SPUR Talk: Reconnecting Oakland to its Waterfront

I-880 Cut off Downtown from Jack London--Project Hopes to Repair the Damage

I-880 severs downtown Oakland from Jack London Square. What can be done about it? All Images from the SPUR presentations unless otherwise indicated
I-880 severs downtown Oakland from Jack London Square. What can be done about it? All Images from the SPUR presentations unless otherwise indicated

Stand in downtown Oakland and look around and it can be easy to forget it’s a coastal city. That’s because Interstate 880 cuts a giant, uninviting swath between the city center and the waterfront at Jack London Square.

But that could change. Walk this Way: The Broadway/Webster Project aims to make it more inviting to walk under I-880. At a presentation at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) earlier this week, Christina Ferracane of the Oakland Bureau of Planning and Savlan Hauser of the Jack London Improvement District gave an update on the project and what it aims to accomplish.

As the project’s website puts it, the aim is “…to transform the areas around, under and through the Broadway and Webster Street underpasses of the I-880 Freeway into a beautiful, safe, walkable, inviting, green, and iconic passageway connecting Downtown Oakland and the Waterfront.”

That will be a tall order, considering the width of the freeway, its low height, and high-speed traffic on the frontage roads, plus a dozen other bureaucratic and logistical challenges. But the need is critical. “People detest the freeway barrier,” said Hauser. “People will organize their whole lives in a way that they don’t have to cross the freeway to get to other parts of Oakland and daily activities. It’s a barrier to life and economic development.”

Christina Ferracane and Savlan Hauser at this week's SPUR talk. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Christina Ferracane and Savlan Hauser at this week’s SPUR talk. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Hauser recalled something she once heard from a Jack London resident: “Whoever designed the Nimitz freeway should be taken out and shot if they’re not already dead.” Perhaps that’s a bit extreme, and misplaced, since the Nimitz freeway, a.k.a. I-880, is just one of an entire system of freeways throughout the country that have split downtowns in two and ruined the fabric of urban communities. But that doesn’t mean the damage can’t be, at least partially, undone. In a previous post, Streetsblog wrote about a group that wants to turn I-980 into a boulevard. And then there are the positive impacts of tearing down the Embarcadero freeway in San Francisco and the 101 through Hayes Valley. And, of course, there’s Mandela Parkway, the median-separated boulevard that was created when another section of I-880 was re-routed after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

SPUR’s Oakland Director, Robert Ogilvie, introduced the talk, saying he hopes that some day I-880 can be put underground through Oakland. But that would be way off in the future–and Walk this Way is about shorter term, affordable fixes. To that end, the project held charrettes in 2011 and 2016. “For the price of some beer and bánh mì sandwiches, we brought a bunch of people into the room from the city and other community stakeholders to think about physical interventions that could improve the underpasses,” said Hauser. The stakeholders indicated that the “underpasses should be luminous , dynamic, interactive, and engaging…. It was a high bar to set for a project, but we hope we can achieve all of these things.”

To figure out how, Hauser and Ferracane have been studying similar projects in other cities. They also have been considering solutions crafted specifically for this project. “We had eighteen proposals submitted to the city… with teams from all over the country, from Canada, Japan–over 120 firms represented,” said Ferracane. “There’s lots of excitement about this project.”SanJoseLightDoughnutsAn artistically lighted underpass in San Jose is probably the closest example geographically, but Ferracane showed images from around the world. Lighting, of course is key, and she had slides of underpasses with some pretty impressive artistic neon and other lighting treatments that would certainly make any underpass better. “Because the freeway is so low, we know that lighting is a big part of the project,” said Ferracane. But, she added, that isn’t all of it. There are also old buildings with blank, boring walls on both sides of the freeway, such as the Oakland police station on Broadway. Projecting images onto those walls can enliven the approaches to the freeway and therefore make the undercrossing feel more inviting too.

Of course, an additional approach would be to make activity spaces under the freeway to make the passageways more interesting. How about some rock climbing, as with this example from Australia?RockClimbing_downsampledAnd, of course, lots of bright colors help, as in this example from New Zealand:Art_light_colorCloser to home, Hauser cited the SOMA StrEat Food Park, which sits in the shadow of Highway 101. It occupies what was an ugly spot at Division and 11th Street, but somehow, with all the food trucks and lighting, it is an attractive, enjoyable place to spend some time.

