Berkeley/Oakland Reflections: Downtown

12 Apr

I spent the day in downtown Berkeley today, and it really got me thinking about the hurdles downtown Oakland has to overcome before it becomes a more vibrant and contiguous neighborhood.

Though there’s plenty I don’t like about Berkeley, downtown Berkeley has transformed into a bustling area, filled with people and plenty to do. Today, I got my haircut, picked up a prescription, grabbed some raw food to eat in the park, perused herbs and plants at the farmers market and bought some kiwis on my way out, browsed through DVDs, tried to find my way around the new Cody’s, and finally snagged a cold, caffeinated drink. There were dozens of people on every block, walking, talking, sitting on benches, and there were two separate jazz bands entertaining the crowds.

Somehow, I’m guessing my day would not have been quite so lively or varied if I had been walking through downtown Oakland.

So on my way home, I tried to figure out what it is that downtown Berkeley has that the DTO doesn’t. And ultimately I realized that the DTO has no main artery. Sure, there are some vibrant sub-neighborhoods (Old Oakland, Chinatown) and ones that are on their way (SOBO, Uptown), but to me they all feel somewhat disconnected.

You might wonder, aren’t they all connected by Broadway? Well, sure, physically, Broadway runs through nearly all of the neighborhoods in the DTO and a good portion of AC Transit lines run down or cross Broadway at some point. Driving down Broadway is pretty simple, but people driving doesn’t make for a vibrant neighborhood (or good business). It’s easy to ride the bus or BART to the DTO, but riding the bus within the DTO from neighborhood to neighborhood rarely makes sense. Walking seems to be a great way to get around, but when I do this, I tend to walk from destination to destination, without lingering in between. I think a reason for this is that Broadway (and many other main streets in the DTO) lacks the critical mass of shopping, restaurants and services to entice one to linger, walking slowly down the street and deciding on a whim to stop in somewhere.

In stark comparison, downtown Berkeley is connected by the main arteries of Shattuck and University. Shattuck takes you all the way through downtown, up into the Gourmet Ghetto in north Berkeley and down to at Dwight Way into south Berkeley. Throughout this area it is filled with places to visit, and, naturally, tons of people. University is not filled in so densely, but it’s not too difficult to walk from UC Berkeley all the way to west Berkeley without getting bored.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m well aware of the parts of Broadway that are vibrant (just north of Jack London, the City Center, and hopefully soon, Uptown), but again, there’s no continuity. Besides that, even in those areas that have more businesses, many of these areas shut down on the weekends and in the evening. A couple weeks ago, after eating dinner at Ichiro in downtown, I tried to go to the Walgreens (at 8:30pm) and was frustrated to find out that it was closed. If even a large, chain store shuts down so early, how can the neighborhood remain vibrant (or even just safe to walk in) in the evening?

I do think that things are generally getting better in the DTO. The new condo and apartment buildings that are being built retail space included on the ground floor, plans are being made for further density in at least certain parts of the DTO (though this plan needs to be improved, and hopefully will), and the Fox Theater reopening in a year or two will hopefully serve as a complementary anchor to the expanding arts district.

I also realize that the DTO will never be the same as downtown Berkeley, nor would I want it to be. Downtown Berkeley is right next to UC Berkeley, so there’s a built in amount of foot traffic and tourism. Berkeley’s also much geographically smaller than Oakland so it’s downtown is more easily accessible to other neighborhoods.

Still, I do look forward to a time when I want to spend a day or evening wandering through the DTO and am able to do so without getting bored or feeling unsafe.

5 Responses to “Berkeley/Oakland Reflections: Downtown”

  1. Steve R. April 15, 2008 at 9:25 am #

    The City has plans for streetscaping along Broadway and Telegraph that include widening sidewalks, planting more trees, and providing more “furniture,” but the project is currently stalled, like so many plans the city has. But if the project is ever completed it’ll make Broadway more inviting and may attract more retail.

