I would like to thank Mayor Quan for reaching out to the various Oakland communities to hear what is on our minds and to help set her agenda. There is no doubt that there are many areas Oakland needs work on, including improving our school system, strengthening our police force and filling potholes. These all need attention and we feel those needs dearly, every day.
Less immediate but equally important to all of us, is the design of our small commercial streets and how live-able walking streets are made, preserved and enhanced. In North Oakland we have several streets and neighborhoods that bustle during the day and into the evening — I am speaking of Piedmont Avenue, Temescal, and College Avenue. It is in our small-neighborhood, vital interest to protect these areas and make sure that they continue to function as the local hubs that they are. People are drawn to them for their liveliness and vitality. Let there be no doubt —these are not shopping malls—these are real, living, small neighborhood places, that are fantastic to the tax roll and foster entrepreneurship.
In order to promote and protect these places, I would like to see 'walkability' become a specific topic of focus on Oakland's urban planning agenda, so that we can systematically start to understand the DNA of these places and be more intentional about building more like them. We need to move beyond 'pedestrian oriented' as one of many criteria to consider when we evaluate projects, and make 'walkability' THE central tenant of our thinking for these places: if you cannot enhance 'walkability' here in tangible ways, then you should take your traffic problems or, water and air quality solutions, to another --less residential-- location in the city or elsewhere.
To get to a specific example: why is it that the planning code has no teeth to prevent predatory retailing by Safeway on College Avenue?
For years now Safeway has insistently proposed, over the clear concerns of a vast majority of neighbors, to increase the size of their existing store by an additional 33,000 square feet over and above the adequate but antiquated, 22,000 square foot neighborhood store they currently have. Inside the proposed total square footage you could fit thirty-five 1,500 sf stores—such as the Yasai Market across the street from the current store. More importantly, all the proposed Safeway shopping would be done under one big roof, effectively eviscerating the pedestrian life of the street as people conveniently load multiple cartons of Cheerios into their cars from the covered parking lot. Who are we kidding here? Do we really think a big-box store—for the first time in history— will enhance the walkability of this neighborhood? I do not. This is an oversized retail bomb being dropped on a neighborhood by a corporation that sees an opportunity, and, sadly, the city has no efficient mechanism, and/or limited planning will, to protect the balance of small shops and the quality of the street that have taken years to build and that make it the unique, walkable neighborhood it is.
The current future of this and other similar walkable residential neighborhoods is unclear at best, if corporations can willfully graft their mega-store visions onto our small, local commercial communities. Mayor Quan should put in place an action plan that rigorously preserves and enhances walkable, vital commercial streets adjacent to residential communities, and that will incubate new ones. THIS will bring people to Oakland, and allow the city to evolve—in the near future— into the place we all know it can be.