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The East Bay Development Ballet

by Christopher Kidd

Preparations are being made in Oakland and Berkeley to capture the next wave of development. Across from San Francisco, the cities on the "sunny side of the bay" are in the midst of a series of planning efforts to promote sustainable development and improve transit options. Some efforts are complete, some are in process, while others are just getting started. Taken cumulatively, they could significantly change the fabric of these cities' urban cores. But the results--so far--have been decidedly mixed.

Building new development near transit in the Bay Area will become ever more important in the decades to come. One Bay Area, the regional planning effort launched by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), is designating Priority Development Areas (PDAs) where they hope to concentrate future growth. While the dictates of the One Bay Area plan are non-binding, cities will need to play by the rules if they hope to be eligible for future transportation funding.

Rendering courtesy of Oakland CEDA via SFist
Just after the housing bubble first burst, a planner I knew at the City of Oakland expressed an odd-seeming sentiment to me: he was relieved. Throughout the years of the bubble, planning departments were so overwhelmed with permitting and entitlements that long-range projects were, by necessity, put on the shelf. Since development had ground to a virtual halt at the time I spoke with him, he expressed hope that the City might finally be able to tackle all of the planning they had been forced to neglect.

More than four years later, things haven't turned out exactly as he envisioned. The recovery has lagged, going in fits and starts; and the dismantling of redevelopment agencies took many planners by surprise, robbing cities of tools they had relied on for over half a century to stimulate economic development. But in one way, he was absolutely right: cities were freed up to lay the planning groundwork that will guide development for decades to come.

In the City of Oakland, the name of the game is Transit Oriented Development. In 2009, Oakland embarked upon an update of its residential commercial zoning code (which, embarrasingly, had 1960s planning language so archaic that it was no longer within the modern planner's lexicon), finally completing and adopting it in 2011. The update focused growth along the many transit corridors of the City, ensuring that new residents would have the ability to live car-free, while leaving the residential (and less transit-accessible) areas of the city unchanged. Even so, the City went through a series of downzonings in these transit corridors to satisfy the Chicken Little prophesying of anti-growth groups.

Subsequent projects in Oakland have focused on the under-utilized and transit-rich areas of the City. The MacArthur BART transit village has finally broken ground and will transform a massive surface parking lot into a vibrant mix of housing and commercial uses served by mass transit. But…the first stage of this project, disappointingly, is the construction of a multi-story parking structure to replace the auto spaces in the surface parking lot. BART, it seems, still has a ways to go.

Photo by Spiral-A photography, courtesy of The Monthly
Another project central to a BART station in Oakland is the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan. The area surrounding the station is today full of surface parking lots, narrow sidewalks, and 50's style one-way 4-lane arterials. The plan, currently preparing for environmental review, envisions converting streets to human-scale 2-way boulevards, with active street fronts, and replacing empty asphalt with 24-hour communities of housing, business, community services, and lively restaurants. The centerpiece of the plan is an intense series of developments surrounding the station--though many details of the plan are being contested by residents of Chinatown, which partially lies in the western edges of the plan area.

The Broadway Valdez Specific Plan, currently in the works, is located just beyond the new (and wildly successful) Uptown district of downtown Oakland. The plan area lies adjacent to another of the city's BART stations, and envisions transforming the moribund Broadway Auto Row into a vibrant mixed-use retail district. This plan has also seen its problems. We are now seeing the second iteration of the Broadway Valdez Plan, as the first was sent back to the drawing board by the public in large part because of the plan's projected parking requirements--verging on the level of the most suburban of malls.

Image courtesy of Derek Remsberg, Daily Californian
The City of Berkeley is also attempting to embark upon an intensifying of uses in their downtown. Blessed by a BART station and plentiful bus service, downtown Berkeley is another under-utilized, transit-rich area with high vacancy rates. The recently adopted Downtown Area Plan will allow a significant increase in density and intensity of use in downtown Berkeley as a way to bring this somnolent district to life. The plan balances increased density with green building requirements, provision of open space for residents and visitors, and a package of community benefits developers must provide as a condition for project approval. Paradoxically, the most vocal opponents of the downtown area plan have draped themselves in the flag of environmentalism. It was truly a clash between old-school environmentalists and the "fourth wave of planning." While advocates for the plan saw increasing the density in this transit-accessible location as the apogee of environmental responsibility regionally, the old guard decried the local environmental effects of increased car traffic, shadow effects from tall buildings, and the degradation of pre-existing community character.

This old guard/new guard conflict was never more in view than in the fight over Bus Rapid Transit in Berkeley. Originally, the East Bay's first BRT line was meant to travel across three cities from the San Leandro BART station and through Oakland, ending at the UC Berkeley campus. The majority of the BRT line would run in dedicated lanes, bringing improvements in travel time and bus schedule reliability, and making bus ridership more competitive with driving.

Image courtesy of TransForm

Berkeley's old guard, however, sprang into action opposing the program, claiming that loss of street parking and increased congestion would ruin the Berkeley neighborhoods which the BRT line would run through. Berkeley's political leadership bowed to the protest and opted out of the BRT project. The line has subsequently shrunk back from the Berkeley border all the way to downtown Oakland. The anti-BRT zeal in Berkeley overflowed into ballot measure KK, which would have forced a city-wide referendum any time the City wanted to reduce the number of vehicle lanes on any street in the City. Thankfully, this anti-transit measure was defeated at the polls. It still casts a long shadow over transit issues in the East Bay, however, and BRT is still not out of the woods yet.

Despite some setbacks, observers should make no mistake about it: the future of growth in the Bay Area will be in the urban cores. How well we plan for that growth will determine the success of our cities for decades to come. So far, the scorecard is mixed for how the East Bay is preparing to meet its future.

Christopher Kidd works as a planner for Alta Planning + Design, Inc.. Christopher previously worked for the Los Angeles Deepartment of Transportation Bike Program where he, among other projects, created their award-winning social media strategy, founded the LADOT Bike Blog, and co-managed the media campaign for the nation's first Bicyclist Anti-Harassment Ordinance. He currently resides in Oakland, California.