

Youth Radio, across the street, submitted a letter opposing the application because of this risk. From their letter (PDF):

Youth Radio has performed due diligence investigating into the business philosophy and practices of Feelmore Inc. By all accounts the owner of Feelmore Inc. appears to be a positive, local, small-business owner who we would traditionally support. The concern in the permit issuance is rooted in the possibility of the retail space being vacated in the future and potentially sold to a less ethical business owner who would retain the adult entertainmnet permit. At around 750 square feet, the retail space could be outgrown quickly, especially with the expressed plans for the space being used for sex education workshops and the store being the only of its kind in Oakland.

Reading that, I was kind of sad to think that we’re so afraid of nuisance businesses in Oakland that we would feel the need to prevent good ones from opening.

The solution

But as much as I tried to sympathize with their fear of what could eventually happen, I still couldn’t agree with their position. After all, the approval of this store comes with a number of stringent conditions — they’re not allowed to have booths for private video viewing, they can’t frost or black out their window glass, they have to keep the adult items on display only in the back half of the store, they can’t put gross posters in their windows, and so on.

Since these conditions would apply to any adult entertainment business wanting to open up in the space, I just couldn’t see how anything bad could come from the approval. The staff report concurs:

Successor businesses using the CUP may not have the same self-regulation and benefits but would be subject to CUP conditions. Conditions of approval would precisely describe the business as presented by “FeelMore.” Conditions would help to prevent transition into a different kind of business with potentially more impacts.

So I kind of gave up on writing about it, since no matter how I tried, it just never seemed to go anywhere. I felt like I would be manufacturing controversy where none existed.


The hearing

So this came to the Planning Commission on Wednesday, and the hearing lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes. You can watch a video of the whole thing below:

When all these people e-mailed me on Wednesday to say I just had to get the video of this hearing, I assumed that it was going to be all cute and funny, like that time at the San Francisco Planning Commission when they were talking about how to help industrial businesses and this guy started waving around a dildo as an example of quality goods manufactured in the City.

But it was not funny at all. In fact, I found it kind of upsetting.

A number of speakers showed up to oppose the store, mostly because of the negative impacts it would have on kids going to and from Youth Radio and First Place for Youth, two organizations that I think are great and do really wonderful work.

I’m not sure what exactly I expect them to say, but it sure as hell wasn’t what they did talk about, which was sexually exploited minors, child trafficking, and prostitution, and how the teenagers they work with need to be protected from such things, and how damaged these kids would be if they were exposed to this store and the element it attracts.

OMFG. I was floored. I mean, I guess, if I try really hard, I could imagine some reasonable objections that people working with youth could make to the idea of having their facilities near a sex shop. But to bring up the sexual abuse and trafficking of children as though this discussion has anything whatsoever to do with that? That’s outrageous. And just completely wrong. And really offensive.

So I was actually really happy when Commissioner Michael Colbruno just straight up scolded them.

Lately, I have been trying to be more sympathetic to people who oppose things. Like, even when they sound totally nuts, I’ve been really trying to think about what’s making them so crazy and what is it exactly that they’re afraid of. So normally I think I would find such stern comments kind of over the top. But in this case, I thought they were completely justified.

As far as I’m concerned, children whose exposure to sex has been exclusively negative (whether just through witnessing the horrifying amount of child prostitution that happens on Oakland’s streets or from more scarring personal experiences) can only benefit from exposure to an establishment that treats sex as a positive thing and a normal part of normal people’s lives that is consensual and enjoyable for all parties involved.

The puritanism on display was simply astonishing. Opposition to Feelmore wasn’t limited to the nearby youth service organizations. One woman who came to the meeting for an entirely different item felt compelled to get up and jump on the anti-pornography bandwagon.

And then, most surprising to me, the Downtown/Uptown Business District sent a representative to talk about how the store was inappropriate for downtown, because this supposed to be an art and entertainment district.

I don’t get it. Does the business district think sex is not entertaining? Maybe they’re doing it wrong, in which case they might benefit from some of the educational aspects of Feelmore’s business plan.

Look. You cannot keep kids away from sex, no matter how much you may want to. They don’t have to go looking for obscene video on the internet to be exposed to it — you cannot even walk into any store that sells magazines without seeing right there on the display racks shit like Maxim or whatever all chock full of photographs of barely covered women being portrayed as sex objects and nothing more.

