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: 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.