by Michael Orion Powell-Deschamps
Seen above: Greg Hodges, presenter with the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan Neighborhood Design Sessions
“In most communities around the world, when people gather to have an important conversation, it’s usually a drummer or musician or somebody that plays, sings, dances, to let people know that an important conversation is about to happen.” With these words, Chris Hodges, author of the blog and book "OG Told Me", began to play a traditional Gambian drum to introduce one of the neighborhood design sessions for the Downtown Specific Plan. Hodges’ written works are about listening to the words of Oakland’s long-time residents, which made him a natural pick to host the planning sessions.
The neighborhood design sessions, held by the City of Oakland, were held throughout Downtown Oakland—in Old Oakland, Chinatown, and the Central Core—during the weekend of February 10-13. They were designed to ensure city residents – who are threatened from rising rents and displacement -- will benefit from new development in the downtown area by innovatively sharing ideas with one another about what they would like to see in Downtown Specific Plan, a general plan for future development in the area. Each session focused on the neighborhood in which they were held in. Attendees were able to collaborate creatively over blueprints of the city, pinpointing what problem spots they saw and how they would act to correct them.
Local professor and entrepreneur Antwi Akom, who co-hosted the Central Core neighborhood session with Hodges, brought his new app, “Streetwyze,” to help residents express their thoughts about the downtown area. The app has a straightforward and simple interface that allows users to play around with a satellite map of the San Francisco Bay Area and pin notes on certain areas with their thoughts. On the app, designs session participants were able to mark various places in downtown with notes about their conditions and thoughts on what they'd like to see in those spots.
Oakland is an economically growing city. Steering economic growth in progressive directions, and ensuring local jobs at family-sustaining wages, were some of the key goals discussed at the design sessions. Oakland’s central areas tend to have a lopsided impact versus other parts of the city. The downtown area contributed to a third of Oakland’s total job growth from 2011 to 2016 and two thirds of the city’s professional and scientific jobs. Thus, one goal discussed at the sessions was connecting the City Center and Lake Merritt Office Districts in a way that would overcome the “dead zones” of vacant lots and stores that lie in between them. Better connecting the districts would act to foster the dead zones as regional employment centers with living-wage jobs.
The notion of “equity in Oakland” was reiterated throughout the eight community meetings, with several discussions about how the specific plan could incorporate ideas that could combat some of the issues found in Oakland's 2017 Race and Gender Disparity Study. Part of the discussions focused on maintaining 14th Street as a center for the Black Arts Movement and Business District (BAMBD), which has many tenants facing displacement due to rising rents. A suggestion was made to make 14th Street and adjoining areas into a sort of “Africatown.” This would focus on preserving old and even fostering new African American businesses and community institutions, like how Chinatown in Oakland or Japantown in San Francisco have preserved Asian culture in a special part of each city.
Another intriguing idea discussed during the Neighborhood Design sessions was the development of what Oakland architects Philip Banta and Norman Hooks call the “West Oakland Walk,” a 4.5 mile loop of existing streets that would create a greenway along the I-980 freeway linking 23 parks in West Oakland. An urban greenway would link these parks, much like a bicycle trail would, and “a found design that will help transform the way people see and use Oakland.”
Residents who were unable to attend the neighborhood design sessions are welcome to submit their own thoughts on the Downtown Specific Plan to email@example.com. A draft of the plan is expected to be released in Winter 2018.
Seen above: How a potential “West Oakland Walk” would fit in with the larger East Bay area.