And I don’t have anything against Maxim or whatever, but I do think it’s important, when we talk about what kind of impact a store like this will have on youth who walk by, to remember that kids are constantly bombarded with sexual imagery in all forms of media, and it’s also important to remember that very little of that imagery treats women as real people with real sexual needs of their own that merit attention and consideration. Stores like this one offer a healthy counterpoint to those portrayals.

I remember the first time I went to a classy sex shop. I was seventeen, and had just moved from Houston to Portland for college. The girls in my dorm all took a little trip together to this store called It’s My Pleasure. It was amazing! I had never even imagined that such a place could exist, where you could go and talk to the staff and ask all these questions I had and the women there would just be nice to you and answer you honestly and without judgement. Isn’t that better for young women than only being able to get answers about sex from boys who want something from them? We should celebrate businesses like this, not fear them.

After all, as Commission C. Blake Huntsman put it, “we’re all here because someone multiplied.”

The Commission ending up approving the CUP and variance for Feelmore unanimously.

Come party with us on January 6th at Disco Volante!

One of the most frequent questions I get when people talk to me about my blog is whether I actually know all the people who leave comments here. I usually respond that I’ve met most of the regular commenters, although not all of them.

That wasn’t the case a few years ago. Back then, I had hardly met any of my readers, nor was I able to put a face to the voices on all the other great Oakland blogs I read regularly. Becks and dto510 and I used to sit around talking about how much we’d love to meet this blogger or that blogger, and then one day, Becks was all “Okay, enough of talking about this. We are going to have a party and invite all the other bloggers so we can meet them.”

We did a hastily planned, short-notice holiday party at the Washington Inn, where I got to meet all manner of cool people, including Artemis from City Homestead, Crimson, from the now-defunct (and missed) Oakland Streets, Farrah from the awesome local real estate blog A Piece of the Pie, and Coolhand Luke from the stellar culture blog 38th Notes. Plus a reader who very sweetly went on and on about how I should be on the Planning Commission, which amused the hell out of me.

The evening was so much fun that we decided to organize another one a few months later, this time at 2022 on Telegraph. We decided to expand the invite list beyond just blog writers, and sent notices to our frequent commenters as well. That party was even bigger and more fun, and so a few months later, we held another one at The Layover, which was even more awesome than the previous two events.

And of course, every time we do one of these, everyone is all “Oh, we should have parties like this more often. Why wait six months in between?” To which Becks and I are always like “Great idea! How about you organize one?” And somehow, I guess because we were all so busy with the elections, we managed to let 2010 pass by without any blogger parties at all.

Which is sad, because I love getting the chance to meet in person all the people I read all the time, whether I’m reading on their own blog or their comments as they pop up in my inbox. I think online discussions tend to be more civil when you’re talking to people you’ve met face to face and have had a non-heated, non-political conversation with.

And so, to that end, we’ve finally gotten it together to do another one. We used to always do the invitations by evite, but frankly, that was kind of a pain. A lot of bloggers don’t put their e-mail addresses anywhere on the blog, so it takes forever to track those down and even then, you miss some people. And a lot of people either use multiple e-mail addresses or fake ones when they comment, so you run the risk of either sending them the same invitation like four times or missing them entirely. Plus, evite’s interface is kind of awkward when you’re sending out lots of invitations. It is for me, anyway — it’s hard to figure out if you’ve already invited someone, and once I sent out like 50 invites to a party that had happened like six months ago.

Which is why we’ve decided to forgo the evite this time and just invite everyone via blog post and make a Facebook event for the party. I’m hoping to see lots of familiar faces there, and I hope to meet lots of new people as well. We’ll be trying to spread word of the event to other bloggers as well over the next week, who I realize — gasp! — may not all read me and Becks religiously (tragic, I know). But anyone who writes an Oakland blog or reads them is welcome — we would love to meet you. And I know you will love meeting other members of this wonderful little online community we’ve built up over the past few years.

So mark your calendars for January 6th, and if you’re on Facebook, please RSVP to our Facebook event, and invite others you think would be interested.

Once again, the party is going to be on Thursday, January 6th at downtown’s newest restaurant Disco Volante, located at 347 14th Street (at Webster) in downtown Oakland from 6 to 9 PM.

