Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On the Waterfront

I went to the second community meeting for the Estuary plan a couple of weeks ago. I saw some other bloggers there, but I think that nobody's really written about it because it was just kind of meh. The planners, especially Eric Angstadt of CEDA, really seemed to have their shit together. A woman gave a great presentation connecting planning issues such as pollution and walkability to public health issues such as obesity and asthma. And there were many thoughtful comments by people in the audience. But the Truth to Power crowd would not be deterred. You know, the ones who, no matter how asinine their ideas, think that they are the lone voice of reason against the monolith of money and politics. Some of the noble causes put forth by these brave citizens were complaints about the railroad line that has been there longer than virtually all of the area's residents, and the lack of sufficient parking for new residential developments. One nut in particular stole the show with his rants. "I know who you are now," he said to noone in particular. "You're the people who wanted to clearcut the trees around Lake Merritt." He brought that up three or four times, until Eric Angstadt had to walk back there and get all serious with him. If he had decked the guy I would have stood up and cheered. I'm wondering if these community forums aren't really just a setting for really bad theater, a la "Waiting for Guffman." It's times like these that I just thank God I don't live in Berkeley.

Anyways, afterward I realized that I still didn't have a good handle on what the Estuary area was really like, so I biked through and took some pictures last week. And I have to say that I get it now. I get why it appeals to people and why they don't want it to change. I get the aesthetic appeal of the area. The mix of heavy industry and artist lofts makes sense to me now, and I get why people would want to preserve that feel.

The fact that these streets are so geared towards industry gives them a unique look that draws artists. I find it interesting that a lot of basic rules of good planning are broken, with some counterintuitive results. Sidewalks and bike lanes--"complete streets"--are a basic tenet of the new urbanist philosophy, but these streets have neither, and somehow seem even cooler for it.

Try getting a street like this built nowadays.

Because it's an industrial area, there is very little traffic from passenger cars. So even though some of these streets lack any amenities for walking and biking, they feel safer than a place like downtown Oakland. The comment from a resident that I mentioned last time--"there are so many things to do here, despite it looking like a wasteland"--makes much more sense to me now. That guy meant wasteland in the sense of a removed, aging-industrial, low-rent district, not wasteland in the sense of a hellhole.

I was also impressed with the true mixed-use nature of some of these streets. A lot of lip service is given to the concept of mixed use nowadays, but how often do you see an auto body shop next to single-family detached homes? The residential and industrial uses really are cheek by jowl, and it seems to work. (I would put a picture of that here, but I didn't get a good one, so just picture it in your mind.)

It was also a surprise to me how quiet parts of the Estuary seemed, even with the industrial uses and proximity to the freeway. I see why people would groan at the thought of a bunch of condos going up and newcomers flooding in. It's not like all this space is going to waste, it's just that the uses don't result in a dense population.

One insightful comment at the meeting was from somebody who pointed out that the Estuary is really a collection of different neighborhoods, and that's true. There are parts of the Estuary that suck, and those are the parts I had had in mind during the meetings--weed-choked vacant lots, streets used more for dumping than anything else. But other people were picturing old brick buildings and artist enclaves and boats docked on the waterfront. It was like that old story about the three blind men patting different parts of the elephant.

I guess this would be the trunk?

So unless I'm missing some pockets of coolness, the area from 19th Ave to Fruitvale is the good part. Between Fruitvale and 50th it gets noisier and dirtier.

There are also some new(ish) developments within the area that range from fair to poor. This condo complex is ok, if blandly similar to seemingly every new condo complex in the Bay Area. Worse is the office park below.
Walnut Creek, anyone?

I've focused on the aesthetics and visual aspect of the area because I still have a lot to learn about the deeper issues of land use and development. I've been filled in somewhat on the whole Carlos Plazola controversy. (If you're too lazy to click through, the charge is that he bought property and then asked his boss, one Ignacio de la Fuente, to get the land rezoned so he could reap a windfall profit by building condos.) It seems like with all of this stuff there's always far more backstory than I'll ever even realize. But I do think that aesthetics can help guide judgment on these matters. Just looking at the streets can tell us a lot about what's worth preserving and what should be scrapped. I agree with McBain that the estuary could grow well if it had more "incubator space" for microbusinesses, along with more live/work lofts and other nontraditional forms of housing. I don't think this place needs an explosion of housing or retail to be a productive and vital area that serves the rest of Oakland well.

Anyways, in lieu of any kind of grand point, I thought I'd pose a few questions to whoever still reads my slow-posting ass. First of all, why do so many city-planned parts of Oakland come out looking like this:

That is, why does Oakland build so many landscaped places that look pretty but are functionally useless? This stretch of waterfront near High Street belongs in a class with Middle Harbor Shoreline Park and Jack London Square. Clearly a lot of money was spent installing these benches and rocks and grasses, but nobody goes here. It sits there in the noisy, ugly part of the Estuary like lipstick on a pig. Yes, that's a public storage facility across the street.

