East Bay, Oakland

A hole in the Broadway-Valdez plan?

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.

30th and Broadway, Oakland

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?

A map depicting the boundary of the Broadway-Valdez specific plan and the location of the Shops at Broadway parcel. Image: courtesy of City of Oakland.

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.

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Discussion

20 thoughts on “A hole in the Broadway-Valdez plan?

  1. How is a grocery store not in keeping with a vision of a mixed-use district? Are we now demanding that every single project in the area be a skyscraper? Because that is a recipe for nothing happening.

    Posted by dto510 aka Jonathan Bair | 28 August 2012, 8:22 am
  2. That’s not what he said, at all.

    Welcome back, Eric.

    Posted by Steve | 28 August 2012, 8:57 am
  3. Grocery store = good. Grocery store like the Safeway on Pleasant Valley = not so good. Something with a huge setback and parking in the front isn’t going to get the job done with the goals of the neighborhood.

    Posted by Jame Ervin (@jameane) | 28 August 2012, 9:15 am
  4. @ Steve: Thanks!

    @ Jonathan: No one is demanding skyscrapers – in fact, no one is demanding anything at all. Rather, the request, which I think is rather reasonable, is that the EIR for a development in a purportedly transit-oriented district should evaluate project alternatives that actually look like a transit-oriented development. At the very least, the design should be sensitive to where Broadway is going, and I think the post makes clear that good design choices can make this a better project, even if it remains just a single-story commercial building.

    I agree that the lot that is there now sucks, and that a retail strip and grocery there would be a considerable improvement over the status quo. My personal opinion is that a single-story building here would squander a particularly valuable parcel.

    Posted by Eric | 28 August 2012, 9:18 am
  5. Jonathan, I believe the Draft Plan Concept called for 4-6 stories along Broadway.

    Posted by Marla | 28 August 2012, 9:24 am
  6. This parcel looks like one of the prime development sites within the plan area due to it’s size and lack of historic buildings to work around. Are we really going to waste it with such a suburban building? Where are the apartments on top? Thanks for this article.

    Posted by Sam | 28 August 2012, 9:30 am
  7. This is the “Sprouts” proposal, right? If so, the proposed parking is on the roof, not in a setback. As far as I can tell they are trying to do it right.

    Posted by Eric Fischer | 28 August 2012, 9:45 am
  8. Yes the parking for this project is on the roof and it calls for the entire frontage along Broadway to be shops and the pedestrian entrance to the store. The plan, and renderings look nice to me. asking for companies to build housing i this economic environment means we will have nothing for another ten years, if at all.

    Posted by JSBA | 28 August 2012, 10:22 am
  9. @ Eric F: Yeah, at one point I saw a sketch floating around of Sprouts with roof parking and I think ramps on the side/rear. I don’t know if anything has changed, but I wasn’t certain how firm that concept was. If the proposal continues to retain those features, including the smaller retail building, through the planning process, it’s certainly an upgrade relative to, say, Grocery Outlet. But I think it still falls short of what’s envisioned for the rest of the plan area, of which it technically remains a part — an important part. Even if there is not yet an adopted specific plan with all the details worked out, there is at least a draft framework, and I think there is value in encouraging the project sponsor to move this project closer to what is articulated in that framework. It also seems like quite a lot of parking on a corridor that is being prioritized for non-automotive modes.

    Posted by Eric | 28 August 2012, 10:22 am
  10. @JSBA regarding housing. Developers are building multi-family housing, both market rate and affordable. Our architecture office doing several of these right now. And this is a great site.

    Posted by Sam | 28 August 2012, 10:32 am
  11. This one-story retail project with 171 parking spaces is really at odds with the goal of a vigorous mixed-use Broadway transit corridor. The zoning for the Telegraph and International Blvd transit corridors has a two-story minimum. (Some of us wanted a three-story minimum.)

    Housing above the retail may not be feasible in the present market, but it should be designed as a two phase project with the retail being the first, but constructed to accommodate the second, housing above. We have to help the developer think of the future. When the market for housing returns, it will be more profitable than retail alone.

    To view the proposed project, check out: http://www.lockehouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/3001-Broadway-Oakland3.pdf

    Posted by Joyce Roy | 28 August 2012, 10:51 am
  12. I guess I’m going to have to be the naysayer here and say that residential on this site isn’t going to contribute anything to the vitality of Broadway until reurbanization makes it another quarter mile north from 23rd Street to 27th, because even in the strongest cities in the country, only the most dedicated of people are going to walk any further than that for any of their daily activities. You might get some Alta Bates employees who would walk the block up the hill to work, but that’s about it. Nobody’s going to walk downtown or to the Whole Foods or to Piedmont Avenue. Some of them might bike or take the bus downtown, but most of them would just drive everywhere.

