downtown oakland
Downtown Oakland circa 1910

Category — planningcommission

Five years of the DTO

March 30, 2012

The end of March marks five years after I published my first post on this blog – about an invasion of SF-based restaurants into Oakland. The restaurants surging in Uptown, combined with the strength of Old Oakland, were kick-starting a renaissance five years ago: a renaissance which is thriving even after years of recession.

The most popular categories on this blog are: Old Oakland, the original happening hood, and where I used to live; Uptown, downtown’s showcase district; dining, which is one of the key draws to downtown and Oakland in general; and nightlife, of course. This reflects a host of exciting developments in the 160+ years of Oakland’s existence as a city.

Perhaps most significant for downtown was the reopening of the Fox, a long-cherished community dream that was enabled by Redevelopment dollars generated by private investment in Uptown. About five thousand people moved downtown during the last half-decade or so, and despite an oft-repeated myth, there are few empty condos or apartments in the downtown area (in fact, Oakland appears to be experiencing an apartment shortage that may jump-start new housing construction). With all the excitement and investment, what helped downtown improve?

Key factors in downtown’s rebirth

  • Broadway Shuttle: The Broadway Shuttle today is just great. A transit investment study, with implementation funds in the upcoming transportation sales tax hike, may provide a major new transportation link throughout greater downtown in the near future.
  • Cabaret Ordinance Reform: In 2010 a long-sought change to Oakland’s outdated Cabaret Ordinance legalized DJs at bars, clarified the rules for dance clubs, and created a late-night permit for a few establishments.
  • Pop Up Stores: Generous landlords, far-sighted city employees, and the assistance of the Downtown Business Improvement Districts have enlivened downtown with temporary and lower-cost boutiques and art galleries, from Oaklandish to Betti Ono Gallery. The trend culminated in the Pop Up Hood in Old Oakland, which may be leading that district out of recession into retail success.
  • Updated zoning: Ten years after Oakland passed a new General Plan, downtown’s zoning was updated to reduce planning headaches for developers, concentrate residential and commercial construction in appropriate areas, and ban surface parking lots as a bane to pedestrians.

Remaining challenges

  • Public safety: There are precious few beat cops downtown and the helpful Downtown Ambassadors can only do so much. Considering how light the police presence is, it’s miraculous that downtown has relatively few crimes.
  • Infrastructure: Despite almost a decade of city promises to private investors, Uptown is still marred by inadequate sidewalks and and a crumbling Telegraph Ave.
  • Capricious public policy: The Oakland City Council is famously myopic, and can swing radically from pro-growth policies as outlined in the Downtown rezoning to the development-last approach of the Lake Merritt Specific Plan. Outdated ordinances like the Amusement Fee continue to bother businesses. But Downtown will get a new City Council Member next year, and no matter who wins, we’ll see a fresh approach to downtown.

Enjoy your downtown weekend, and thanks for reading this blog, and enjoying the heart of our fair city!


Future of the Fringe

February 17, 2012

A few years ago I wrote a series of blogs asking the question, where is the DTO? I have been meaning to revisit the question after revitalization has taken firm root throughout downtown, particularly in the Uptown area. One question to be explore is, what are the boundaries of downtown? Does downtown end at Grand Ave? Is the Jack London District part of downtown? I would argue that both of those areas are part of downtown, because their high-density development patterns are linked to their integration in downtown’s transit network.

Both Jack London Square and Upper Uptown are the subject of large-scale redevelopment plans, even though Redevelopment Agencies are closed. Jack London Square has approval to build several new office buildings, and the greater Uptown area – called Broadway-Valdez after its biggest streets – is currently in the planning stages of a retail-focused revitalization effort. Two recent articles shed light on the future of these projects.

In Jack London Square, logistics software firm Navis has signed a lease for 35,000 square feet of the new Jack London Market building, bringing its office space to full capacity (its retail space currently only boasts one tenant, Daniel Patterson’s Haven restaurant). Though the relationship between office lease rates and construction costs is unfavorable to developers, the main factor driving office construction is the vacancy rate, which is now near zero for Jack London Square office space. Might we see future construction on a new office district on the waterfront? Read more at the SF Business Times.

This week’s East Bay Express included a pessimistic article about the future of the Broadway Valdez plan, which hopes to leverage residential demand to build retail spaces appropriate for anchor tenants like Macy’s. (Full disclosure: in my capacity as Board President of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, I am a signatory to a coalition letter expressing a vision for the area. I also worked for Conley Consulting Group on the feasibility study for the retail area several years ago, which you can find as the first result of this search.) While the loss of redevelopment funding is certainly a blow to the plan, there is no reason why the Specific Plan process cannot continue, as long as there is market demand to build what the City wants to see.

Unfortunately, much of the Express’s article and the discussion around it centers on the supposed opposition between large-scale retail and small business, with many Oaklanders preferring the latter. However, that is a false dichotomy – big retail businesses bring in customers and help support thriving shopping districts, in which small boutiques can find success. This is in fact how every major urban shopping district works: even posh Union Square hosts local businesses like Wilkes Bashford, M.A.C., and Arthur Beren. Conversely, there are very few examples of successful shopping districts without large anchor tenants; I can’t think of a single one (and no, Rockridge doesn’t count).

If the point of Broadway Valdez is to capture the billions of dollars that Oaklanders spend in SF and Walnut Creek, then a department store is necessary. If the goal is to foster an environment where small business can thrive, a department store is also necessary. Can this area be revitalized without redevelopment dollars? Perhaps, but it will have to be sensitive to the market, which is not Oakland’s strong suit. Stay tuned for upcoming meetings on Broadway Valdez, likely in the Spring.