Anyways, why does this mistake seem to get repeated over and over in Oakland? Everywhere I go, there always seems to be some kind of fancy new public showpiece looking sterile and underused. Is there some kind of long-term logic that I'm missing, or is this just a case of the best intentions going awry? Somebody please fill me in.

The second question is slightly less rhetorical. A friend of mine told me about Numi Tea (located along the Estuary), and how they want to expand into a nearby building, which would provide jobs and grow a cool Oakland business and basically be good for everybody.

However, the landlord of the property doesn't want to rent the site out to them, because he's hoping the land will be rezoned as residential, which would generate more income for him than an industrial tenant would. So, assuming this story is true, what should the city do in a situation like this? I mean, I could go all libertarian and ask why we even bother with zoning. Shouldn't questions of what gets built where just be determined by market demand? If people are willing to pay more for housing than for industry, what's wrong with building housing? Isn't more new housing in Oakland a good thing? Why should we be trying so hard to hold onto these industries, to the point where we're effectively subsidizing them?

On the other hand, what if the larger needs of the community are being eroded because of the shortsighted interests of a few landowners and developers? What if by putting up a bunch of new condo units, developers are destroying the very thing that makes this community unique? And doesn't Oakland needs things like heavy industry and blue-collar jobs in order to be a balanced, healthy city?

So please, leave your thoughts and school me.


V Smoothe said...

Sure, a city should have space for industry. The question is how do you locate that space appropriately. Oakland's waterfront could be an amazing asset, yet few of our residents even realize it exists because the decision to concentrate industry along it has for years cut off citizen access to what should be a citywide treasure. So the real question is - do we want this to remain the case forever, so we can preserve the feel of the area for the few who get to enjoy it? Or do we want to re-think the way we treat this area and craft future development in a way that everyone gets to enjoy it?

dbackman said...

Art, crafts and design can effectively become the industry of this area. This process has already begun, with the artist pioneers sewing the seeds of gentrification. I have been fascinated with this phenomenon since high school, when I worked as an artist in the Fort Point Channel district of Boston. Its a similar, though more densely built and historical post-industrial area that is the next frontier for development in Boston. At times the Sox even talked about putting the ballpark there. The area looks great now and has a bright future, but a lot of the artists are gone, replaced by $1,000,00 condos. A now it looks pretty cool, but is really not that interesting. You know the story, its happened in virtually every major city in this country.
Anyways, now as a architectural designer I am drawn to these sort of spaces more than anywhere in the city. I would love to get my hands on some of those industrial spaces along the Estuary and transform them into something new and exciting. But I think the best thing for them to be transformed into is more studios & galleries, workshops & ateliers. Places for making stuff,exhibiting it and selling it. There are so many creative folks, not just in this district, but in the whole city. And there is money to be made stuff. This area has and will continue to attract the so-called creative class no matter what happens in this planning process. But it is important that the Estuary actually remains a site of creative production a not just another neighborhood with a creative vibe.

Anonymous said...

I went on a bike tour that ended in the Estuary and at Numi for tea specifically. I felt comfortable biking through the neighborhood(s). Also, I appreciated the real mixed use nature of the area as well as proximity to the water (the park/ open space you featured was peopled when we rode by on the tour).

As for Numi or similar use - great. The company re-used a building fronted by 980 (loud, polluting) and turned it into a thriving tea house as well as gathering spot.


East of Alameda said...

I think the reason those old streets without any sidewalks work is because, with the absence of sidewalks, the whole street becomes a shared space. Drivers know it and act accordingly. Much more dangerous would be a too-skinny strip of sidewalk with lots of curb cuts and no on-street parking to buffer pedestrians from moving vehicles. Also, the no-sidewalk streets are in pretty bad shape. This means cars have to go a lot slower and pay more attention to what's going on.

Crimson said...

V., what do you propose gets built there? I agree that more public access to the waterfront is a good thing. (That public storage facility facing the water really has to go.) Like I said, I think the area could grow successfully with microbusinesses, live-work lofts, etc. I'm more wary now of a sudden flood of new housing developments, because it seems like that would actually devalue the area by making it more like everywhere else. If I were designing the estuary from scratch, I'm sure I would come up with something radically different, but I think we have to try to build on what's already there.

dbackman said...

The great thing about these post-industrial neighborhoods is that they don't require a lot of new construction in order to be intensely developed. While a lot of the old warehouses are in rough shape, they were built in a better era, when things were built to last and given strong architectural qualities despite their functional uses. While some infill and demolition will be necessary, the structures that remain have the potential for conversion to a variety of functions from residential, to live/work, office and light-industrial. I do think some new residential development could help kick-start the process, but hopefully we will not be seeing the same airport hotel looking condo blocks that now infest downtown.