  2. Felix April 19, 2008 at 9:36 pm #

    The new condos haven’t led to more pedestrian traffic. Downtown Oakland is as dead after dark as ever. The idea that more condos will bring vibrancy downtown just doesn’t seem born out by evidence. As far as I can tell most condo dwellers are still going into the City for entertainment or to Berkeley for food, movies, and music. One argument for strengthening affordable housing downtown is that people who are originally from Oakland are more likely to stick around and use Oakland services and frequent Oakland businesses instead of driving over the bridge every Saturday night.

  3. Becks April 20, 2008 at 11:08 am #

    Felix – I certainly don’t think that new condos alone will attract pedestrian traffic. As I explained above, I think the key to walkability is dense retail – stores, services, restaurants.

    About your point of condo dwellers in downtown going to Berkeley or SF for entertainment and leisure, there are some problems with your argument. First, many of the new condos in downtown are not full with people yet (part of this has to do with pricing, for sure). Second, until downtown Oakland becomes more vibrant, how can we expect residents to meet all of their needs in downwtown? Third, I think it’s actually desirable for Oakland residents to stray into SF and Berkeley sometimes (and for SF and Berkeley residents to come to Oakland).

    Also, where are you getting these statistics from? Many Oaklanders I know stay in Oakland for much of their entertainment and shopping (of course, I wouldn’t assume this is the case for most but statistics here would be useful). Also, why do you think that most of the condo dwellers are not originally from Oakland? If this is the case, I’d love to see the statistics on it.

  4. Felix April 20, 2008 at 12:51 pm #

    Hey Becks –

    I don’t have any stats. Not pretending to. I’m going on my observations. I go downtown to eat and shop and for community events, and my non-scientific sampling tells me that there’s no more foot traffic than there used to be. Chinatown is of course very vibrant and alive. Its a destination at least during the day. And Jack London attracts people as much as ever. But other than that I don’t see people out and about downtown.

    The vacancy rate you mention – which I also have no stats on but seems pretty obvious – is another thing that makes me crazy about the new condos going up. It makes no sense to build more if the ones we have aren’t full!

    The whole downtown development effort has a really long history in Oakland. Have you read No There There by Chris Rhomberg? He talks about the effort to concentrate development downtown in the post-war years and the frustration that East Oakland residents felt about it at the time.

    As for straying out of downtown, it would be fine for people to stray if there was an equal balance of Berkelites and San Franciscans visiting Oakland. It doesn’t happen that way Oakland money travels out of the central area into out-of-town developer’s pockets and into the businesses based outside of the city. This leads to a cycle where there isn’t enough city revenue to develop services downtown that would help people feel safer downtown.

    You’re right. I have no numbers on where condo people come from. It would be a great survey to find out where folks moved from and where they actually spend their money and time.

  5. Becks April 20, 2008 at 1:07 pm #

    Felix – I think that Old Oakland also is vibrant, and Uptown is becoming more so (more slowly than I would like, but it’s progressing).

    I haven’t read the book you mention and I’ll have to check it out, but I am fairly familiar with the development history of Oakland. I think it’s extremely wise to concentrate housing in downtown and other transit friendly areas – one day, cars aren’t going to be as widely used as they are now so we need to build accordingly.

    I think that while not many SF and Berkeley resident spend money in downtown, I sense that this crossover is increasing. Also, I think outsiders are spending their money in other parts of Oakland, particularly in north Oakland and Jack London Square. I still think this could improve, but I don’t have such a bleak picture of the situation as you do.

    I think it would be great for a study to be done on both where condo residents originate from. The other thing to keep in mind though is where the condo dwellers currently work. Regardless of where they came from, if they work in Oakland, I think it’s extremely positive for them to live here, both in terms of environmentalism and community building. Also, I think it’s great that more and more people are coming to Oakland from other areas, but I do agree that it’s important to build for current Oakland residents as well.

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