Oakland Planning Director Cuts Off Latham Square Pilot, Lets Cars Back In

Photo: Laura McCamy

The crowning achievement for Oakland’s new planning and building director so far might be ensuring that cars are being driven through the Latham Square pilot plaza once again.

The Latham Square pilot was supposed to last for six months, but after just six weeks, the widely-lauded, one-block plaza at the foot of Telegraph Avenue is no longer car-free. “The pilot program of having the pedestrian-only area was cut short and one southbound lane was reopened to cars without any warning to pedestrians,” said Jonathan Bair, board president of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland. The current configuration leaves some reclaimed pedestrian space in the middle of the street, but it is no longer connected to the sidewalk. Now the City Council will consider whether to keep it that way.

Rachel Flynn became Oakland's planning and building director in March. Photo: ##http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/blog/2013/03/oakland-picks-directors-for-planning.html##SF Business Times##

Oakland Planning and Building Director Rachel Flynn told Streetsblog the car-free pilot had been given enough time, and that “there’s only so many people that are going to come into Oakland at this time.”

“If all you’re doing is blocking off the vehicles but not increasing the bikes and pedestrians, are you achieving your goal?” said Flynn. When asked for data on Latham Square’s use, she said, “We don’t know how to measure pedestrian and bicycle activity.”

“It’s not like we’ve seen hundreds of new bikes there, while we’ve seen hundreds of vehicles not going to this area.”

Flynn came to Oakland in March, having previously worked at a planning firm based in Abu Dhabi, following a stint as planning director of Richmond, Virginia, in 2011.

Oakland Planning staff will present a proposal to the City Council later this month for a permanent plaza design that includes two-way car traffic on Telegraph. The plan, which has not been released to the public yet, would expand the current sidewalk space from 2,500 to 9,000 square feet, but leave Latham Square bisected by lanes of motor traffic.

When it was proposed, the pilot plaza project was touted as an effort to emulate the success of on-street plaza projects implemented in New York City and San Francisco.

“The purpose of the plaza is to establish safer traffic patterns,” said Sarah Filley of Popuphood, which curates vending spots on Latham Square. “By opening up both of the traffic lanes, you’re not prototyping anything. You’ve just added a nicer median.”

“The fact that the city has not chosen to count bicyclists and pedestrians in the heart of downtown doesn’t mean that there aren’t any,” said WOBO’s Bair, who noted that 24,000 people exit the nearby BART stations at 12th and 19th Streets every day.

Flynn said the decision was prompted by negative feedback. “What we’ve heard from property owners and businesses is they need that access” for cars, she said, listing several nearby merchants and building owners who she said oppose the project.

However, Andrew Jones, district service manager for the Downtown Oakland Association, he surmised that “95 percent of the community has found it to be a nice addition to the neighborhood.” While a couple of merchants had reported reduced revenue during the pilot, he said the association, which plans to contribute $20,000 for the plaza’s maintenance and programming during the six-month pilot, has received “almost no negative feedback.”

Liz Brisson, a transportation planner who lives at Uptown Place a few blocks from Latham Square, is the chair of the city committee of her 88-unit building. “We, collectively as a building, support the full closure of Latham Square,” she said. “As downtown ends up with more people who live there, you need to make more space for people and less space for cars.”

But despite signs of significant support, Flynn made no secret of her opposition to the full Latham Square plaza at a community design meeting in September, according to reports from attendees. Flynn denied having any role in the cancellation of a subsequent public meeting, originally promised for October, but said that “we were kind of hearing the same thing over and over.” Flynn said the city has already collected all the data it needs, and dismissed supporters of the car-free plaza as “mostly from the WOBO group.”

Kristine Shaff, spokesperson for the Public Works Department, denied that a meeting had been cancelled, and said that a second public input session will be scheduled in December. Bair said the December meeting was only scheduled at his behest to allow residents to provide more input on the features of the plaza, though the decision about whether or not to reclaim the block in its entirety may have already been made.

The Oakland City Council‘s Public Works Committee is set to review the proposed permanent design at a meeting on December 3. You can check the WOBO website’s calendar for pertinent meetings and sign the organization’s petition in support of a car-free Latham Square.

  • mikesonn

    This is a joke right?

    “If all you’re doing is blocking off the vehicles but not increasing the bikes and pedestrians, are you achieving your goal?” said Flynn. When asked for data on Latham Square’s use, she said, “We don’t know how to measure pedestrian and bicycle activity.”

  • mikesonn

    This is a joke right?

    “If all you’re doing is blocking off the vehicles but not increasing the bikes and pedestrians, are you achieving your goal?” said Flynn. When asked for data on Latham Square’s use, she said, “We don’t know how to measure pedestrian and bicycle activity.”

