Oakland’s Broadway is analogous to Market Street in San Francisco, and the analogy is especially strong downtown. Both are major transit streets served by both subway rail and a confluence of surface bus lines, and both streets are the main spine of their respective downtowns. It seems natural for the energy of lower Broadway to be maintained as you move northward out of downtown. Ideally, Broadway would fully realize its promise as a grand boulevard that simultaneously delineates and unifies neighborhoods while maintaining a unique, all-encompassing presence of its own, in the way that Market (mostly) does — but there is a letdown. North of Grand Avenue, the energy of lower Broadway dissipates and is replaced by the parking lots and car dealerships of Auto Row.
However, events are now beginning to be set in motion to reclaim the Broadway Auto Row and transform it into a new, vibrant neighborhood. The car dealership leases are running out, and high land values are forcing the dealerships to relocate. The trick, though, is to keep the dealerships — and the few million dollars they provide every year in tax revenue, just around 10% of the city’s total annual tax revenue — in Oakland. The Oakland Army Base is an underutilized plot of land literally in the heart of Bay Area, but the site is of limited utility because it is confined and isolated by freeways. The greater freeway visibility and land area available for showrooms makes the Army Base an excellent location for car dealerships — much better than Broadway on both counts. My hope is that the city will continue the process to move the dealerships to the Army Base, rather than pursue the elusive movie studio plans of the Wayans Brothers. If we are going to take any large chunk of land and devote it to a wholly auto-oriented use, this is the place to do it.
Once the dealerships vacate upper Broadway, there will be newly available substantial land parcels in the heart of the city, but what do you do with them? The quick and easy connection to downtown makes upper Broadway a natural location for some serious mixed use development, and I don’t just mean a couple stories of housing. The process of neighborhood-building has gotten a jump-start with the Broadway Grand development, but upper Broadway should feel like a natural extension of downtown. Ideally, there would be an attractive, fine-grained mix of mid- and high-rise buildings. More housing is the clear choice, but upper Broadway is a pretty special site. Surely we can be even more ambitious? In fact, we can. This past February, the City of Oakland hired the Conley Consulting Group to investigate the possibility of transforming upper Broadway into a major retail destination that would, at long last, replace what used to exist in downtown Oakland decades ago. An article in Novometro alerted me to the fact that the Conley report has finally been released.
Retail in Oakland has long been a hard sell — made even more difficult in recent years by the quite extensive retail options that have developed in the suburban enclaves of Walnut Creek and Emeryville — but the importance of pursuing a bona fide retail district in Oakland is clear: it would add jobs, provide a substantial source of tax revenue, and continue the process of reinventing and re-energizing the central city. By all rights, Oakland should be the East Bay’s retail center. If anything, folks in the suburbs should be traveling to Oakland to shop, but the opposite is more often the case. Downtown Oakland’s proximity to substantial retail districts in Emeryville and San Francisco raises the question of what retail niche Oakland should try to fill. Big box retailers might be an option, but those tend to be difficult to fit convincingly into the urban fabric. For quite awhile now, Target has demonstrated interest in opening a central Oakland store, and a carefully-designed Target (of course, no parking lot in front, but how about some apartments above?) might be a good addition. I am not certain how many department stores would open, considering that such stores already exist 15-20 minutes east and west of Oakland, but commitment from a few department stores would help anchor this area as one of regional rather than just local importance. My hunch though is that the real strength of this retail district would be the unique, local stores that already exist in neighborhoods all over Oakland. The difference is that instead of being widely dispersed, there would be a compact, walkable district that you could easily point to as the city’s retail heart. As an aside, a movie theater would also be a nice way to pump some nighttime activity into the area.
The Conley report offers a few statistics, including that the downtown employment base has an annual spending power of $283 million. There is an estimated population of 1.6 million people within a 20-minute drive of 27th and Broadway (a likely focal point for this district), and an average household income of $81,760 in that same radius. A lack of convenient retail in the city forces residents to shop in neighboring cities instead, thus depriving Oakland of valuable tax revenue. In 2005, Emeryville captured $73,400 in sales per capita, a figure artificially inflated by its small population; a better point of comparison might be Walnut Creek, which had $19,700 in sales per capita. Oakland, on the other hand, captured a mere $6,400 per capita, which is below both county and state averages. The figures indicate that Oakland is not only starved of the retail that one would expect in a city of its size, but also that the market exists to support a regionally notable retail district were one to be built.
The report then goes on to divide the upper Broadway area (including the surrounding streets) into distinct zones, and it presents alternatives as to which types of retail would be appropriate in different zones. It discusses appropriate building styles and massing, relevant streetscape improvements, and other issues. Important distinctions are made between regionally notable retail (large anchor stores) and smaller stores, some of which would primarily serve the neighborhood. One alternative street design includes a possible light rail line on Broadway. Whether this corridor is outfitted with bus rapid transit or (eventually) with light rail, Broadway should be designed to accommodate separate lanes for transit vehicles. BART does little service to the Upper Broadway/Pill Hill neighborhood by skipping it altogether. The southern end of the neighborhood would be a short walk from the 19th Street BART station, but the central intersection of 27th and Broadway is just outside of what many people would consider to be a “reasonable” walk from that station. To be sure, a vibrant, redeveloped Broadway would provide a much more stimulating pedestrian experience than the current conditions — thus psychologically shortening the several block walk — but a fast, frequent transit option to connect upper Broadway to 19th Street can only increase the popularity of this retail district.
Here is some further reading on the future transformation of upper Broadway:
- The report prepared by Conley. Warning: the report is a 4.05 MB PDF, but it is a fun read if you are interested in the nitty gritty details.
- The aforementioned Novometro article.
- V Smoothe, author of the Novometro piece, has written an additional post on the blog A Better Oakland.
Finally, if anyone from the City of Oakland happens to be reading this, my final remarks are especially directed to you: please do not let your vision for this area be watered down. Although I believe many or most Oakland residents would support the abstract idea of more retail and vitality on Broadway, once specific buildings are proposed, people will likely emerge from the woodwork, offering kneejerk complaints about shadows, more traffic, and less parking, with the intent to push the project out of their backyard and into someone else’s. If high density housing is seriously considered (as it should be), there might be complaints that such buildings do not fit into the neighborhood, but really: that’s the point. The goal here should be to establish a completely new, distinctive, vibrant neighborhood that eclipses the current context. Certainly establish a dialogue with the neighborhood, but also develop a systematic plan with a clear vision. Water down the project, and Broadway’s incredible potential — as the Conley report remarks, “very possibly the last chance for Oakland to reestablish destination retail at its … core” — will remain unrealized. Successfully execute a fully robust transformation, and you might just wipe out everyone’s favorite out-of-context quote, “there’s no there there,” once and for all.