Monday, March 16, 2009

Best Laid Plans

V. Smoothe of A Better Oakland made a proposal recently about what to do with the Coliseum area. Basically, her idea was to put in hotels, a convention center, an entertainment complex, and other large-scale development projects primarily to attract tourists and suburbanites, with an option to keep or rebuild the Coliseum. While I respect V. Smoothe's blogger game and learn a lot from her site, I couldn't disagree more with this proposal; it all sounds very retrograde. I take it back to Jane Jacobs, who pointed out that convention centers and similar developments (the popular forms of "urban renewal" in her day) have an annoying tendency of ruining the places they're purportedly rebuilding. I also think that we should try to make East Oakland a better place to live before we try to attract tourists; that seems pretty fundamental to me. I don't think many people would choose to live near Airport hotels and a conference center.

What's interesting is that East Oakland does have a few big developments or institutions meant to serve the larger Bay Area. I thought I would look at a few of those to see how they interact with their surrounding community. (Again, it's a basic assumption on my part that a big development in an urban setting should be an opportunity to make the surrounding neighborhood a better place to live, work, or hang out in.)

Mills College
Mills uses its cloak of invisibility to hide out in East Oakland. I don't even notice when I'm near it. It's barely possible to get a glimpse of the Mills campus behind the wall of trees encircling the school, the modern-day equivalent of a moat and a drawbridge.
Can you find the women's liberal arts school in this picture?

On Seminary, where the campus is just barely visible, the barbed wire fences get higher and the warning signs more prominent.
Meanwhile, what exists around Mills is shockingly ghettocious. I circled the campus, just to make sure there wasn't some hidden pocket of Millsian street life I had missed. All I saw were ghetto storefront churches, restaurants with bulletproof glass, liquor stores, and the like.
There are some nice residential neighborhoods near Mills, middle-class homes with well-tended yards. But there's nathin in the way of good retail. You'd think that with a couple thousand students and faculty there might be some glimmer of something there, but no.

I understand Mills's desire to want to pull up the drawbridge and wall itself off from the community. Mom and Dad aren't going to send young Sally off to college if it doesn't seem safe. But I think there's room for experimentation. A nice, upscale hotel could be built for visitors right at the entrance on MacArthur, a place where there's next to nothing right now. If it's successful, a restaurant could open up next door to it. In ten or fifteen years, I could picture a whole corridor opening up between Mills and the Laurel district. Fear and withdrawal could give way to interaction with the larger community.

Oakland Zoo
The zoo is located at the end of 98th Avenue, right where it becomes the hills. I have to admit that I've never actually been inside, but I've driven past it many times.

Again, as far as the surrounding neighborhood goes, not much to see here. Here's the view opposite to the zoo entrance:There's a gas station, a freeway, an overly wide intersection, and...that's about it. Not even a good place to eat lunch. Another missed opportunity, considering that 550,000 people visit the zoo every year. Between the tourists drawn to the zoo, the kids from Bishop O'dowd, the residents of the deep East Oakland flatlands and the hills folks, you'd think this intersection could bring together a diverse group of people for at least a decent hamburger stand.

The Coliseum
Well, this has already been hashed out by myself and others, but the area around the Coliseum sucks. I would describe its appearance as post-nuclear. Hegenberger, which is as wide as a freeway, has retail that runs the gamut all the way from gas stations to fast-food chains. Other nearby attractions include public storage spaces, abandoned warehouses, and RV rentals.
I don't have any kind of counterproposal to V. Smoothe's development ideas for the Coliseum site. If I had a magic wand, I would tear down the "Mount Davis" bleachers so that the Coliseum once again has a nice view of the hills. I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea of a transit village, and a better connection to the airport from BART is a no-brainer (although maybe not via spaceship, or whatever it is they're talking about building). Still, I'm more of the opinion that the Coliseum site is fool's gold in terms of its redevelopment potential. Wonky people see the transit connections and unused space and get their heartrates up, but has this area ever been a successful, thriving location? I'd be more inclined to prioritize development in other places first.

Eastmont Town Center
Eastmont Town Center is an interesting case. Because I didn't grow up here, I just assumed everybody thought of it as that place to avoid. But a google search reveals that it was once the Eastmont Mall, part of the first wave of shopping malls in America and a popular place to go for decades. (I thought I had heard something about that before, but it just didn't jibe with what I had seen.) Wikipedia says that Eastmont's downfall was due to the poverty and crime rate in the area during the 1990's. The mall went bankrupt sometime in the last decade and has been repurposed as a police station and a site for various social service agencies. I'd go on, but I've already depressed myself enough.

I think that no matter where you're from, everybody knows a mall that has suffered a similar, if less dramatic, fate. (Mine was the Buena Park Mall.) I'd like to think that because of their more dynamic range of functions, retail districts in urban settings--or "main streets," as politicians like to call them--are not as subject to the same kind of total collapse as malls. Eastmont could possibly resuscitate itself if it became less like a mall and more like a main street. By this I mean primarily greater housing density to support its use as a neighborhood shopping district, rather than as a destination for a larger area. Right now there is a show of density in the form of three-story townhouses across the street from Eastmont (shown at right), but this area is otherwise strictly single-family detached homes. A crop of new housing developments nearby or above the site might allow it to function successfully, less as a destination stop and more as an integrated part of daily life. Still, that would be a huge, risky investment just to breathe new life into a mall.