  • mikesonn

    This is a joke right?

    “If all you’re doing is blocking off the vehicles but not increasing the bikes and pedestrians, are you achieving your goal?” said Flynn. When asked for data on Latham Square’s use, she said, “We don’t know how to measure pedestrian and bicycle activity.”

  • Anonymous

    Wow, quite insulting that Flynn so easily writes off all the support for a complete Latham Square plaza as from only “the WOBO group” when 1) there is no legitimate way for her to back that claim up while 2) completely dismissing the fact that “the WOBO group” has a lot of great reasons for wanting to keep the plaza complete.

    What other public infrastructure projects do we deem a failure after only 6 weeks of experimentation? And if something isn’t working as planned shouldn’t the initial impetus be to try and improve it as opposed to ripping it out? We hadn’t even gotten around to adding the planned free wifi or pop-up vendors to the plaza. So frustrating.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, quite insulting that Flynn so easily writes off all the support for a complete Latham Square plaza as from only “the WOBO group” when 1) there is no legitimate way for her to back that claim up while 2) completely dismissing the fact that “the WOBO group” has a lot of great reasons for wanting to keep the plaza complete.

    What other public infrastructure projects do we deem a failure after only 6 weeks of experimentation? And if something isn’t working as planned shouldn’t the initial impetus be to try and improve it as opposed to ripping it out? We hadn’t even gotten around to adding the planned free wifi or pop-up vendors to the plaza. So frustrating.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, quite insulting that Flynn so easily writes off all the support for a complete Latham Square plaza as from only “the WOBO group” when 1) there is no legitimate way for her to back that claim up while 2) completely dismissing the fact that “the WOBO group” has a lot of great reasons for wanting to keep the plaza complete.

    What other public infrastructure projects do we deem a failure after only 6 weeks of experimentation? And if something isn’t working as planned shouldn’t the initial impetus be to try and improve it as opposed to ripping it out? We hadn’t even gotten around to adding the planned free wifi or pop-up vendors to the plaza. So frustrating.

  • Anonymous

    By the way, great reporting Laura! Oakland can’t afford to squander opportunities to increase the livability of downtown like this.

  • SFnative74

    Another example of Oakland underwhelming.

  • Zack

    It is to anyone reading, but I think sadly, not to her….

  • amp

    Oakland is so disappointing in so many ways. The only thing that its elected officials and appointed Department heads seem to be good at is shining the city in a bad light.

  • @Dissertates

    Richmond, Virginia, and Abu Dhabi? She’s never worked anywhere that wasn’t hostile to pedestrians.

  • Anonymous

    Pedestrians and bicyclists are imaginary and therefore can’t be assessed using physics and math.

  • The Overhead Wire

    What a contradiction. Did anyone else’s jaw drop when later in the piece “Flynn said the city has already collected all the data it needs, and dismissed supporters of the car-free plaza as “mostly from the WOBO group.”” Umm Apparently YOU HAVEN’T COLLECTED ANY DATA.

  • Anonymous

    And what’s up with dissing the homegrown bike and pedestrian advocacy group, six months into the job?

  • Anonymous

    The saddest part is that Oakland’s meagre bike/ped planning staff is so smart, passionate, and able to stretch a dollar to an amazing extent, and yet they still have to fight tooth and nail with other departments in order to get even the most basic stuff done. I’m surprised they haven’t all burnt out and quit in frustration years ago.

  • Todd Edelman, Slow Factory
  • Anonymous

    Ridiculous. I’ll be voicing my opinion. I read this and then opened my email to find today’s EBRPD newsletter:

    “South Park Drive closes to cars until April. From November 1 to April 1 each year we close this road to protect migrating and breeding California newts, to help them more safely make their way to streams and ponds to mate when it rains. Pedestrians and bicycles are allowed, and we ask everyone to proceed
    slowly and carefully to avoid newts crossing the road.”

    Perhaps we do a study to find our own newts that have to cross here. The Latham Newt? And it’ll migrate year-round.

  • AJ

    This is not ok. What a step backward for Oakland.

  • Max

    “When asked for data on Latham Square’s use, she said, ‘We don’t know how to measure pedestrian and bicycle activity.'”

    Um, Ms. Planning director, knowing how to do that is your job. And you should’ve learned it in the second semester of planning school.

  • Shannon

    What kind of planning director doesn’t know how to measure pedestrian and bicycle activity? Maybe she should consult with her very fine staff who are already doing this in many locations throughout the city. Wow.

  • I have it on good authori-tay that that’s just propaganda from the Newt Oakland Bike Oakland group.

