–Published on OaklandNorth.net on September 13, 2011–



Dave Campbell, the program coordinator for the East Bay Bike Coalition, wants wider bike lanes, and Alisha Tran from Asian Health Services wants improved safety measures on the streets. Mark Shimamoto from the Buddhist Church of Oakland wants a community center for Madison Square Park, but Laney College student Valerie Stout would rather have more parking spaces. The demands of the community are diverse—now it’s just a matter of which improvements city officials will choose to implement first in the redevelopment of the Lake Merritt BART station neighborhood.

“It’s a question of priorities and figuring out what the most important ones are,” said Ed Manasse, the strategic planning director for the City of Oakland, who helped organize the open house for the redevelopment project on Monday evening in the Laney College Student Center. “Everyone can agree on changing Streets X, Y, and Z, but which ones do you focus on first?”

In 2009, the City of Oakland, BART and the Peralta Community College District received a grant of over $1 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments to create a plan for redeveloping the area around the Lake Merritt BART station. The project focuses on an area a half-mile across which includes many downtown neighborhoods and institutions—Chinatown, Laney and Peralta Colleges, Madison Square and Chinese Garden Parks, the Oakland Museum of California, and the Lake Merritt Estuary. The redevelopment plan would make changes to land use, buildings, design, circulation, streetscapes, the BART station, parks, and public spaces in the area.

The goal of the project, said Manasse, is not only to improve and redevelop the area as a whole, but to do so in a way that appeals to the community members and groups that use the area. “After all,” he said, “they’re going to be the ones who live, work, shop, and play in that area on a daily basis.”

Over the last two years, the City of Oakland has held a number of meetings and workshops about the proposed plan in an attempt to draw community feedback. At each event participants are given the opportunity—either through forms or discussions— to list their  concerns and priorities for change and improvement in the area. Their input is then collected, reviewed and used by the City’s Community and Economic Development Agency and the project’s consulting company, Dyett and Bhatia, to create a revised draft of the previous plan.

Manasse said that it is a slow and drawn-out process, but that he hopes it will make everyone happier with the final proposal. “There’s a lot of revising, a lot of back and forth between us and the community,” he said. “We hold a meeting, we show them our plans, we collect their feedback, and then we take it all back and revise those plans some more. Then we hold another meeting, we show them our plans, and the cycle goes on.”

Throughout the evening, over 180 people visited the open house, each with their own agenda and concerns as to what changes need to be made first. In addition to Manasse, staffers from the city’s planning department and the project designers from Dyett and Bhatia were available to speak with visitors and explain the graphics and maps that were on display. Over 30 posters with graphics, maps, photographs, and conceptualized drawings were on exhibit with text translations in both Chinese and Vietnamese. Attendees were given feedback forms to write down their thoughts and opinions about the current changes being proposed.

While the focus of the previous workshops and meetings have been more general, the focus of Monday’s open house presentation was more narrow in scope, Manasse said. “For instance, we already knew from past meetings that the public wants one-way streets to be turned into two-way streets. Now we just have to figure it all out and decide on which streets to focus on first,” he said.

The main area of focus on Monday night centered around transportation. Many attendees had issues with the plan’s current proposal to replace the BART station parking lot on 9th Street and Fallon Street with a multi-use commercial and retail building. They also disagreed about the number of bicycle lanes that should be added to the area, especially in the Chinatown district.

“If we want to be known as ‘the better than nothing’ city, this is great,” said attendee and member of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition Dave Campbell, who feels that the current plan has too many shared lanes for bicycles and cars (called sharrows) and too few lanes designated specifically for bicycles. “But I’d rather have more bike lanes.”

Another debated topic was how to restructure 10th Street going through Chinatown. The street is currently a one-way avenue, which slows down much of the traffic that travels through the Chinatown area to get to the rest of downtown. The street is already slated to be changed into a two-lane avenue, but the planning team wanted the public’s input on other potential features that could be added to the street, such as bicycle lanes and wider sidewalks.

“The reality is that the community wants to see change, but we don’t know what steps to take first,” said Joel Ramos, a community member on the planning commission for the project.  “This workshop and the previous meetings are an attempt to see where the community stands and if we’re going in the right direction.”

Other proposals, such as sparing Madison Square Park from development and installing security cameras and better lighting on street corners met with more widespread support amongst attendees. “There are a lot of safety concens around here and people don’t like to walk around at night,” said Ramos. “If there was more activity and use of the area, then it would be a lot more safe.”

By the close of the open house event, a couple dozen attendees were still perusing the presentations on display, eager to soak in every last detail about the proposed changes to their neighborhood.   The drafting of the plan still has a long ways to go, but the city aims to create a final draft by December of 2012. “It’s taking some time,” said Manasse, “but if we all work together now, the hope is that, in the end, we will come up with a final proposal that everyone will support.”