Oakland’s Latham Square: Plaza to the People

Latham Square turns a patch of downtown Oakland into a colorful oasis.

Just two weeks after Oakland’s Latham Square opened on August 16, office workers could be seen arriving in ones and twos at lunchtime. A clutch of high schoolers from the nearby Oakland School For the Arts zoomed in on skateboards and sat together on a big bench in the shade, looking cool and disaffected. The park, which made the last block of Telegraph Avenue below 16th Street car-free, provides such a natural definition of the border between downtown and uptown Oakland that it feels like it has always been here.

On a recent hot Oakland day, Vince, who works in downtown Oakland, came to Latham Square to meet his friend Jay, who works uptown, for lunch. While they agreed they liked the space, Vince said, “It needs something to anchor it.”

Ruth Miller, a former intern for WOBO, appreciates the public space in the center of downtown Oakland. She says it’s friendlier — and shadier — than Frank Ogawa Plaza and less corporate than Oakland City Center. “I feel more welcomed by the space,” she said.

Latham Square's moveable street furniture

Latham Square Fountain, which was erected in 1913 in memory of animal rights advocates James and Henrietta Latham, has moved from obscurity to prominence thanks to the new plaza. “It’s in a ‘why would you go there?’ kind of place,” said Iris Starr, Oakland’s division manager of transportation planning and funding.

“I always knew the fountain was there but I would never go over and look at it, because it was completely surrounded by cars,” said the EBBC’s Dave Campbell. “It’s like Oakland has uncovered a treasure that was right in front of its nose.” Part of planners’ future aspirations for the space is to return water to the fountain, whose cisterns now serve as flower planters.

The idea for the experiment in calming traffic and activating public space came after Jamie Parks joined the City of Oakland as its first complete streets program manager in 2012. He recognized that the intersection, part of a project that had been in the works since 2006, was a great place for a pedestrian plaza. Studies conducted by the city showed no adverse affect on traffic.

The plaza is part of an infrastructure project for housing built by the city with state Prop 1C funding. “The goal is to reconnect the public space on the street to the surrounding urban fabric, which is really breathtaking,” said Matthew Passmore, principal at Rebar Art & Design Group and lead designer for Latham Square.

Furnishings were made with materials reclaimed from Oakland’s corporate yard and fabricated in West Oakland. The street furniture, including sturdy wooden seating and shade trees in big boxes, is all on wheels so it can be moved based on community feedback. “It’s all meant to be iterative,” Campbell noted.

Starr hopes the furniture will be “the hip, edgy thing that moves around town,” to be reused in the next public plaza pilot, after Latham Square gets permanent fixtures.

Latham Square Fountain

One of the unusual aspects of this pilot is that the business community is a big supporter. “Since the day of the soft opening, we have received positive feedback from business owners and patrons alike,” said Andrew Jones, district services manager for the Downtown Oakland Association, which will host events in the space.

Oakland business incubator Popuphood is part of the project as well, curating six outdoor vending spots in former parking spaces on the west side of the street. “We saw the Latham Square space as an opportunity to support our smaller entrepreneurs,” said Sarah Filley, cofounder of Popuphood, who sees the model as a prototype that can be used in other Oakland locations. “A lot of the data suggests the [existing] merchants benefit hugely from projects like this.” The pop-up spaces will not include food vendors, in deference to the many established eateries nearby.

A proposed permanent design for Latham Square will be presented to Oakland’s Public Works Committee on October 22 and to the City Council on November 5. The public is welcome to provide comments at both meetings and during the design process. Starr noted that 90 percent of the comments received so far to the city’s online survey have been positive.

Tatianna Peck, who works around the corner and came to the park to eat her lunch, said, “When you’re in the office all day, it’s nice to breathe fresh air.” With Latham Square, Oakland has breathed a bit more fresh air — and vitality — into its downtown streetscape.