East Bay, NIMBY, Oakland, Project Proposals, Skyline

A Fight Over the Secret Garden

emerald_views.jpgThe Oakland Tribune reports today about a public scoping meeting that will take place at Oakland City Hall, tonight at the 6:00 pm Planning Commission meeting. The goal of the meeting is to receive public commentary about a project in planning, a new tower at 222 19th Street known as Emerald Views. Soaring to 457 feet, this 42-story residential tower could become the new peak of the Oakland skyline, surpassing the 404-foot Ordway Building, currently the tallest tower in the Bay Area outside of San Francisco. The tower is very slender, with just about ten units per floor and a footprint of 12,200 square feet — quite small for a building of this height. It would add 370 residential units to a highly transit-oriented location just a few blocks from 19th Street BART and the comprehensive bus service on Broadway — and it would supply a new influx of people to the developing Uptown neighborhood, an area that is experiencing quite a bit of residential construction. Also, 993 square feet would be made available at the ground level for a cafe or restaurant.

Opponents have stipulated that the tower is out of place and does not fit its context. The Tribune article quotes James Vann from the Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt, who remarks:

“The proximity to the lake is one thing,” he said. “I’m more in favor of the bowl concept of development around the lake, where buildings closer to the lake are lower in stories and then you rise as you move away from the lake.”

The idea of crafting this sort of shape to the skyline is not a bad one, but both Vann and the tower’s opponents have overlooked the fact that Oakland’s tallest structures — the Ordway, but also Kaiser Center (390 feet) and 1999 Harrison Street (371 feet) — are already located directly on Lake Merritt, so the tower would not really be out of place at all:


There is one point on which I agree with the tower’s opponents, namely that remaining vacant spots on and immediately around Broadway should ideally be filled to high density, so as to take full advantage of proximity to the BART line. However, the assertion that the Emerald Views tower does not fit the context seems entirely wrong, as I believe the above rendering demonstrates.

emerald_aerial_a.jpgSo, if the building is truly not out of context, then what is the problem? The tower would be erected on the historic Schilling Garden, once part of the estate of Alfred Schilling. However, this is not a story of a greedy developer stealing public open space for the sake of the bottom line. The Schilling Garden is already closed off to the public — in fact, before the Emerald Views controversy started, most Oaklanders probably did not even know that the park was there. The site is right next to Snow Park and Lake Merritt itself, both of which provide thoroughly public open space. In the aerial view pictured at the right, Lake Merritt is at the far right of the image, and the large green area on the left side of the image is Snow Park. The area outlined by the red box is the “secret garden” that would be the site of the proposed Emerald Views tower. The aerial shot makes clear that this tower leaves untouched most of the green space in this area, and since the Schilling Garden is private, no public open space would be removed.

In fact, the project would return the garden to the public. The site is 31,830 square feet; above, I remarked that the tower footprint was only 12,200 square feet, so more than half of the site would actually be returned to the public in the form of true open space, a 20,322 square foot park that incorporates trees, benches, and other elements from the current garden. In addition, the woefully underutilized Snow Park would be improved and redone into a destination spot for downtown residents and visitors. The new Snow Park could feature picnic areas, a putting green, and a children’s discovery garden.

All in all, this project strikes me as a good one. The project offers the opportunity to put high-density housing in a transit-oriented location that could benefit from additional residents and vitality, and it would give Oaklanders new and improved public open space to enjoy. I would encourage any and all Oakland urbanists reading this post to attend tonight’s public scoping meeting (or to send in written comments, by December 10, 2007) to emphasize the benefits that this project could bring to the city of Oakland.

Top image courtesy Oakland Tribune; middle image courtesy Novometro; bottom image courtesy Google Maps.



21 thoughts on “A Fight Over the Secret Garden

  1. Good call. There’s nothing worse than a walled off garden. The one in Gramercy Park makes me sick – a public space only the privileged – those with a key – can use!

    Posted by Doug | 28 November 2007, 11:46 am
  2. This seems like an overall improvement to the area and it should be built. I work near Snow Park and would very much welcome the proposed improvements to that particular park.

    In the article, one of the opponents stated that he preferred a bowl-shaped approach to development around the lake. What I don’t understand is that this actually does conform to this idea. The building would be more than a half block from lake and behind a mid-rise building. This seems to be the very definition of bowl-shaped. Maybe he meant for a more shallow bowl.

    I really like that this building has a such a small footprint. There should be A LOT more buildings like this in downtown Oakland.

    Posted by Brett | 28 November 2007, 3:47 pm
  3. Sounds like a great location for this project. You guys are fortunate to have so many public transportation options…

    Posted by Nick Bastian | 30 November 2007, 8:22 pm
  4. Despite the nay-sayers (as there always are in the Bay Area, for major development projects), I really do think the location is well-suited to the tower, and the improvements to Snow Park couldn’t come too soon.