We look forward to seeing you there!

DTO hosts Oakland Holiday Parade on Saturday!

Tomorrow is one of my favorite downtown events of the whole year — the Oakland Holiday Parade.

They claim that 100,000 people come to Oakland to watch the parade, which…I mean, I guess I don’t know. But I go every year, and I’ve seen the crowd, and that doesn’t seem likely to me. Even so, it’s broadcast on PBS TV stations all through the United States, and even though it’s not, like, CNN or something, it is nice to see Oakland be portrayed positively in the media nationwide.

Anyway, I think the parade is just so charming. I usually don’t know about half of the cartoon characters they feature, but they’ve always got some good classics as well. The floats are always really fun to look at, and of course it’s great to see school marching bands from all over the Bay Area getting to show off.

I think my favorite part of the parade, though, is before the structured, fancy parade starts. They have all these random groups who don’t have floats or anything, but they just kind of walk down the street doing something cool. Or sometimes not doing anything cool, just looking really happy. One of my favorites last year was the Oakland Parks & Rec contingent. Among other things, they had some seriously impressive double dutch demonstrations.

I remember watching them and wondering why Parks & Rec got to be part of the parade, but the library didn’t. I resolved to myself that I would make sure the library was part of next year’s parade. But alas, now it is next year and not only is the library not part of the parade (as far as I know, that is. Who knows, maybe I’ll great a great surprise tomorrow), but I never even remembered to ask anyone why we weren’t. Next year, though!

Anyway, the parade starts at 2 PM tomorrow and if you haven’t been before, it really is a fun thing to do. It always makes me really happy to see so many families out enjoying downtown Oakland. It’s a good idea to get there early if you want a good seat, though.

Below are some of my photos from parades in other years.

Oakland Holiday Parade

Oakland Holiday Parade

Oakland Holiday Parade

Oakland Holiday Parade

Oakland Holiday Parade

Oakland Holiday Parade

Oakland Holiday Parade

Oakland Holiday Parade

Oakland Holiday Parade

Oakland Holiday Parade

Oakland Holiday Parade

More info on the parade, plus video of last year’s parade, is available on their website. You can also follow the parade on Twitter and Facebook.

Aren’t you sick of eating lunch at Max’s?

I have had the pleasure of working in downtown Oakland for most of the last nine years. During the period where I did not work downtown, I worked at night. Since I live downtown, this meant that even then, I was around here at lunchtime.

And not to sound like I don’t love downtown Oakland or anything, but there is a serious shortage of decent places to eat lunch around here. That’s not to say that there are no nice lunches to be had — I pack my lunch probably about half the time (well, more often than that now that I work in a culinary wasteland), but for those other days, I have my rotation of favorite places to go grab something quick and cheap, just like everyone else who works downtown.

Anyway. The DTO does okay for those kind of quick lunches. But when it comes to going to an actual restaurant where you, like, sit down and have servers come take your order and bring you your food and it tastes decent and you can talk to someone over a nice meal but it’s not some super fancy thing, the options shrink. I mean, I have nothing against Spice Monkey or Caffe Verbena. I quite like them both. But I do not need to go to either one of them every damn time I’m meeting someone for lunch. I refuse to go to Max’s, which I find disgusting. I swear, at least 40% of the time when people ask me to lunch, they suggest we go to Max’s. Why, people? Why?

Anyway. The point of all this is not to harsh on the DTO, but rather to say how excited I am that downtown Oakland now has two new places to eat lunch. The first is Disco Volante, which I wrote about when they first opened for lunch like two weeks ago.

Disco Volante

I have been to Disco Volante twice since they opened (I would have gone more, but I was out of town for over a week). I have sampled the fennel & pork pie, the sand dabs, and the burger. Every single one of them was really fucking good. They don’t have any liquor (hence the lunch-only status of the restaurant right now), but they do have a delicious blood orange soda drink. And they make a great cup of coffee. I was there yesterday for lunch and…well, let’s just say that if you had wanted to come get something to eat, you would not have had to wait for a table.