    It *is* important to have solid, build-to-the-street retail frontage in case solid development ever does make it this far. It would be smart to build it so they could have a residential extension above later on. But when the demand for urban residential comes, it could just as easily be next door instead.

    Posted by enf1234567890 | 28 August 2012, 1:40 pm
  13. We can’t always get ideal projects, and I’m a big proponent of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. There are real-life constraints that shape what projects are and are not proposed, and sometimes we will be disappointed. That’s life. Sometimes, you need initial demonstration projects to test the waters and demonstrate success in the area, and those efforts, simply by virtue of being the first, may have flaws or may be more tentative. This may be just such as a project for the Broadway-Valdez area.

    This post, more than anything, is a response to where this project is in the planning process. The whole point of where we are right now is to accumulate public comment. This is one of the best points for the City and developer to understand the concerns of the public and, perhaps, shape the project in a way that at least partially accommodates those concerns. This is not about opposing any and all proposals at 30th & Broadway until the perfect signature building proposal comes along. It’s about making an effort to improve what’s before us.

    For example, as both Joyce and enf1234567890 noted, even if the market won’t support housing at this location at the present time, it would be smart to design the structure so that it could be accommodated in the future, particularly as there is reason to think there will be more interest in residential here when a specific plan encouraging multiple-story mixed use development is finally adopted. This is one of many examples of the type of improvement that the developer might not propose in the first instance, but which could nonetheless be incorporated into the project as a result of the public providing its input on the initial proposal.

    This is the point of the last paragraph, and maybe it could have been explained more clearly, but I guess this is what happens when you blog late at night after an extended hiatus. Anyway, I encourage everyone interested in this project to file comments this week.

    Posted by Eric | 28 August 2012, 2:23 pm
  14. (By the way, sorry to have posted twice under different names. WordPress often confuses me. Eric Fischer and enf1234567890 are the same person.)

    Posted by enf1234567890 | 28 August 2012, 3:13 pm
  15. Good thread. Thanks for the post. Can someone bring some vision to Broadway please? I hear what the pragmatists are saying, but why does Oakland have to settle for mediocre so often? It’s like the McDonald’s on Telegraph. Good efforts to make it better, but it’s still a single purpose, auto-centric project. Boo.

    Posted by Casey | 29 August 2012, 12:34 am
  16. Something is “shaking us out of our reverie of graceful towers lining Oakland’s main street”?? Good. Welcome to the daylight. I didn’t know the Broadway Valdez Plan was such a potent narcotic, but the etymology of the phrase “pipe dream” seems fitting here. Plans like the Bway/Valdez, at least in the form I last saw it, are far more likely to impede or destroy natural growth while everybody holds the smoke in waiting for the hallucination to manifest.

    There’s an actual proposal to replace an ugly and prominent surface parking lot with a multi-tenant retail building providing at least one needed neighborhood service, set appropriately against the sidewalk, with its attendant parking on the roof. If the plan needs to be “thrown out” to accomodate this, then the plan is at fault.

    Posted by don | 30 August 2012, 8:16 am
  17. Thanks, Don: Your comment, particularly its first paragraph, gave me just the laugh that I was needing this morning.

    Posted by Eric | 30 August 2012, 8:50 am
  18. Ummm…isn’t there a grocery store diagonally just across the street? In general, I think Oakland would do better to put all this study and planning money into just paving the damn street, and maintaining the medians on B’way. That would go a lot further to entice businesses into the area. If someone thinks they can make money, they’ll do it. If they can’t no study in the world will change it. I’ve seen what this study proposes – and it looks like the worst of 60’s redevelopment.

    Posted by PRE | 30 August 2012, 11:00 am
  19. This is such a wasted opportunity. I went to the discussion and it sounded like the planning commission was more interested in getting something on the ground regardless of the quality of the project or its inability to adhere to the Broadway Valdez plan.

    This is just another example of the city of Oakland bending over for individual developers out to make a quick buck out of suburban style projects that can hit the ground and sell quickly.

    this parcel is a great opportunity site and is a testament to why Oakland will always be the land of wasted opportunity.

    Posted by Leslie Nope | 15 January 2014, 3:58 pm

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