What I learned on my Thanksgiving vacation

Eighteen years ago, my family moved from southern Louisiana to a quaint little town of less than 30,000 people just north of Houston. Back then, the big controversy in those parts was about whether the soon to open McDonald’s would suck all the charm out of this homey little community. A number of vocal residents felt that this was just not the sort of business we wanted in town, and that if it were allowed to open, it would mark the first step on the road to becoming just another corporate hellhole suburb.

At this time, there were like, two restaurants, one of which was expensive and not very good, and the other of which was very cheap and also not good. Me, I was thrilled about the McDonald’s. I had this fantasy in my head that since there were no other dining out options, my parents might decide to take us all there for dinner sometime, which they never would have done back in Louisiana. It didn’t quite work out that way – we just ended up driving half an hour to another town whenever we wanted to go out to eat, just like we did anytime we wanted to buy anything besides groceries.

The whole time I lived there, I couldn’t wait to get away. It was a nice enough place, I suppose, if you wanted to be able to send your kids to public school and had no interest in doing anything other than golfing or lounging around in your backyard. But these are hardly the things that teenagers dream about.

So I go back to Texas once or twice a year, and I never cease to be completely flabbergasted by much things out there have changed. I spend my vacations irritating the hell out of my family with incessant and totally uninteresting observations about the way things used to be:

Jeepers, I still can’t believe you can actually buy decent meat around here now. When I was in high school, we had to drive forty minutes to go to that market in Houston if we wanted a nice meal.

Golly, I remember when the mall first opened. It was so exciting to have actual stores out here! I came here with my friends to the ribbon cutting ceremony and then we walked around the whole thing like six times and then stood outside smoking cloves until it closed and then we went to Denny’s. Is that horrible candle store still around?

I worked opening night at this movie theater you know. You’re probably too young to remember what a big deal it was. I think the entire town was here that night.

The transformation is incredible. My sleepy little suburb has turned into a thriving miniopolis. The population has grown to over 80,000, and I don’t even know if it’s right to call it a bedroom community anymore, what with it being home to 3 million square feet of nearly-fully occupied Class A office space, with another 600,000 square feet being delivered next year. (To put that figure in perspective, downtown Oakland has a little under 10 million square feet of Class A space.) They even have a building taller than anything we’ve got here in Oakland! It’s actually…well, as strange as it is for me to say, considering how much I used to despise the place…kind of nice.

Okay, I’m babbling. And I’m sure you’re all wondering what, if anything, any of this has to do with Oakland. Well, Becks suggested that we all use our break to think about what Oakland could benefit from in the places we visited, so here are a few things that, well, I don’t know if we could learn from exactly, but things that I found myself thinking about while I was away:

  • Change can be a good thing. Those people who were so upset about McDonald’s? Well, actually, I can’t really speak for them in particular because I don’t know any of them, but I’d bet that if they’re still around, they’re pretty happy these days. Everyone else seems to be. Turns out, people like being able to take their wives out to dinner. They like having coffee shops and bars to meet friends at. People I know who mercilessly mocked all the new development when it was being proposed now find themselves regularly applauding all the benefits that have come with it. Maybe people around here should just relax a little bit and not assume that every new thing is going to cause the sky to collapse or whatever it is they’re so afraid of. No matter what you do, things aren’t going to stay the same forever. And hey, sometimes change makes things nicer.

  • A lot of people actually like density. I fell in love with downtown Oakland the first time I saw it, even though, relative to how it is now, it was a kind of a wasteland. And I love it even more now, with the added vibrancy in the neighborhood that’s come with all new development. So it really stings when I have to listen to people talk about what a hellhole it is down here and how no one would ever tolerate living in such oppressive crowded conditions. (This happens all the time! Some guy at the Planning Commission just the other night was going on about how all you have to do is look at my neighborhood to see what a blighted nightmare mid-rise development causes for a neighborhood!) Sometimes it feels like half of Oakland is completely repulsed by the very idea of relatively dense, transit-oriented housing.

    So imagine how weird it is for me to go back home and have everyone I encounter want to talk about how great it would be to move into one of those adorable little apartments along the waterway, where you’d be so close to all the restaurants and shopping and nightlife and just walk to the store or take the trolley or water taxi out to eat at night. (Note: the “trolley” is actually a bus, and based on my admittedly limited observation, I don’t think anyone actually rides it anywhere ever. Ha! I sound like one of those anti-bus people!) And those places are selling like gangbusters. In fact, no less than three of the families on my old street have abandoned our cosy cul-de-sac for yardless “downtown” townhomes, and couldn’t be happier.

  • Traffic is everywhere. People here get so worked up about traffic! Every development anyone ever proposes, it’s traffic this and traffic that. The traffic from “Manhattan-like” development will destroy the neighborhood! People get so melodramatic about it, too. Seriously, watch the Planning Commission next time they consider a development in Temescal – the way the opposition talks, you’d think someone had filed an application to unleash a pack of rapid kangaroos on the neighborhood or something. Seriously, people. Your intersection already blows. How much worse can 100 more people living in the neighborhood possibly make it? (Yeah, yeah, I know. Cumulative impacts. Wev. How much worse can 1000 more people living in the neighborhood possibly make it. How many cars drive through Temescal every day?) If I was queen of the State of California, I would decree that traffic is not an environmental impact subject to CEQA.

