Bedtime for Buick: What’s next for Auto Row?

July 9, 2009

One of the key questions at the May visioning meeting that kicked off the Auto Row planning process was this: what street or neighborhood can you name elsewhere in the world that captures your vision for Auto Row? Answers were all over the board. Walnut Creek, Union Square, and Bay Street popped up frequently because of their proximity (or at least I hope that’s why—because ugh, ugh, ugh to all three of those for the center of Oakland!) My personal favorite came from one of the tables of seniors from the Westlake Christian Terrace residence on 28th Street: they wanted it to be “just like [San Francisco’s] Union Square, except with Costco.” People also drew examples from across the country, though (and even a few from other parts of the world). I threw a few into the mix, but kept mulling over it after I left the meeting.

This part of the workshop exercise was near the end of the evening and our facilitator was clearly pressed for time, because we glossed over what was arguably the most critical part of it: why are these neighborhoods good models? Which components should be woven together to create a new model that will be a good fit for Oakland? Here’s what I ultimately came up with, at least for now. (It’s worth noting that my city-dwelling experiences are limited to a half dozen cities, though I know of many more through my work; even so, I’m sure there are lots of terrific examples in areas I’m not familiar with, and I’d love to hear about them.)

Uptown District in Minneapolis, MN: This is currently my top pick as an Auto Row model, and I’m really frustrated that I didn’t think of suggesting it at the meeting itself, since I actually used to live in this neighborhood! It came to mind for several reasons: first, the City of Minneapolis pretty proactively developed this area in the wake of a lot of 1970s/1980s disinvestment, and it includes a number of national retailers like the ones that the City of Oakland seems to desperately want along Broadway. It’s also got a thread of artist and hipster culture, and a number of residents at the first public meeting voiced interest in making Auto Row an extension of Oakland’s arts district, currently centered in (Oakland’s) Uptown. The Minneapolis Uptown District has a critical mass of restaurants and other nightlife, so it doesn’t close down at 6 pm—a major concern I have, given that Auto Row is not only a regional retail corridor, but also my neighborhood’s “Main Street.” The Uptown District is also situated a few blocks from a lake along a major transit corridor—sound familiar? And finally, Minneapolis’ Uptown manages to marry chain retail with local indie businesses in a fairly healthy way (as those things go, at least), which I think will be critical if Oakland sticks to its guns on wanting destination retail along Auto Row. For more information, visit the Uptown Association or Our Uptown or check out the City of Minneapolis’ 2008 Small Area Plan for Uptown.

Uptown, Minneapolis, MN

Calhoun Square in Uptown, Minneapolis, MN (not the greatest photo to represent the neighborhood as a whole, but I'm not finding too many good ones to use!)

(Okay, heres a better one from iheartuptownmpls.com---Ill keep looking though!)

(Okay, here's a better one from iheartuptownmpls.com---I'll keep looking though!)

Coolidge Corner in Brookline, MA (just outside of Boston proper): A dense urban neighborhood with a trolley/light rail line running along the center median. Shops with residences above line the street on both sides; there are two lanes of traffic in either direction with ample sidewalks. Cars and trolleys coexist surprisingly well, perhaps because the streetcar line has been there for a century and people are used to its presence. While the area is relatively densely developed—lots are small and buildings frequently run lot line to lot line—buildings are not particularly high. (Currently the by-right height limit is 45 feet, and I’d guess most buildings are somewhere between three and six storeys.) While I generally lean towards the higher end of the height spectrum along central transit corridors, Auto Row may be a good opportunity for low-to-mid-rise development given the number of low-rise historic buildings that I’d like to see preserved (though perhaps built onto, if structural integrity allows?) in some way or another. I’d ideally like to see height scale up as you move west into Pill Hill and scale down as you move into the low-rise residential neighborhoods to the east. The one big problem with using this area as a model, though, is that it’s essentially always had this form—there’s been little to no transition of use involved. For more on this neighborhood, you can check out the City of Brookline’s 2007 Coolidge Corner District Plan. A caveat: I used to live here too, so I’m obviously a bit biased on both of these choices! On the flip side, though, some of the things I loved about Coolidge Corner and “the Wedge” (the little slice of Uptown Minneapolis where I lived) are the same things that drew me to Oakland’s Auto Row neighborhood, so maybe it’s not such a funny thing at all.

Coolidge Corner, Brookline, MA

Coolidge Corner, Brookline, MA (also not the greatest shot---why doesn't anyone post photos of urban streetscapes and trolleys?!?)

What other urban neighborhoods are out there that might be compelling templates for Auto Row?



  1. Sounds similar to my experience at the Estuary planning meetings.

    I’m a bit unclear as to why Oakland is so dead-set on bringing big-box retail to Auto Row. Is it because the auto buildings are big boxes? Are we just trying to get in on some of Emeryville’s action? It seems counterproductive to cannibalize the business of the city next door.

  2. Estimates are that up to $10M in sales tax are lost by Oakland to the surrounding cities, and up to 10,000 jobs could be created in Oakland with better retail opportunities.

  3. Thanks—yes,the retail bleeding (documented in the ’07 Conley Report, which is well worth a read!) is especially dramatic—recapturing only a fraction of that brings a great deal back to the city. The only piece of this that concerns me is competing for Emeryville retail dollars, as Crimson notes. Emeryville is only a couple of miles from Auto Row—we bike there!—and broadly speaking, revenue (and retail) for Emeryville benefits West Oakland and Golden Gate, too. I’m much more comfortable going head-to-head with, say, San Francisco or Walnut Creek to pick up those dollars.

    The rationale behind considering big box here is that Auto Row is one of the only areas of the city that has large vacant lots with single owners—but this doesn’t necessarily make it the appropriate use. I’d much prefer finer grained retail uses, and am also concerned about whether there really is a market for a large department store (let alone two) today—but who knows. That’s what the economic consultant is for, I guess!

  4. well, we’re all sad about Super Long’s going away (probably) – how about some sort of general-purpose store like that? I moved here from Portland and really miss their Fred Meyer chain: groceries, camping gear, auto parts, garden shop, books, housewares, you name it. Surely someone can do something like that around here.

    I’d also like to see a combination of indie shops & restaurants like our own Telegraph/51st area. Throw in some bike parking corrals every three blocks or so (see example here: http://bikeportland.org/2009/07/02/photos-impressions-of-new-bike-corrral-on-se-28th-at-ankeny/ ) to add to the traffic calming & alternative transportation emphasis. If we could get a second-run theater in there, I’d be in heaven, but I suppose that may be a bit of a reach, given all the Parkway drama of late.

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