Longtime readers of this blog (or just about any Oakland blog) will remember that a year and a half ago a bunch of activists, including many bloggers and blog readers, joined together to prevent Oakland’s Redevelopment Agency from building a parking lot in Uptown Oakland next to the Fox Theater.
Don’t remember that? Well that’s ok because I recently wrote about it in a 500 word essay for an application to a program I’m applying to be in (excuse the focus on me – it was the nature of this essay assignment):
In March 2009, an issue came before the Oakland City Council that inspired me to organize Oakland residents and community leaders to work together to make change. The City had leased a large parcel in Uptown Oakland to a developer and most of it had been turned into apartments and a park. Part of the parcel that had been slated to become a condominium complex sat empty because the housing market had tanked and the developer asked the City for a two year continuance on its permit. As a condition of the continuance, the Redevelopment Agency asked the developer to contribute funding to build a temporary parking lot to fill the space.
I opposed this proposal because the parking lot was proposed for the heart of Uptown, an area of Oakland that had recently become vibrant after being nearly empty for decades. Part of what made this area so vibrant was its walkability, and adding another parking lot with dangerous curb cuts would have endangered that.
Together with three other Oakland residents – a motley crew of smart growth advocates and historic preservationists – I attended a committee meeting to speak against the parking lot and urged the committee members to consider other uses that would be more pedestrian and eco friendly.
The committee members listened and directed redevelopment staff to return with alternative proposals. We knew that staff were pushing hard for this parking lot and were unlikely to return with serious alternatives so I wrote a blog post about the situation and asked for readers to chime in with their ideas for the empty lot.
In nearly 50 blog comments, Oaklanders shared their ideas for the lot, including a solar panel array, community garden, soccer field, mini-golf course and large scale Burning Man art. I and other Oakland bloggers posted action alerts urging Oaklanders to email committee members and to attend the next committee meeting. Dozens of people sent emails and nine of us testified at the meeting (in the middle of a workday).
Staff stated at the meeting that there was no alternative to the parking lot, and the committee members listened. They unanimously approved the parking lot and put the item on the agenda for the next Council meeting (just one week away).
I and a few other bloggers wrote action alerts. A resident inspired by our blog posts wrote an op-ed in the Oakland Tribune. I and a colleague urged councilmembers to consider using the lot to display large-scale Burning Man sculptures. My colleague talked to the Oakland Arts Department and I contacted a Burning Man artist to discuss logistics and to ask him to come to the Council meeting.
More than a dozen Oaklanders turned out to speak – several of whom had never spoken at a Council meeting before. Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente carried our proposal and the Council voted unanimously to direct staff to pursue it and not to build the parking lot. City staff fought this directive for months so the sculpture garden was never built. However, the parking lot was also never built and the fence around the lot is now used to display beautiful murals by local artists.
Well as of yesterday, the end of the story has changed.
The City of Oakland has secured a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to make our dreams come true! From the NEA website, the Cultural Arts Division:
plans the creation of the Uptown Arts District Park, a historic and re-emerging arts and entertainment district. Development of the park will transform an unused vacant lot into an outdoor cultural space for at least four years. The park will include rotating temporary exhibitions of public sculpture, newly commissioned public art projects, and an amphitheater for events by arts and community organizations. The park will complement the Fox Oakland Theater, the Oakland School for the Arts, and new restaurants and nightclubs, all within two blocks of the proposed park site. The division is partnering with Black Rock Arts Foundation to exhibit works of public art, many by Oakland artists. The park is expected to become the core of the downtown arts scene.
So yeah, we’re getting art, and not just a lot with art that is fenced off, but a gathering space too!
I could not be more excited about this. Many of us worked for months to make this happen, and I’m so proud of what we accomplished. Instead of a parking lot with dangerous curb cuts that blights this vibrant neighborhood, we’re getting a huge space filled with art that will attract even more people to the arts center of Oakland.
Thanks to everyone who helped make this happen – especially to dto510, Naomi Schiff, and Joyce Roy, who joined me at that first committee meeting when few thought we had a chance at winning. And thanks to the City’s Cultural Arts staff for pursuing this grant.
I look forward to the day when instead of looking at that empty lot, we’ll be standing in the middle of something like this:
OK, well, that minus the dust and with buildings instead of mountains in the background, but you get the picture. See you on the playa… I mean in Uptown.
Previous posts on the Uptown surface parking lot saga: