Posts Tagged ‘broadway’

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Some more on the Safeway saga….

July 22, 2009

[So this is a little late in the game since we’ve been away and I’ve had no time to work on anything….but I at least wanted to get an abbreviated version of this up while it’s still relevant! I also wanted to say kudos to everyone who went to last Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting—I was very, very worried that we were missing this meeting and afraid that no one would show up. But people did, and they said exactly the right things—yay!]

So, as just about everyone in Oakland knows at this point, Safeway is currently “lifestyling” its Northern California stores. We have two Safeway stores near us: one on Grand that’s already been lifestyled (albeit to a much lower-key standard than the projects currently underway), and one on Pleasant Valley that’s in the throes of the process now. I’ve actually been looking forward to this project for a while, because I hate-hate-hate the Pleasant Valley Safeway and the associated strip mall that surrounds it. It sits at the intersection of two major urban corridors barely two miles from downtown Oakland, and yet it’s designed as if it’s out in the middle of Pleasanton. (Actually, that might be unfair to Pleasanton!)

I guess this isn’t entirely surprising—after all, much of the retail that was built around the time this Safeway went in looks something like a suburban strip mall. Check out the former Safeway (now Grocery Outlet) on Auto Row at the corner of 29th and Broadway, for instance—it was the cat’s meow when it opened in the 1960s, but today it sticks out like a sore thumb with its massive surface parking lot along the street. And don’t get me started on the Kaiser M/B Center, which used to be a suburban-style mall anchored by Mayfair Market, a Bay Area supermarket chain. (Interestingly, the M/B Center was built in the mid-1960s to replace a 1930s-era Arthur Williams grocery store that was one of the first supermarkets to open in California and one of the first in the nation to have a surface parking lot. What a long, strange trip it’s been since then…) Thankfully, the M/B Center is currently being demolished to make way for the new Kaiser Hospital—a little more is gone every day!

So, yeah. Sadly my excitement waned pretty quickly once I got a look at Safeway’s vision for the renovated plaza. Basically, it’s more of the same. I won’t spend a lot of time attacking it, since you can find plenty of good summaries of the problems—along with proposals for alternative designs—in other places in the blogoaksphere. But I did want to take a moment to weigh in on the bike and pedestrian problems with the proposal, since I think we’re in the minority of Oaklanders who currently bike and even occasionally walk to this plaza, and would do so much more frequently if it were actually safe to be a cyclist or pedestrian there.

Currently, there are two places for pedestrians to cross this stretch of Broadway: one at Broadway and 51st on both sides of the intersection, and one just past the College and Broadway intersection at the entrance to CCA. That means that if you’re a pedestrian who’s headed to the Safeway plaza, there’s a good chance you’re doing this:

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Can you spot the pedestrian?


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How about here, en route from from Safeway over to Wendy's?


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Luckily, cars yield to pedestrians here....most of the time.


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If you're gutsy enough, you can just see what happens when you step into the street.

Then there are the bikers. We periodically bike to the Safeway plaza from both Broadway and Gilbert, so I can vouch for the horrible-ness of this entire section of the city for bikers. (As a result, I often end up taking the car if I’m headed to Super Long’s, even if I’m not hauling things back with me.) Some key issues:

  • If you’re coming from College, your best bet is to turn left against traffic into the Safeway service vehicle entrance and parking lot exit, which means crossing multiple lanes of Broadway very quickly. This isn’t exactly illegal—cars periodically do it too—but it also isn’t exactly safe, and it dumps you into the Safeway service entrance, where there are occasionally huge trucks that aren’t watching for entering traffic. (There is a median on Broadway that is often used as a refuge, but it’s not intended—or wide enough—for bikes and peds, who aren’t supposed to be crossing here.) The problem is that the only other option is to continue through to the light at 51st Street and loop around to the Pleasant Valley entrance. Sure, it’s what cars do with no trouble, but it’s quite far out of the way (and up a hill) for bikers, and it drops you straight into the traffic jam that is the Safeway parking lot, with cars coming at you from five or more directions and no designated pedestrian path. So I’ll take my chances on Broadway, where at least you can see the oncoming traffic.
  • If you’re coming from Gilbert and headed into the Safeway parking lot—the approach I like best—you’re in better shape because you have a light. The problem is that cars are rarely watching for you, and they’re all trying to get into or out of the parking lot (or through to Piedmont or Broadway). On more than one occasion, I’ve nearly been hit by someone not paying attention when there was absolutely no question that I had the right of way and the light. Pedestrians, unfortunately, have similar challenges at this intersection. And, again, you end up in the Safeway parking lot with traffic coming from all directions, and have to cross most of the parking lot to reach any place where you can lock up a bike.
  • Not directly a Safeway issue, but bike access from Broadway to College is something of a mess too. On the upside, there are legal ways to get to and from College—but they’re primarily designed for cars, and if you’re a biker heading north on Broadway or over to College from Pleasant Valley, you need to be brave about taking the lane to get over to College or onto 51st, and I regularly encounter drivers who are unhappy about having bikes in their midst. I often see bikers give up and use the crosswalk instead, which is fine—but which shouldn’t be required in order to get across. Safeway can’t fix this by themselves, but rehabbing the plaza is a key opportunity to make sure that the entrances and traffic patterns are in the right places to facilitate better overall traffic flow for both cars and transit and safer conditions for bikes and peds.

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Go, bike, go!


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Luckily, this isn't a U-turn. Exactly.

In fairness, these are all photos of bikes and peds doing bad, bad things (or at least less-than-safe things)—and there are safer, legal ways to get across if you’re willing to go a bit out of your way. But they’re indicative of some bigger problems—namely, a lack of safe, legal ways to get to and from Safeway along the paths that many, many people want to follow—none of which are addressed by the currently proposed plans.

We should be holding Safeway to a much higher standard than simply maintaining the status quo. Fixing Broadway and Pleasant Valley won’t be fun, but it’s essential—and it’s likely to be the only opportunity to do it that will come our way for another forty years.

At a minimum, we should insist that Safeway work with the City to tackle the traffic by:

  • Reorienting buildings along Broadway to face the street (and taking down the Chase building while they’re at it) and encouraging tenants in these spaces that will draw pedestrians and bikers (e.g., restaurants, coffee shops, retailers whose wares don’t require cars);
  • Creating safe entry and exit points explicitly designed for pedestrians and bicyclists on both Pleasant Valley and Broadway, and creating ways for bicyclists and pedestrians to access bike parking and sidewalks without crossing multiple rows of open surface parking;
  • Integrating structured parking into the plan for this plaza to create space to reorient buildings and provide this safe walking and cycling access;
  • Working with the City and WOBO to integrate bike lanes along this stretch of Broadway that feed into the development where appropriate and aren’t adversely impeded by entering and exiting cars;
  • Working with the City and AC Transit to develop safe bus stops along both Broadway and Pleasant Valley/51st that will serve the plaza and connect to crosswalks and other pedestrian amenities (because every transit trip begins and ends with a walking trip!); and
  • Working with the City to ensure that the lane and signal configurations from the parking areas onto Broadway, Pleasant Valley, and 51st Street adequately accommodate bus routes and cyclist and pedestrian paths, especially paths to and from College and to and from the senior housing developments at the intersection of Pleasant Valley and Gilbert.

Don’t get me wrong—this plaza will always need parking, especially if by some miracle the nursery and other “large item” aspects of the Super Long’s stick around post-CVS transition, as CVS now claims they will. (I’m dubious.) But there are bad ways to do parking and good ways to do parking. We already know that the parking situation in the plaza today is horrific for everyone involved. (Ever gotten stuck trying to drive out of the parking lot while someone is turning the wrong way down the one way aisle by Longs and then trying to back up into the traffic that’s trying to turn out of the parking lot and get away?? And if you inadvertently get into the aisle in front of Safeway and are a good driver who does stop for pedestrians headed into or out of the store as you are supposed to, you can be there for days…)

