Oak Knoll Traffic Issues Still Worry Residents

By José Fermosa---At the June 21 Oakland Planning Commission meeting, which saw planning commissioners delay approval for the redevelopment of old Oak Knoll Naval Hospital land in East Oakland, Planning Commissioner Emily Weinstein summed up many residents’ thoughts about the Oak Knoll project’s traffic mitigation plan: Disappointed. 

The traffic mitigation study, reported through the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) released earlier this year, included notes from residents revealing that “weekend traffic [around the project] was particularly bad,” Weinstein said. “[So] I'm disappointed it wasn’t studied and the city [or developer] wasn’t able to respond.”

Although the traffic mitigation study reports that weekday peak-hour traffic volumes around Oak Knoll were higher than Saturday peak-hour volumes, especially around the Oakland Zoo, the city did not conduct a weekend specific traffic study.

In conversations on- and off-the-record with the Conduit, residents living in Oak Knoll’s vicinity said a nervous feeling persists that the 900-plus homes to be built on the old naval hospital lot, and the cars they will bring, will cause massive traffic problems, especially during the weekends.

Toler Heights neighborhood representative Angie Tam, who attended the meeting, expressed her worry about traffic in a letter she wrote to the city responding to the EIR. In that letter, she mentioned that more congestion at the Golf Links Road 580 exit/entrance near the project would affect commuters to Bishop O’Dowd High School, the Foothill Square Development area, the Oak Knoll commercial area, and the Zoo, and may even increase the use of gas stations nearby. The city’s replies to her concerns left Tam unconvinced that terribly long lines and wasted hours idling in her car on Mountain Boulevard weren't going to happen.

Elina Conley, a resident who spoke up at the meeting, expressed a similar frustration. She said that the city’s excuse for not conducting a weekend study was “an insult to our intelligence and the delays that we already experience. Oakland and the mayor continue to court developers... and put yourselves in our shoes. How would you feel if, after investing in a quiet neighborhood, there will be at least 935 houses that will be constructed within one mile?”

In the post-meeting commission report released on the June 22, Scott Gregory, the consultant planner for the Oak Knoll project hired by the city, identifies “several significant and unavoidable impacts,” including the possibility that “traffic generated by the Oak Knoll Project would add more than 10 peak-hour vehicle trips to a critical movement at several unsignalized intersections, and new signals and associated lane improvements at these intersections would be warranted.” Gregory further corroborates the need for intersection improvements to six on-ramps surrounding the site.

Gregory said traffic slowdowns at the unsignalized intersections, for now, are unavoidable because the mitigation measures need to be approved by CalTrans. Neither the city nor SunCal, the project developer, can guarantee the state-run department will “accept and approve permits for these...improvements.” In last week’s meeting however, planning commission members noted that there’s little reason CalTrans won’t approve the permits.

Several residents told the Conduit that the planning commissioners’ CalTrans note feels hollow. The residents said they need to be doubly assured by the builders that a serious traffic disturbance won't happen from the project.

Traffic on the adjoining I-580 freeway, which is already bad during peak commute hours, is another potential problem. By all estimates, traffic will get markedly worse during construction.

The post-meeting report states that freeway traffic would “increase congestion beyond identified cumulative thresholds” whose impacts are “unavoidable because no feasible mitigation measures are available to reduce freeway congestion to less than significant levels. Widening the I-580 freeway is not currently planned, and would be beyond the scope for this or any individual project, and it is not within the city’s authority to undertake capacity-enhancing freeway improvements.”

But if there is no way to expand the size of the freeway, there are potential, albeit expensive ways to reduce some of that congestion. Some residents have talked about building bridges above or below the freeway to connect the Oak Knoll area to the rest of Oakland. During the June 21 Planning Commission meeting, Gregory said the builder is looking to mitigate traffic congestion by installing traffic systems so cars can move off the freeway quickly, such as widening on-ramps “so there’s additional queuing space so they don’t stack up on the highway." 

With the traffic mitigation efforts however, the EIR notes the project will only see a 10 percent reduction in vehicle trips, instead of the 20 percent goal the city now expects of all developments. Gregory said the report that showed the 10 percent reduction did not take into account residents’ use of the site’s retail, residential, and pedestrian pathways, which may keep people on the site more, cutting down on vehicle trips.

Christopher Kidd, a professional transportation planner and Oakland transportation advocate, believes “There need to be goals for alternative transportation [that mitigates traffic and cars]. Depending on the geography of Oakland, like in the hills, people are not close to job centers or community-serving places you can walk to. [Oak Knoll] is not well served by transit. You have a high-rate of driving from those communities,” Kidd said.

Oakland resident Naomi Schiff says the current Oak Knoll design is too car-centric, retro, and suburban for it to be considered part of the modern, more public-transportation-aware Oakland its citizens want and its leaders pretend to want. “[Like my colleagues] have said, this project, Oak Knoll, cuts itself off from the surrounding neighborhoods, like an enclave.” Many Oak Knoll neighbors believe the builder has not done enough to incorporate public transportation into the project to alleviate traffic and help people get around to the rest of Oakland, especially south of the freeway.

Gregory told the Conduit his team has looked at how they can better mitigate traffic, improve public transportation, and build more walking areas. One idea is to connect the Oak Knoll property to the other side of the freeway. Mainly, this has involved improving bike accessibility and pedestrian lanes around the 98th Avenue underpass near the Zoo and through Fontaine Street, near the bottom of Keller Avenue, which will hug Oak Knoll. He also mentioned they are in discussions with the builder and AC Transit to run more buses throughout the day.

The Conduit hired a photographer to take pictures of some of the closest on-ramps from Oak Knoll to I-580 during the 8 a.m. rush hour. Can the area survive another 11,250 daily car trips?

Picture: MacArthur I-580 On-Ramp, Westbound. Photo Credit: Jennifer Winfrey

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Picture: Westbound I-580 Edwards Avenue On-Ramp. Photo Credit: Jennifer Winfrey 

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Picture: I-580 Mountain Blvd Overpass Off-Ramp at Keller Avenue. Photo Credit: Jennifer Winfrey

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Picture: Westbound 580 Between Edwards Avenue and Seminary Avenue

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