So come on, folks. Do you work in the City Center area? Give Disco Volante a try. 14th and Webster is an easy walk from your office. Go to Disco Volante instead of Max’s next time you’re taking someone out to lunch. The food is better, and it is also cheaper. Also, it is prettier. If you’re eating solo, that’s cool too. Just go sit at the bar. Aren’t you sick of getting the same boring sandwich every day?

Plum opens for lunch

The other exciting lunch restaurant news for the DTO today is that PLUM IS OPENING FOR LUNCH! Starting today!

You guys surely remember how much I loved Plum when I went there for dinner on opening night. And I can’t even think of how many times since then I’ve told people that I wished they were open for lunch. So I am delighted that my wish has come true and they are now open from 11 to 2. I don’t know if they’re going to have the same menu or not. The dinner menu is a little different now than when I went there, but reviews remain positive, so I expect that either way, lunch will be delicious.

One more thing

In other Oakland restaurant news, Inside Scoop reports that Chef Paul Canales is leaving Rockridge institution Oliveto. The story doesn’t say what Canales is doing next, but does reveal that whatever his new venture is, which we will more about “in the next few days,” it will definitely be in Oakland. Hooray!

Harrison Street high-rise comes to Planning Commission on Wednesday

While the Victory Court ballpark EIR scoping session is getting all the attention, there are actually some other interesting items on the agenda for Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting (PDF). For one, the Director’s Report will feature a verbal update on the progress of the International Boulevard Transit Oriented Development plan, which I’m looking forward to, since I wasn’t able to make either of the meetings earlier this month.

Another interesting item is a public hearing on the Draft EIR for a project at 325 7th Street (PDF). Remember how I was describing the EIR process the other day? (Read this post for a more detailed explanation of the process) Well, this is what the next step looks like. The scoping session for this project (PDF) was held in January of 2008 (PDF), and now, two years later, Draft EIR has been completed (you can read it here (PDF) and read all the appendices here (PDF).

At Wednesday’s meeting, the public will have an opportunity to make comments on whether the EIR is sufficient in its assessment of the project’s impacts and proposed mitigations for those impacts. The Final EIR will have to respond to all the comments received, and based on what they say, at least some parts of the Draft EIR will likely be revised. Only then can the City approve the project.

325 7th Street

The subject of Wednesday’s hearing is strictly about the adequacy of the Draft EIR, not about whether or not this is a good project or whether or not the City should approve it. That comes later. But just for fun, let’s take a look at what’s being proposed.

325 7th Street is a proposed residential high rise at the edge of Chinatown, between Harrison Street and 880 and 6th and 7th. There would be two towers, one 20 stories tall and the other 27 stories tall. Together, they would contain 380 units on top of four stories of parking featuring 399 spaces. On the ground floor would be a little over 9,000 square feet of office and retail space.

Here are some renderings from the architects:

325 7th Street

327 7th Street

For the more detail oriented among you, you can view more renderings, plus floorplans here (PDF).

Project Impacts

The project’s expected impacts and possible mitigation measures are detailed in the this table from the Draft EIR (PDF). Unsurprisingly, the main unavoidable impacts are traffic related, specifically causing increased delays at the intersections of 5th and Oak and 6th and Jackson.

The other main issue is that the project as currently proposed would require the demolition of an historic building. The staff report for Wednesday’s hearing (PDF) explains:

The proposed Project would demolish the structure at 617-621 Harrison Street which is a contributor to the API. The City Standard Condition of Approval requires that the Project applicant make a good faith effort to relocate the building to an acceptable site. If relocated, the impacts to cultural resources would be less than significant.

If the building cannot be moved, the proposed mitigation measures require that the Project applicant hire a qualified consultant to prepare a deconstruction and salvage plan to identify interior and exterior elements that can be reused either on or off site with all deconstructed materials to be promptly recycled back into the construction market. In addition, the Project applicant shall make a monetary contribution to the City for a Historic Interpretive and Program about the 7th Street/Harrison Square Residential District and a historic resource related program such as the Property Relocation Program or the Façade Improvement Fund. Even with these mitigation measures the Project will result in a significant and unavoidable impact if the building is demolished.

Frankly, that seems like a lot to ask in exchange for a building with a C rating, but I’m sure several of the preservations among my readers would disagree and will be happy to lecture us about the importance of APIs. The City’s Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board certainly did, and have noted a number of areas where they believe the Draft EIR is insufficient (PDF).