    Since this blog is largely about improving local transit, I have to admit that I don’t think nearly as often about some of the quite good aspects of the system, particularly when compared to most parts of the country. Sometimes it takes someone not from the area to notice it! So thanks for the reminder, Nick. I’m looking forward to following the progress of Phoenix LRT on your blog.

    Posted by Eric | 30 November 2007, 10:14 pm
  5. I am one of those who oppose this project. However, my opposition is to destroying Schilling Gardens, not to the project. The garden has the potential to be reclaimed as parkland, day-lighted and connected to Snow Park to become part of the park system that circles Lake Merritt.

    I am constantly disappointed by project supporters who appear to have no interest or inclination for preserving the natural environment at the Lake. Calling this project “transit friendly” and making that a basis of support strikes me as extraordinarily superficial. It is superficial because Oakland residents for years have favored preserving and expanding parkland at the Lake by large majorities.

    The Emerald View project can move to a different location: Schilling Gardens can not. Opportunities to reclaim or create park spaces in downtown Oakland are rare – we should seize this opportunity.

    Posted by John Klein | 2 December 2007, 11:03 am
  6. John, thanks for writing in with your views. I am not disinterested in the goal of preserving the natural environment around Lake Merritt, but locking up and preventing full and public access to a garden — located in the center of the city, no less — is, to my mind, despicable. It’s not as though this tower will take over the entire park; most of the park would remain a park, open to the public. Trees and placements in the garden would be retained in the new park — of course, most people won’t recognize them since they never had the chance to see them in the first place! In terms of public parkland, there’s a net gain here, not a net loss.

    I don’t agree that it is “superficial” to support this project because of its proximity to transit. Denser development near transit routes, and in particular, heavy rail lines, is critical to future growth, and it is also wholly consistent with the goal of increasing downtown vitality. Sure, Emerald Views could be moved to a different location, but ideally, I would like to see denser uses not just on Broadway and Telegraph, but in the whole downtown area — and yes, this location is downtown, despite what some opponents would have us believe. So, rather than “here or there”, but it’s more a question of “here and there.”

    Posted by Eric | 2 December 2007, 2:33 pm
  7. I think the complaint that Schilling Garden was a private (secret) garden is a red herring. Are you saying that you don’t think people should own private property? No, I don’t think that is what you intend to say, but that is exactly what you are saying in this instance – and it is a false argument.

    Do you think the public has some right to use or visit this particular piece of private property more than any other private area? Following this reasoning, a person could complain that my exterior deck is “secret” and then claim that the public has some right to it and to invite itself onto my exterior deck for a picnic. This is, of course, absurd.

    Further, even the City of Oakland owns gardens which are open to the public only on very limited schedules or by appointment only. For that matter, most public parks in Oakland are typically closed between 10:00 pm and 6:00 am. I again ask: why do you think the public has a right to visit Schilling Garden more than any other private space?

    This may be belaboring the point, but I have also made my point as well: the complaint that Schilling Gardens was (and still is) private property is not germane to the discussion of whether it should be destroyed in order to build condominiums there.

    Posted by John Klein | 8 December 2007, 2:40 pm
  8. John,

    So your ultimate goal is not creating or reclaiming Schilling Gardens as a public space, but rather just in assuring that no part of it is destroyed? I’d much rather have some public park space than none.

    Posted by Chris | 8 December 2007, 3:52 pm
  9. Hi Chris,

    No, your conclusion about my comment is incorrect. I absolutely want the garden to become a public park. This is what I meant when I wrote, “the garden has the potential to be reclaimed as parkland, day-lighted and connected to Snow Park to become part of the park system that circles Lake Merritt”. This is my ultimate goal.

    First, the garden must be saved from destruction.

    Posted by John Klein | 8 December 2007, 4:17 pm
  10. John,

    Do you have some sort of alternative plan or timetable to see all of the park being made public without this development?

    Posted by Chris | 9 December 2007, 4:26 pm
  11. Hi Chris,

    I stated my alternative plan in my posts.

    The garden will not be public with this development. The garden is not now, and never has been, public. It is private property.

    No particular timeline yet for when Schilling Garden might become public land.

    Posted by John Klein | 9 December 2007, 6:27 pm
  12. No particular timeline yet for when Schilling Garden might become public land.

    Of course, it hasn’t been for a century, so there’s no rush, right?

    John, for the land swap, what specific parcels are you considering? Something beyond 1640 Broadway, please, as that has repeatedly failed in the past as a site for residential development. Where do you propose that the City produce the money to finance that land swap? These things don’t pay for themselves.

    The alternative plan you’ve suggested is very general, and more to the point, it has already been offered numerous times already, with far from assured success. If I heard the details of a plan that could be realistically executed, then I might agree with you that the tower could be relocated, and O’Keefe has been open to ideas, as well. I have yet to see an alternative plan that would, practically speaking, be viable in the real world. But I am all ears.