Suffice it to say that Safeway should not simply be “tweaking” the existing parking configuration—which is effectively what the current proposal does. They should be rethinking it altogether, and identifying creative ways to provide convenient parking while also minimizing conflicts between bikes, peds, and drivers (because it’s no accident that the bumper-fixer dudes in the truck sit in the far corner of the lot waiting for fender benders!) They should spend some time at Whole Foods, which I actually think handled parking quite skillfully given the huge number of constraints they were working with. They should talk with the City of Emeryville to learn more about modeling they recently did to envision a new East Bay Bridge Center (where Home Depot, Best Buy, and such are located—and which, incidentally, is partly in Oakland and jointly planned). The (purely imaginary, at this point) model for a future shopping center there, developed in conjunction with Emeryville’s General Plan Update to help residents imagine what an alternate future for that area could look like, called for reintroducing the street grid and building structured parking where there is currently surface parking in order to integrate housing and finer-grained retail into the existing big-box fabric to create a true neighborhood. That plaza is a much larger area, sure—but the concept would work equally well here, and the modeling helps to explain how and why.

Basically, we should be pushing Safeway to think outside the box on this one—and to understand the many ways in which developing this plaza more intensely but more intelligently will benefit both Safeway and Oakland on many levels.

There are still a few days left to submit comments to the City on the current proposal. Let the Council and Planning Commission know what you think by Monday, July 27, when the 30-day public comment period on scope of the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) ends. For more information or to offer any thoughts, critiques, or ideas, you can contact Darin Ranelletti at the City of Oakland by phone at 510-238-3663 or by email.

*All photographs in this series were taken by Paul Rosenbloom in conjunction with a Walk Oakland Bike Oakland (WOBO) project, and are used with his permission. Visit WOBO’s website to learn more about their current Bike Broadway campaign for bike lanes on Broadway between downtown and Highway 24.

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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?

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All about Auto Row: A (very) brief history

July 8, 2009

The next Auto Row meeting is coming up tomorrow, Thursday July 9, at First Presbyterian Church at 2619 Broadway (at 27th) from 6 to 8 pm. The postcard, and last month’s news that GM is finally filing for bankruptcy and closing thousands of dealerships, reminded me that I hadn’t yet finished the little Auto Row retrospective I started a while back, shortly before we went to the kick-off meeting for a two-year planning process to define the future of Broadway Auto Row (or “Upper Broadway,” as the City is starting to call it once again), Oakland’s historic automobile dealer district (and our best-known neighborhood landmark!)

As we think about the future of this space, though, I couldn’t help but think back on the past, since I dug up all sorts of interesting tidbits on Auto Row when I was doing neighborhood history research earlier this year. I meant this to be a bit more narrative and reflective, but haven’t had time to sit down with it—so instead it’s just the blow-by-blow history of the corridor. More musings on the future in the next post….

Before Auto Row: Pre-1912
Broadway, of course, was around for decades before Auto Row was established in 1912. In Oakland’s early years, the neighborhood in and around Auto Row was known as “Academy Hill” for the number of schools and universities that dotted it. (The hill itself is now known to most Oaklanders as “Pill Hill” in reference to the hospitals and medical community that now occupy it.) St. Mary’s College, now in Moraga, sat at 30th and Broadway for nearly 40 years (and in fact had a plaque on the old Connell Oldsmobile building to mark the spot of the building they called “the old Brickpile”).

Original St. Marys campus in Oakland

Original St. Mary's campus on Broadway in Oakland

Other Academy Hill institutions included a military academy, a seminary, and in later years an elementary school that sat at 29th and Broadway, now home to Grocery Outlet (and home to Safeway for 30 years before that). The transition to medical uses began fairly early on, too: another early Auto Row establishment was Providence Hospital, started by the Sisters of Providence at Broadway and 26th and later transferred to Sutter Health, which still runs Alta Bates Summit Medical Center on Pill Hill today.

During these years, Oakland did have an Auto Row—but it was located in downtown Oakland in the heart of the commercial district. When residential development (and the auto industry!) took off in the post-earthquake years, though, so did the need for more automobile retailers, so development of a new Oakland Auto Row along Upper Broadway began.

The Early Years: 1912-1925
Auto-oriented businesses began popping up on Auto Row as early as 1912; by 1913 things were in full swing, so the Row is approaching its hundredth anniversary. Initially, the area was referred to as “Upper Broadway Automobile Row” to distinguish it from Oakland’s established 12th Street auto row and San Francisco’s developing auto row along Van Ness, but before long the name was shortened to “Broadway Auto Row,” as the area is still known today. As Oakland developed, the corridor also became a major transit trunk with multiple streetcar lines taking you out to Piedmont, Berkeley, and as far as Kensington.

Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California)

Early tenants included Marion, Studebaker, Empire, A.B. Cosby, J.W. Leavitt, Kissel Kar, Packard, and multiple manufacturers, tire businesses, service stations, and other maintenance and repair shops—not so unlike Auto Row today. By 1914, Buick had opened up shop at Broadway and Piedmont, and was soon followed by virtually every big name in automobiles and automobile parts: Oakland’s Auto Row had arrived.

The new Cosby Motor Cars dealership when it opened in 1913. They sold electric cars, among other things; sadly, it's now a surface parking lot....

The new Peacock Motor Company dealership when it opened at 2841 Broadway in 1913. Sadly, it's now a surface parking lot....

Auto Row’s Hey Day: 1925-1955
As Oakland’s population soared in the 1920s through the post-war years, so did Auto Row, as new dealers filled in along Upper Broadway south to Grand and north to West MacArthur Boulevard (then Moss Avenue). Many of the auto-related repair and supply shops that opened up in between the dealerships and along the side streets are still in business today, many incarnations later. Many of the residential areas adjacent to Auto Row also developed in the 1910s and 20s, so there were hundreds of new residents in the surrounding neighborhoods. Mosswood Park, which the City had purchased in 1907, was also extensively developed during this period to include new recreational facilities, amphitheaters, and other community spaces at the northern edge of Auto Row. (Sadly, several of these were later demolished to make room for I-580).

Streetcars at Broadway and Grand (Photo from Key Rail Pix)

Streetcars at Broadway and Grand (Photo from Key Rail Pix)

[This section really deserves a much longer writeup, because a lot of cool stuff happened in Oakland and on Auto Row during this period….but since I have zero time to do it right now, it will have to wait for another day!]

The Decline of the City: 1955-1995
By the mid-1950s, the Eisenhower Interstate system was falling into place—and into cities—across the country. In Oakland, existing cross-town thoroughfares expanded into divided roadways, and two new freeways carved out huge swaths of the city, displacing countless residents and fundamentally altering the fabric of many of the city’s neighborhoods. Interstate 580 had a particularly significant impact on Auto Row, as it cut right across the northern edge of Upper Broadway; Interstate 980 also ran parallel to Auto Row a few blocks to the west. As travel to and from the suburbs became faster and easier with the new roads, families—and especially white families—began leaving the city. The streetcars stopped running in the late 1940s, and in 1958, the Key System rail lines shut down. The system was eventually sold in 1960 to the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, a newly formed public agency that would manage buses for Alameda and Contra Costa County. Ironically (at least given their own demise as America’s auto fascination waned in recent years!) GM played a major role in bringing down the Key System when its affiliate National City Lines purchased the system in the late 1940s and began pushing to have it shut down. The East Bay cities actually tried to buy the system themselves in the 1950s to keep it running after GM and its associates had been convicted of criminally conspiring to create a monopoly, but they failed….and, as they say, the rest is history.

The 1960 Census also recorded a drop in population for the first time in Oakland’s history. Over the next two decades, the city’s population continued to plummet, falling from a Census high of 385,000 in 1950 to a low of 340,000 in 1980, even as the Bay Area overall continued to grow significantly. By the time the 1980 Census was taken, Oakland was also a majority minority city, with white Oaklanders constituting only 39 percent of the population.

Not surprisingly, Oakland’s Auto Row took an economic nosedive as Americans across the country fled to the suburbs and took their dollars with them. Article after article in the Oakland Tribune during the 1960s and 1970s notes the move of this auto dealership or that parts store to Walnut Creek or Lafayette or parts beyond. During this time, some of the residential areas along Auto Row also deteriorated significantly as homes were razed in some areas and disinvestment spread; the crack epidemic also had a dramatic effect on many of these areas throughout the mid-1980s.

By 1964, both Oakland and Auto Row were in decline. You know it's time to worry when you're excited about the new used car lot that just opened....

By 1964, both Oakland and Auto Row were in decline. You know it's time to worry when you're excited about the new used car lot that just opened...

The New American City: 1995 and beyond
In the early 1990s, Oakland finally stopped bleeding population, and some areas of the city began to stabilize as new residents trickled in. By the 2000 Census, the population trend had wholly reversed, and for the first time, Oakland exceeded its 1950 population. Much of this growth came in the city’s communities of color: the 2000 Census captured a snapshot of an incredibly diverse city, with a number of new immigrant groups establishing communities in Oakland neighborhoods and contributing to the revitalization of some of the city’s older commercial districts. The housing boom was also ramping up, fueling gentrification in some neighborhoods.

I didn’t live in Oakland during the early Brown years, but friends remember lots of conversations about Auto Row at that point: was there a future for central city auto dealerships? Should Auto Row be expanded northward? What about alternative futures? Streetscape work and new medians shone up the old district, and briefly the future of Oakland’s dealerships looked a bit rosier as some of the big names renovated their showrooms.

Today, of course, it’s another story altogether. Enter the housing bust and the “Great Recession” (as the New York Times has taken to calling it). Some—although notably not all!—of the economic energy in the city has tapered off. Scores of storefronts along the Auto Row corridor are empty; decals for defunct car brands and auto parts stores line the windows next to the “for lease” signs. Chrysler recently severed its franchise relationship with Bay Bridge Chrysler Jeep Dodge, putting them at risk of closing. (Bay Bridge Auto Center, their parent company, also runs the GM and Nissan franchises along this stretch of Auto Row, and seems to do brisk business in used car sales, so they may well hang on for a bit on that front too.) Broadway Ford is already gone, and the Kia building has been sitting empty forever.

I’m not entirely sure this is a bad thing, though. Dedicating a prime commercial corridor near the heart of downtown to auto sales—something the average American buys only once every few years (and, I’d wager, far less frequently in dense urban areas where households may only have a single car, or none at all)—has never made a lot of sense to me. It’s not that I don’t think Oakland should have car dealerships—I do. They bring substantial tax revenues into the city, and are a significant part of our industrial history. It’s just that I don’t think they belong here. It looks like the auto mall on the old Army base may be stalled or dead in the water, but I actually thought that made a lot of sense (as would a similar mall over near Hegenberger, where there are also several dealers). The area along I-880 is already industrial in nature in most spots, and given that car dealers like large surface parking lots and freeway access, it seems like the prime place to drop them.

So what do I want to see on Auto Row instead? I’ll hit that topic next—and you should go to Thursday’s meeting to share your own ideas, whether you live in the neighborhood or not!

[And on that note, this is also a good time to remind folks that yes, lots of people do live in the Auto Row neighborhood—I was a bit taken aback by a few comments from participants at the first meeting who noted that this corridor was a good place for various uses that wouldn’t fly near other residential areas because “the only neighbors are the hospitals and auto shops.” While it’s true that there aren’t too many Pill Hill residents—although even there you’ll find a few condo buildings—there are a lot of residents in Glen Echo, Westlake, HarriOak, Adams Point, and more by the day in Uptown. You can read a little more on the history of these neighborhoods and their relationship with Auto Row here. This doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be regional uses along this corridor—but it does mean that a need for local-serving retail and services also exists, and that any traffic-generating uses will indeed have impacts on residential neighborhoods.]