  • Anonymous

    Behold the tyranny of the all-powerful newt lobby!

  • Anonymous

    This decision is bad for motorists too. The Telegraph/Broadway intersection used to have a really nasty left-turn/merge, with lots of accidents. No sane planner would want to put that back in.

  • david vartanoff

    Restore the plaza, fire the fool. She is a waste of my tax money.

  • Kevin

    The LOS is really bad through the square, makes sense that they would reopen it. The LOS must be high. The LOS must be high. That is the only metric that matters.

  • Anonymous

    Has Latham Square been begrimed by newt lanes?

  • Anonymous

    Oakland seems to have some of the dumbest public officials, beginning at the top with its current mayor.

  • • Oakland has the seventh highest percentage of bike commuters in the nation (amongst big cities, a metric designed to weed out college towns), according to the U.S. Census, who has somehow figured out how to count bicyclists and pedestrians. Flynn either needs to step up or step down.

  • amp

    All of you writing comments should email the Mayor and the Planning Director, expressing your frustration.

  • J

    Second semester of planning school? I learned how to count when I was 3 years old.

  • J

    Clearly Flynn believes we should make decisions based on who complains the loudest. Data collection and safety analysis aren’t necessary if you already know the answers, right? Plus, the only people calling for data are “activists” and they don’t really count, do they?

    What a joke of a commissioner. I wonder if she realizes that this is going to make national news in the planning world?

  • J

    “If all you’re doing is blocking off the vehicles but not increasing the bikes and pedestrians, are you achieving your goal?”

    How do you know if you are meeting your goal if you don’t collect any data?

  • The Overhead Wire

    Can someone post the places to send emails?

  • Sprague

    Contact Oakland Mayor Jean Quan:
    http://www.oaklandnet.com/contactmayor.asp

    Rachel Flynn, Director of the Planning and Building Department:
    rflynn@oaklandnet.com

  • dug

    Oakland tries to compete with Fremont and San Ramon with a strange love of cars. Let’s try and be a livable urban center, at least in Downtown. WOBO has been tying to support this goal for years….

  • Guest

    There’s also a petition going around:
    http://wobo.org/2013/10/sign-the-petition-for-latham-square/

  • Anonymous

    make that international news.

  • “We don’t know how to measure pedestrian and bicycle activity.” HOW ARE YOU A PLANNING DIRECTOR?!?

  • jon

    The SB traffic has been open to cars for at least a month now. Not sure why this article is being posted so late. It’s sad to see car traveling through Latham again. On warm days, the plaza is packed with ppl hanging out enjoying this urban park.

  • Ryan

    I visited the Bay Area from New Zealand in September. Took a day exploring Oakland. On bike. Latham Square was one of my stops. Actually it’s the only place where I struck up a conversation with someone from the neighbourhood, who gave me a ‘what to see in Oakland’ guide. Seems rather unlikely I’d have met him if we were both in cars…

  • Laura McCamy

    Actually, studies commissioned by the city showed better LOS on Broadway by blocking the intersection. A public records request that came in after this story was posted has all the information. Go to http://records.oaklandnet.com/request/1025 and start at the bottom.

  • neroden

    “We don’t know how to measure pedestrian and bicycle activity.”

    Uh, it’s not rocket science. You pay someone to go count.

  • neroden

    Braess’s Paradox in action: you can often get better traffic flow with fewer roads.

  • Itzel

    There’s another community meeting tomorrow, November 20 at Oakland City Hall – Hearing Room 2 from 6:00pm – 8:00pm

  • Jeffrey Daniel Cash

    It is rather shameful to see how this woman can capriciously and arbitrarily kill a project that would seem to have wide spread community support. Seems she is allowing her personal animus for this project to affect how she runs her department, which in theory, she runs for the betterment of the community it serves, you know, the very people who want to see this project continue. Clearly getting rid of this woman ought to be a top priority.

  • mark

    I am extremely disappointed in Oakland today,
    and whoever is responsible for dismantling Latham Square Park.

    Rachel Flynn… ?

    This was a great first step towards a more pedestrian friendly downtown,

    and a better way of life for this thriving area.

    Every example of these safe pedestrian areas,
    (from Santa Monica to THE REST OF THE WORLD)
    has helped turn downtown areas into thriving marketplaces and cultural centers, not to mention making it safer for the thousands
    of people who are now flocking to this neighborhood – without cars.

    I thought I saw a brighter future,and started to feel confident that the people in charge were thinking ahead, and had the people’s interest in mind.
    Now I’m not so sure.

    Incredibly short sited…. sad day for Oakland.

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