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 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.
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.
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.
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.