In Oakland, the Broadway-Valdez District Specific Plan has moved forward in fits and starts, but the desire remains to unlock the potential of vacant and underutilized parcels along Broadway Auto Row and reinvigorate the corridor — somehow. Whether this part of town ultimately fulfills its promise as the destination retail quarter that Oakland has lacked, becomes a distinctive neighborhood in its own right, or some combination of the two, I have long hoped that any plan prepared for this area would be ambitious enough to extend the energy of downtown northward, so that the neighborhood itself assumes the character of a downtown district. It should build on the revitalization of Uptown that has gained serious momentum since the reopening of the Fox Theater, while contributing to a long-term goal of transforming Broadway into an artery of consistent vibrancy extending from Jack London Square through downtown at least to the MacArthur Freeway overpass, and perhaps as far north as Rockridge.
The Broadway-Valdez specific plan area, which encompasses a relatively narrow band of blocks draped around Broadway directly north of the Uptown district, contains many smaller parcels that pose both a challenge and an opportunity. But one particular parcel I have had my eye on is the lot located at the northwest corner of 30th Street and Broadway (pictured above), which is a key opportunity site to do a major development. Its location farther from downtown perhaps makes the site better suited as a mixed use building that adds neighborhood retail space to Broadway and apartments above the ground floor instead of destination retail. But the buildings on this northern edge of the plan area could serve another function, acting as a “gateway” entrance to the greater downtown area. The fact that the site backs up to Pill Hill, where there are presently larger medical buildings, makes it an even more promising location for high density — dare I say, a tower or two? — than some other locations in the plan area, where there are modestly sized parcels located near structures that it may be deemed are desirable to preserve.
But shaking us out of our reverie of graceful towers lining Oakland’s main street — a modern urban neighborhood pointing the way south toward the historic downtown spine — is the proposed Shops at Broadway project. As described in the environmental impact report (EIR) notice (PDF):
The proposed Project involves construction of an approximately 35,750 sq. ft. single-story commercial development consisting of an approximately 26,000 sq. ft. anchor tenant (grocery store) and approximately 9,750 sq. ft. of retail space (which may include up to 6,000 sq. ft. of restaurant space). 171 parking spaces are proposed.
The Broadway-Valdez specific plan may not yet be complete, but even this short, preliminary description betrays the possibility that the Shops at Broadway project will be in tension with (or just plain undermine) the plan’s goals that have already been articulated. Retail and restaurant space is well and good, but how would 171 parking spaces enhance the plan’s goal of promoting walking, transit, and cycling with complete streets and an attractive pedestrian realm? Would the building be constructed so as to create a continuous streetwall and retail frontage on Broadway, or would pedestrians (and bus riders waiting at the adjacent bus stop) be treated to a view of parking and forced to contend with vehicle queues entering and exiting the grocery store? And even if the building is not set back and curb cuts are confined to the rear and sides of the site, how can a single-story commercial building that occupies a large, prominent corner parcel be reconciled with the specific plan’s goal of creating a “high-density mixed use boulevard” in the northern portion of the plan area?
Indeed, earlier this spring, the developer sought to have this parcel excluded altogether from the Broadway-Valdez specific plan area — probably anticipating that the specific plan would proceed slowly and wanting to advance its own project on a faster timeline, but perhaps also not wanting to be burdened with designing a project subject to the plan. The request to exclude this parcel from the plan was not granted, so the parcel remains within the plan area. Nonetheless, Shops at Broadway will proceed on its own environmental review track parallel to that of the specific plan. If the project advances ahead of the plan and takes a form that contradicts the plan’s goals, this parcel may, in practical effect, be carved out from the plan anyway. That would be a disappointing result, as large parcels like this one will be instrumental in absorbing much of the growth in this area.
Fortunately, Shops at Broadway is in the beginning stages, and there may still be an opportunity to encourage the project sponsor to shape this proposal into something more consistent with the vision of a dense, mixed use district. The City is accepting public comment to determine what the EIR should analyze. There is a planning meeting at Oakland City Hall on the evening of August 29, and comments can also be emailed. If you have a chance to submit a comment, please do so before August 31 at 5:00 pm; the details on how to submit comments are explained in the EIR notice (PDF). If this project must be advanced on a separate track from the specific plan, it should at least look beyond an anachronistic single-story building with lots of parking. In particular, it should evaluate a project and project alternatives that explore higher densities, less parking, and a respectable urban form that befits this central city location.