    Anyway, where I come from, although they’ve grown a great deal, it isn’t exactly the type of place you’d call dense. Pretty much the opposite, really. The roads are well-maintained, enormous, and plentiful. Yet the traffic congestion out there is just as bad as it is anywhere in Oakland. You have to deal with traffic, people, no matter where you are. Get over it! Get an iPod and take the bus.

  • You can never build enough parking. In my part of Texas, there is parking everywhere. Everything is also surrounded by giant surface parking lots and/or multi-story parking structures. Yet there still never seems to be enough parking anywhere you go, and you end up spending as much time driving around looking for a space as you do in busy commercial districts in Oakland. No matter how many spaces you build, you will always have a shortage. So again, just accept that parking will always be an issue no matter what and stop whining about it.

I’m not suggesting Oakland should look like The Woodlands – not at all. Hell, we couldn’t even if we wanted to. But I do think it would be nice if we could, as a city, just try for a little while to be at least as tolerant of growth as people in suburban Houston.

7 thoughts on “What I learned on my Thanksgiving vacation

  1. Mike Linksvayer

    Houston is underrated and hated by people who mostly must not have ever been there.

    But there’s someplace much closer that Oakland should learn from rather than complain about — Emeryville.

  2. dbackman

    Re: Traffic
    I would argue that traffic is what makes neighborhoods. Certainly, nobody wants traffic jams, truck routes, honking horns and smelly exhaust outside their door. But while too much is disruptive to a place’s quality of life, a certain level of traffic is absolutely necessary to sustain life in urban space. If there is no traffic, a neighborhood feels uninhabited and empty. Traffic means people are shopping, going out to eat, interacting with one another, while moving through a series of urban spaces. Temescal sustains a vibrant commercial corridor precisely because of the heavy traffic that moves through it.

  3. Todd

    As a resident of the Idora Park neighborhood (or Temescal, if you believe the banners they hang on Telegraph starting around Alcatraz), I couldn’t help but laugh at “Seriously, people. Your intersection already blows.” I assume you mean 51st and Telegraph. So true! One of the worst intersections in that area (Claremont/Forest/Colby gives it a fight, but can’t quite suck that hard).

  4. TPG

    Hi V Smoothe, I’ve only been reading your blog for a couple months, but ever since I found it, ABO’s been in my top 5.

    Most of the time I agree with you, especially about BRT, but I just wanted to mention that more parking is not always the answer, especially the way we currently do it. Here’s a link to a good summary of Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking”, http://goodspeedupdate.com/2008/2186, which, as the title suggests, has more to do with the big problems that arise from not charging a “market rate” for parking spaces. The idea that parking spaces are too cheap and an inefficient use of urban space, not to mention environmentally disastrous, explains why “No matter how many spaces you build, you will always have a shortage.” The thing that I wanted to mention was that we shouldn’t be encouraging driving at all, it’s already got plenty of help. Instead we should focus on higher density development in specific areas and more enticing public transportation options.

  5. Kent

    I agree with TPG. Parking spots are needed in any city, but when you subsidize it by mandating minimum parking requirements for new development you are in effect “incentivising” automobile trips to the urban center by creating an artificially high supply of spots. Oakland has reduced some of its surface parking due to the Uptown developments near Sears. But there is still plenty of street side and surface lot parking available. I think the equilibrium is about right now, but several more surface parking lots could probably still be taken out and it would not drive up parking prices. As an example, the price I pay on the rare occasions I do drive to work, at Central Parking near 17th and Harrison, is now $8 per day, which is the same price it was 2 1/2 years ago (it may have been $7.50 then, I don’t honestly remember).
    But we are getting off the subject of the the blog post, which was about urban development projects and the “tolerance” of development in other parts of the country vs. here in the East Bay. V mentioned some incidents in Temescal where people got really riled up about development. Well, I have been one of the riled up persons myself, in the case of a development in my neighborhood (near Grand / Lake). That project would have caused me to have to move, so I felt motivated to complain about it. And that’s I think typical of a lot of people who come to City meetings to protest against development projects here. We just have less space and more density, so any development in Oakland affects WAY more people that in some suburb in Texas. You can attribute part of the “protest” factor here to a tradition of questioning authority, but 40 years after the 60s, I really don’t think that influence is so strong anymore (no offense to anyone who reads this and was a 60s activist.) I think the situation here is more reflective of the local geography and the rapid changes that have happened in Oakland in the past 10-20 years (most of which I did not witness myself). Nevertheless, a good post, something to think about in quiet times.

  6. Becks

    TPG – I don’t think V was advocating for more parking in this post. I think her point was that whether we maintain our current level of parking or increase it, there will always be times when there doesn’t seem to be enough parking. This is actually an argument against building more parking.

    Kent – It’s one thing to get riled up because a development project endangers your current housing. It’s another thing to get riled up just because a project is too big. In Temescal, some people got all up in arms about the Creekside Project, which will replace an old video store. I think V’s point here is that density is a good thing, and we should be embracing it. I couldn’t agree more.

  7. Quercki M. Singer

    I avoid San Francisco because of the parking problems, and the two-hours-to-get-back-home problems. A handicapped friend and I tried to go to an event in SF recently that we couldn’t find parking for, so we had to just go back home.

    The Oakland home that I purchased after handing the real estate agent a bus map and insisting that my home needs good bus service now has only weekday commute-hour service to San Francisco and no bus service to downtown Oakland or Berkeley. Change can be bad.

    But the re-vitalization of downtown encourages me. I got an advertising telephone survey the other day and I insisted that the “shopping centers” I shopped at were “Lakeshore” and “Uptown Oakland.”

    I’m planning a move in the next year, and these factors figure in.