Oakland Changing: Planning Director Gives Perspective to the Present

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Once upon a time, before the automobile and the bus became dominant in urban transportation, most American cities had robust streetcar systems that were dependable, comfortable to ride, and took people where they wanted to go.

Often founded by development and business interests, the early streetcar routes spawned new housing and commercial districts. Operating at speeds that did not overly threaten pedestrians or disrupt the sociability of folks on the sidewalks, streetcars were more a part of the environment than an imposition.

"Then," said Rachel Flynn, director of Oakland's planning and building department, "the car screwed us up. A great invention in many ways but it wreaked havoc on our cities."

Speaking to an audience of more than 70 people at June's RCPC Town Hall, Flynn went on to review the founding of Oakland and its initial grid design, typical of cities of the time. She spoke glowingly of the network of parks spread across the then-new city, each about a quarter of a mile of comfortable walking distance apart.

"Pedestrians had about as much right to the streets as the streetcars did," she explained. Cars changed that. In time, pedestrians were relegated to the sides of streets and able to cross only at designated points. Still later, she continued, cities across the country replaced their streetcars with fleets of buses. "There went the people from the urban centers," and there began a decline in urban retail business.

Now wanting to bring people - shoppers - back to urban areas, planners are turning to the past, Flynn said. The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line slated to operate on International Boulevard will be "getting back what we pulled up with the streetcars." Oakland's planners, she reported, are also considering more free shuttle buses like the Free B now operating in Downtown Oakland and Chinatown. Bicycles are making a comeback, and Oakland has dedicated miles of streets where cyclists and motorists share roadway space. "We are getting back to shared streets where pedestrians are now at least equal partners" with other users. Pedestrians and cyclists know when they are wanted, by the types of spaces a city provides, she explained.

"Transportation is critical to planning," she pointed out, so her department is focusing on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) that would concentrate more housing near BART stations, a neglected opportunity to date, she thinks.

Currently, there are five such projects: Estuary, Broadway-Valdez, West Oakland, Coliseum City and Lake Merritt-Chinatown. [Details: http://www2.oaklandnet.com/Government/o/PBN/OurOrganization/PlanningZoning/index.htm]. With generous housing components, Flynn expects them to attract retail business. "Retail follows roof tops," she declared, and said that many parts of Oakland, including Rockridge, could handle higher housing densities. "We don't want to displace," she emphasized; "we want things to grow."

And grow they will, apparently. "A lot of people say nothing is happening in Oakland, but we have 1,000 units under construction representing $35M in investments; $3M in commercial development; 7,500 units in the pipeline along with 4M square feet of office and retail." At the completion of all this, she said, smiling, "We'll plant 1,000 oak trees."