Oakland Planning Commission looks at Victory Court

If you follow Oakland political news at all, which, if you’re reading this, you presumably do, you are already aware that the Oakland Planning Commission will be discussing the Victory Court ballpark proposal at their December 1st meeting (PDF).

Before we get into exactly what that means, let’s step back a little bit and review how we arrived here.

Victory Court

A little under a year ago, the City unveiled four potential locations for a new stadium. Two of them weren’t real options, which left us with two choices, which have now been whittled down to one.

The winner among the four is a site called “Victory Court,” bordered by Oak Street, Embarcadero, the Lake Merritt Channel, and 880. It’s situated just east of the Jack London District and just south of Laney College. Further east is the planned Oak to 9th development.

Victory Court Map

The stadium itself wouldn’t take up the entire site shaded in the picture above. Obviously, a ballpark is not going to span a freeway. The land included in the site on the other side of 880 is a surface parking lot currently owned by the Peralta Community College District that would likely be transformed into structured parking should a stadium end up getting built. The stadium itself would be sandwiched between the Lake Merritt Channel and Fallon Street, with some kind of public plaza on the Channel end and with the block between Oak and Fallon reserved for some kind of adjacent development like retail or condos.

Why Victory Court?

Advocates of a Victory Court ballpark use the term “hole-in-the-donut” to describe the location. The idea is that the site is surrounded by a number of (hopefully) up and coming neighborhoods.

To the west, you’ve got Jack London Square, with its restaurants and bars, fancy hotel, and frequent outdoor events. Plus, eventually Jack London Market will be open. I know that a lot of people like to dis Jack London Square and call it a failure or whatever, but I gotta say, I kind of like it. It’s a spectacular spot for big outdoor events like the Eat Real Festival, the water is pretty, I like the view of the cranes, and for the past year or two, every time I go there, there seems to be a remarkable number of people out. For a while it always seemed kind of deserted, but lately the people are totally back. I have no idea why. Perhaps they just can’t stay away from the kick ass happy hour at Bocanova. Anyway.

So there’s Jack London Square on one side, and that’s kind of the only part of this theoretical donut that actually exists right now. On another side, you might be able to get away with claiming you’ve got maybe some half-baked dough, and then on the other you have totally raw dough. Or maybe just your mise en place for making the dough.

The half baked side I mentioned is the area surrounding the Lake Merritt BART Station, just to the north. It’s always been a mystery to me why this place is such a total wasteland, what with it being right next to Laney College and Chinatown and the adorable Lake Merritt Apartment District and so on. It seems to have everything going for it, yet the only place to even get a cup of coffee is the MetroCenter cafeteria, which is a place I prefer to avoid. Anyway, the City is hoping to rectify the problem of this neighborhood being a failure for no reason through the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan process, which is going on right now. I hope they can figure it out.

Finally, there is the planned Oak to 9th project to the east. I think Oak to 9th sounds really cool, and I totally want to hang out on the big new waterfront parks and all that, so I really hope that shit gets built. But I’m not holding my breath for it to happen anytime soon. Some people say that if we had a successful stadium nearby, it could act as a catalyst for more development because people would want to live near it, and then Oak to 9th would get built faster. Maybe.

So the idea is that we have all these cool things on all sides of the site — whether they’re existing, but maybe struggling a little, or planned but not built, or just somewhere with a lot of potential. And they all have the same problem, which is that they’re kind of disjointed. It all seems so close if you’re looking at a map or something, but the connectivity isn’t there. And each area suffers because of that isolation and therefore is not able to reach its full potential. And a ballpark could provide the missing connection, and also could provide the flows of people needed to boost the surrounding areas to success. It solves a problem for Oakland.

And from that broad planning perspective, I completely agree. The major barrier to the success of downtown Oakland and downtown-adjacent neighborhoods is the lack of connectivity between them, and there is nothing better you could do to spur the success of Jack London Square and the Lake Merritt BART Station area than sticking a big attraction smack in between them. It is, without question, the best of any location in Oakland I’ve seen suggested in that sense.

But will it work for a stadium?

Of course, it’s one thing to say that a Victory Court ballpark makes a ridiculous amount of sense on a map, when judged on this one, fairly specific criteria. It’s another thing entirely to say that it is actually a good place to build a baseball stadium, or a feasible place to do so.