    Posted by Eric | 9 December 2007, 9:15 pm
  13. Agreed with Eric.

    And call me selfish, but I’d much rather have 60% of the space for public use in five years (when I can actually enjoy it), rather than 100% in 40 years.

    Posted by Chris | 10 December 2007, 9:37 am
  14. Chris and Eric: I believe you are somewhat short-sighted regarding the possibilities.

    Park land previously proposed for use by commercial projects is often enhanced and improved after the immediate threat of loss or sale has passed. The public is often willing to expend considerable public resources toward improving or acquiring park land to an extent and in ways not previously anticipated by local officials. The following three items are evidence of this:

    · Splash Pad Park: The attention on the park in 1999 brought new public and City of Oakland interest to Splash Pad Park. Nearly $900,000 worth improvements to the park were completed by 2003. In addition, Splash Pad Park now hosts one of the most popular and successful farmer’s markets in the Bay Area.

    · Fire Alarm site: The Fire Alarm site, offered for condominiums in 2001, will be integrated into the new landscape design for 12th Street using Measure DD funds.

    · 12th Street: The community’s proposal in response to the proposed sale at 12th Street provided the impetus for the City Council to adopt Measure DD and place it on the 2002 ballot. The successful bond measure will fund improvements to park areas and will reclaim degraded park land areas.

    In 2001, no one dreamed that Oakland could raise money for parks. In 2002, it happened. Measure DD includes money for Snow Park, btw.

    Dream bigger, guys.

    Posted by John Klein | 10 December 2007, 5:30 pm
  15. John, I noticed that you declined to offer an equally attractive alternative parcel for the tower.

    I’ve already stated above I am not opposed to a park in this location, if an appropriate location is found for the tower. In fact, I think that the post very strongly indicates how much I advocate for open space. That said, I also believe this site is entirely appropriate to house a contemporary, landmark tower for Oakland, and given how underutilized Snow Park is, trading 12,000 square feet of space that almost no one had heard of before for a landmark tower and an additional bit of urban vitality does not seem like a bad deal. And, given all the additional park improvements which will be carried out around Lake Merritt (as you mentioned), will the birds really miss this 12,000 square foot patch of land that is wedged between other buildings?

    I am certainly not opposed to open space; rather, I oppose wasted space. One purpose of this post was to put forth the idea that a great deal of the people who oppose this project are doing so for the wrong reasons. Last year, it was utterly ridiculous that people were willing to have the City finance what amounted to a private backyard — all in the name of not building a tower.

    It seems that the reason you insist on calling me “short-sighted” is because I acknowledge there are multiple uses to this plot of land, and you happen to disagree with one of those uses. I didn’t realize that in order to be classified as forward-thinking, I had to think a certain way or agree with a certain group of people! I guess I missed that memo.

    Posted by Eric | 10 December 2007, 5:58 pm
  16. Hi Chris,

    There may be no equally-attractive parcel for this project. Finding a different site for the tower is not my main goal. My goal is to save the park from destruction; finding a site for the tower is not my problem if we can convince enough people to save SG.

    However, having an alternate site for the tower would certainly make saving the garden much easier. I don’t really have a site in mind just yet.

    We will be scheduling a community meeting in late Jan – early Feb to discuss just this issue.

    Thanks again…sorry you didn’t get the memo… :)

    Posted by John Klein | 10 December 2007, 6:14 pm
  17. NOTICE: a few of us are organizing a community meeting in late January, early February to “join forces” for preserving Schilling Gardens and toward the goal of the City getting control of it for a public garden or connecting it to Snow Park. We’d also like to help the developer find a different location for the project. More to follow.

    Posted by John Klein | 10 December 2007, 10:25 pm
  18. The very same things that make this parcel valuable to the developers (that it is four blocks from the 19 Street BART station, upcoming Bus Rapid Transit-B.R.T., and 1/2 block from the Lake, and separated bikeway) also make it valuable to the city as a transit oriented park.

    As the citizens of a progressive and forward thinking city, we need to consider our transit modes in the future: many more of us will be taking BART/BRT, and riding bicycles. There will also be more residents in downtown nearby. Thus we need to enhance and acquire existing green spaces for park use, such as the Schilling Gardens parcel, that are near transit.

    The Schilling Gardens could be an attractive and valuable park and a piece of the economic development puzzle, considering this park is proximate to downtown office buildings. Organizations and companies wishing to locate in downtown Oakland will enjoy having a beautiful space nearby to host banquets, meetings, and other functions.

    As a city we must find the will and the way to acquire this parcel with Redevelopment or General Fund money, bond money, and/or philanthropic funds. It would be a mistake to destroy a historic, existing green space for a project that doesn’t even have ‘affordable’ inclusionary housing units.

    Posted by Chris K. | 7 February 2008, 1:44 pm


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