As I think the pictures show, the big developments in East Oakland tend to fall into two categories: walled-off enclaves that are nice places in and of themselves but don't add much to their neighborhood (Mills, the zoo, maybe the Coliseum), and epic failures that blight the surrounding area and themselves need to be fixed in some way (Eastmont Town Center, maybe the Coliseum). A hotel and conference center, in my opinion, would end up falling into one of those two categories. Either it would end up being a posh slice of corporate heaven surrounded by a hardcore ghetto, with out-of-towners commuting from the airport to the conference center while doing their best to avoid any interaction with the "locals," or it would become a little-used, expensive eyesore that further blights the neighborhood. My hunch is that the latter is more likely, especially after a few years have passed and Walnut Creek or wherever builds a newer, better conference center.

I don't mean to spew haterade indiscriminately here. (I'm already afraid of the comments section backlash.) What I'm arguing against is the tendency of all of us--city planners, politicians, well-meaning citizens--to want to start from scratch with Big Ideas that will fix troubled areas. I do think it's a similar mentality that gave us the projects, probably the biggest urban planning failure in this country. ("Salvation by bricks," as Jane Jacobs called it.) What I'm proposing instead is a focus on organic growth and building on what we already have. And we do already have places of value in East Oakland; Mills and the zoo like I mentioned above, and great natural features like the hills and the waterfront, but also places like International between 40th and Fruitvale, where the residents are mostly poor but there are restaurants to eat at, clubs to hang out in, taco trucks with lines of people outside them all day and night. These are the places that need our support and development dollars. Oakland and countless other cities have had way too many grand plans for renewal, and we have the scars to prove it. Now we need to let the wounds heal.


Anonymous said...

As always, an in-depth look at an Oakland neighborhood. I can tell you are a big proponent of Jane Jacobs's work.

Would it be possible to do an eco-industrial park in the Coliseum area? There are some successful European models, esp. in former industrial areas of the UK. Oakland seems to be at the forefront of the green jobs movement (and with Van Jones heading to DC the city would have a significant advocate). The Bay Area is reknowned for its creativity so am sure there would be small, medium, and large ventures that could thrive in the area.

- Georgia (

Unknown said...

Whoah, Eastmont Mall. I'm a recent (three years) transplant to E Oakland and how I wish there was a real grocery store in that mall! (I'm sorry - I really tried to like Gazzalli's and I just can't. It smells like the world's biggest bodega. In a bad way.)
All the lots facing the mall on Bancroft are the backs of fences - I've often wondered what the neighborhood was like before the mall was built.

Crimson said...

There's a big food desert in East Oakland. Not many grocery stores beyond Farmer Joe's on 35th Ave.

Georgia, I think a green industrial focus for the Coliseum area is a good idea. It would be a good way of staying current without trying to totally makeover the area.

OaklandFlavor said...

I am a born and raised in Oakland. East Oakland actually. I am pleased to hear that you are taking the time to think about the families and people who have lived here for decades rather than lining the pockets of Oakland Developers who want to make Oakland strip-mall, low-wage job heaven.

I remember shopping at Eastmont Mall for school clothes (Mervyns and JCPenny). I even remember seeing Purple Rain at the movie theater on the first floor. Thre was a big food court and a footlocker....that was before I know that Lake Merritt was a neighborhood for shopping! It was (mostly) residential in those days.

I think the best use for Eastmont now is to restore it to its original usage. It used to be a plant for GM and employed thousand of Oakland residents with good, middle class jobs. I would love to see Eastmont become the hub of workforce development for Oakland's green-jobs movement. We need development that is going to bring long term, good paying jobs to Oakland residents so that those of us who are born and raised here- can stay.

Crimson said...

Oakland Flavor, thanks for your comment. Because I didn't grow up here, I don't have a good sense of how Oakland has changed over the years, so it's good to hear stories like yours. I didn't know that Lake Merritt used to be mostly residential, although it makes sense in a way. It seems like all those apartment complexes around the lake are what gives it its strength as a site for retail, restaurants, etc.

Btw, I think that East Oakland tends to get ignored, both on the internet and in the real world. I try to correct that imbalance in my posts, but I'm glad to hear others' input also.

Unknown said...

um well if you look at the plans take away the stadium they are turning that area into mini san jose it could spark a ripple effect and turn east oakland into a major tech center i have noticed oakland is attempting to eat it cake and eat its two other friends also downtown turning into mini sf now i think they are trying to copy and paste san jose into east oakland will it work we dont know!

Ihaveabigmember said...

Why is there never anything featured about iveywood area of Oakland? I've recently discovered the area and its a true hidden gem- cheap houses with a lot of character, close to east bay parks, great access to public transport and bicycle lanes. Has all the benefits of the toney area of San leandro at a fraction of the price. Plus it's not a food desert, with existing grocery stores in close proximity and new ones on the way with the Foothill Square redevelopment. Plus lots are big and a lot of off the radar unban gardening is happening. Best of all, the area isn't overrun with hipsters. Real community.

Dani S. said...

I'd love to hear more about Iveywood too; all I know about that area is that the worst crime spot in Oakland is about two blocks south! (Based on browsing the crime maps compulsively for 4-6 months last year while looking for a house. That was one of the few spots in Oakland that not only had a ton of crime, but where almost all of it was really violent.)

Unknown said...

Wooah! I loved it. Thanks for the post. But what I love most is sally O'Dowd writing. Her poetry and especially the blog "Creativity is contagious" is literally awesome written.