Obviously, there’s the issue of getting the land together. The City owns some of the acreage there, but nothing close to all of it. And some of that non-publicly owned land contains businesses who may not be eager to move. So getting the space together is gonna be expensive, and it could be messy and controversial as well, depending on just how resistant the existing businesses are to relocation.

Property acquisition, however, does not seem to me like the primary barrier to a ballpark at this location. Transportation does. Yes, it is true that the site is conveniently located an easy walk from the Lake Merritt BART station. But no matter how convenient the site is for public transit, if you’ve got 30,000 people going to a ball game, you’re going to be bringing in a lot of cars.

So the first thing you might think of with all those cars is where are they going to park. I’m not worried about that. There is plenty of parking in the Jack London and Laney College/Chinatown neighborhoods. You have to provide some spaces really close for VIPs, but most people will walk for a while. So I don’t see that as an issue at all.

What is an issue, however, is getting all those cars to their parking spaces. To move that amount of traffic around the area, you would need major upgrades to a number of freeway on and off ramps, plus some kind of reconfiguration of traffic flow on surrounding surface streets. Like most transportation problems, these barriers are not insurmountable. What they are is very expensive. Exactly how expensive all this would be, I don’t know. I tried to come up with a figure by looking at the ramps that would need expansion and then adding it up based on the costs of other recent freeway improvements, but then when I told my number to a Victory Court ballpark booster who has studied this more than I have, and they were like, no way, that’s crazy high. So who knows. Since we’re not at the stage where we talk about financing yet, I don’t really see the point of playing guessing games about price tags right now.

The other big issue is the fact that you are talking about sticking 30,000 people right next to an active railroad track 80 days a year. I swear, I bring this up every time someone tries to talk to me about Victory Court, and every single time it happens, people laugh at me. But I’m serious! Sure, you don’t have to cross the tracks to get from the BART station to the stadium. But a big part of the reasoning behind this particular site is that the City is expecting that at least some of those people are going to go eat and drink in Jack London Square either before or after the game, and to get there, they are going to have to cross those tracks.

It’s a legitimate safety issue. And given the way they freaked out over Oak to 9th, I cannot imagine the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) liking this idea one bit. Laugh all you want, but the PUC is mysterious and weirdly powerful, and they are not going to let the City add that much vehicle and pedestrian traffic to this area without some major safety improvements to all the intersections with track crossings going way down Embarcadero. Again, that’s doable, but expensive.

Plus, you have to remember that a couple thousand people live right nearby, and I would count on significant and vocal opposition from at least some of them. So the site is clearly not without challenges.

Time for an EIR

So. Victory Court is not my fantasy stadium site. In a perfect world, we’d get Jingletown Stadium, where the glass factory is. There are a number of reasons that isn’t going to happen. I know a number of people who think we should build a new ballpark on top of 980. The idea is cool conceptually — I have long dreamed of capping that part of 980 and turning it into a big public park. But the lengthy and complex negotiations and approvals with Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration that would be required to do anything on top of the freeway render the site completely unrealistic from a practical standpoint.

If Oakland wants to have a realistic shot at retaining the A’s, it is long past time to stop talking and start moving. And to that end, I am very happy the City has finally settled on a site and is taking the important step of preparing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

If you’re not familiar with the EIR process, this old post offers a pretty solid overview, plus links for further reading. I’ll do a briefer version here.

Basically, California state law requires that before a City can approve a development, they have to recognize what impacts that project will have on the surrounding environment. An EIR is the document that tells them what those impacts are going to be.

When a developer or, in this case, the City decides that they need to complete an EIR, the first step is to issue a Notice of Preparation (NOP), which briefly describes the proposal and notes what types of impacts are expected. The City issued a NOP (PDF) for a ballpark at the Victory Court location on November 10th. The purpose of this document is to alert the public and other interested parties that you are doing an EIR.

A NOP includes instructions for those who want to submit comments about what the EIR should study, a deadline for comments, and the dates of any public hearings where verbal testimony on the scope of the EIR will be accepted. In this case, comments are to be directed to:

Peterson Z. Vollman
City of Oakland, Community and Economic Development Agency
250 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Suite 2114
Oakland, CA 94612

Comments must be received by 4:30 PM on December 9th. Additionally, a public hearing will be held on December 1st. More on that below.

Anyway, once the comment period is over, the next step is to prepare a Draft EIR. This is a ridiculously long document that lists the project’s expected impacts, explains how they arrived at their conclusions about the impacts, lays out the impacts of “alternative” projects, and notes what steps can be taken to mitigate the impacts. To get an idea of what that looks like, check out the Draft EIR (PDF) and Draft EIR Appencides (PDF) for a proposed development nearby, at 375 7th Street. (This project will also be discussed at the December 1st Planning Commission meeting, FYI.)

Once the Draft EIR is released, the public gets a period of time in which they can provide comments. It will generally be available online, although I personally tend to have a hard time reading them on my computer, since they are just so long and frankly, pretty damn dry. So I like to go read them at the library instead. The Oakland Main Library keeps copies of all the current local EIRs out on a shelf in the main reference area, and usually whatever branch is near the proposed development will have a copy available as well.

Then the entity preparing the EIR has to respond to all the comments, which may require further study of impacts and likely will result in at least some changes to the Draft EIR. Finally, a Final EIR is issued, at which point it can be certified by the City, and the environmental review process is complete.

Got all that?

Scoping Session on Wednesday

Listening to the way people are talking about this week’s meeting, you might get the idea that a “Keep the A’s in Oakland” rally was on the Planning Commission agenda for Wednesday (PDF). It’s not. What is on the agenda is an EIR Scoping Session. The staff report (PDF) helpfully explains:

The main purpose of this scoping session is to solicit comments from both the Commission and the public on what types of information and analysis should be considered in the EIR. Specifically, comments should focus on discussing possible impacts on the physical environment, ways in which potential adverse effects might be minimized, and alternatives to the project in light of the EIR’s purpose to provide useful and accurate information about such factors. Comments related to policy considerations and the merits of the project will be the subject of future, duly noticed public meetings.

So basically, this is when you have an opportunity to go say what you think should be studied in the EIR. Like, for example, you could go and say, “I think it’s really important that the EIR examines pedestrian and vehicle safety impacts at the railroad crossing at the intersections of Embarcadero and Broadway, Franklin, and Webster” and that would be appropriate. If you went and said instead “I think Lew Wolff is an asshole and the A’s should stay in Oakland,” that would not be appropriate. Or productive. You don’t have to go to the hearing to have input on what gets studied — as I mentioned above, you are also encouraged to submit your comments in writing.

My take on all this

I have been accused, in the past, of being “anti-Oakland” because I’ve been pretty upfront about the fact that I do not believe it is realistic for Oakland to expect to retain the A’s. I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of my position. I love going to baseball games, I go to a lot of them every year, and I would be very sad if the A’s moved to San Jose and I couldn’t go anymore. But I am also a realist. And the attitude from so many City officials and A’s-in-Oakland boosters that we should keep the team because we just deserve them rather than because we have an actual plan for how we’re going to accomplish that infuriates me.

So it isn’t that I’m anti-Oakland so much as I’m anti-whining. And running around bitching about how unfairly Lew Wolff treats Oakland while doing absolutely nothing to further the goal of offering a viable stadium site is whining. While Oakland sat around feeling all put upon and pouting about being rejected and claiming there are tons of great ballpark locations all over Oakland if your ignore all the feasibility problems with them, San Jose, without any guarantee or even real reason to believe they could land the team, identified a site, bought up most of the land, certified an EIR, and built up significant community support for their proposal. That’s what being serious looks like.

I remain skeptical that Oakland can pull this off, but I am absolutely certain there’s no shot in hell of pulling it off if the City doesn’t stop dilly dallying and talking and actually do something real. And that’s why I support this new step of beginning an EIR. Because it’s action.

It’s not everything. Once the EIR is completed, which will take at least a year, and probably a whole lot longer, there will still be significant issues to address with respect to financing (both for the stadium, which would have to be done mostly privately, and for the infrastructure and land acquisition, which would have to be done with redevelopment funds) and infrastructure improvements. We remain way behind San Jose in terms of having an actual feasible plan to offer. But we’re never going to get there if we don’t at least start moving, and while we’re starting years later than we should have, well…better late than never, right?