Of course, there’s the question of money. Walk this Way is using a Safe Routes to Transit grant, which is appropriate because Webster and Broadway feed to and from BART stations, the ferry, Amtrak, and several bus lines. “That grant does planning and design up to 35 percent,” explained Ferracane. “It will take $5-7 million for construction,” she said. But she seemed confident they will get the funding. “Oakland has been successful in getting grants for projects. We got funds for the next phase of Telegraph to go from paint to curbs,” she added, referring to Telegraph’s newish parking-protected bike lanes, and the ATP grant that will allow the city to complete them.

Hauser and Ferracane spent the rest of the session fielding questions (and comments) from an eager audience. One audience member insisted the biggest problem was just keeping it clean underneath the freeway. The speakers tried to explain how complicated even simple solutions can become. Keeping up with the trash, of course, is difficult. But even things as simple as more street lighting can cause problems. For example, they explained, Caltrans objects to the city strapping lighting fixtures to the pillars or underdeck of the freeway, for fear it will interfere with regular seismic examinations and maintenance. There’s also the issue of the fast-moving traffic on the frontage roads and ramps, which would make even the prettiest and best-lit underpassing intimidating. One of the solutions is bound to require some serious negotiations with Caltrans: “We’re looking at removing the Broadway off-ramp,” said Ferracane.

There’s also the thorny and heartbreaking issue of the homeless encampments. “Homeless people typically like to transition to places they have been, so the city is thinking about spaces near I-880 for supportive services,” explained Ferracane. Let’s hope Oakland can be more successful than San Francisco has been with its efforts to work with Caltrans to solve the homeless issues on the infamous “hairball” on Cesar Chavez under Highway 101 in San Francisco.

And from Streetsblog’s perspective, most of the proposed solutions that came out of the panel are, of course, cosmetic. The undercrossings have narrow sidewalks with bikes forced to share lanes with drivers making weird last-minute maneuvers (with all the angry honking that invites) as they realize the lane they are in will force them onto the freeway. So is lighting really the first thing that needs dealt with? How about wider sidewalks, protected intersections and phased signaling?

That said, anything that can be done to repair the damage done by the destructive freeway-building age is a welcome effort from Streetsblog’s point of view. Jack London Square should be an integral part of downtown Oakland. Let’s hope this project can help knit the city back together again.

Do you have ideas for how to make freeway underpasses more walkable and inviting? What are your favorite examples of places where formerly barren areas under freeways and other structures have become usable again? Leave comments below.

For more events like these, visit SPUR’s events page.

  • Randy Stortroen

    I am a “yuge” fan of Savlan Hauser and everything she and her co-presenter said is all very nice but the fundamental problem with freeways built to transgress residential buildings and areas is not normative or containment of the homelessness problem but NRP, or near roadway pollution.
    Cars kill us all on a daily basis, the same way cigarettes do, only moreso. There are many effective countermeasures but they don’t include payments to government officeholders so the usual lubrication is missing.
    As for SPUR, it is inoculated against rational mitigation as a matter of survival and citizens should give it’s prescriptions a wide berth. I would not give it the time of day.

  • If you put this kind of investment into under the freeway you need a long, long period of zero tolerance for encampments, trash piles, vandalism, graffiti, urination and defecation. Frankly Oakland just doesn’t have that – we’ve made too many spaces and parks that are neglected and before you know it turn into defacto public dumping grounds. The last art project under Broadway was lit for what, a year at most. Now it is just covered in pigeon poop and surrounded by actual poop. Sad.

    The Jack London District that abuts the under the freeway throughways self-assessed over $500,000 a year in taxes to keep our streets clean but the freeway underpasses remains a complete no go zone no one will touch. Many times the critical sidewalks linking us to BART, bus and uptown have been made impassable and frankly disgusting. It’s an embarrassment. The City or Caltrans will swoop in once every few months but it is just not enough – doesn’t even keep us from having encampments so big they burst into flames fairly regularly.

  • Noneyabusiness

    If they do this it will be immediately covered in graffiti and soon after destroyed by rioters. Oakland will continue to be a self deprecating, self destructive, tax payer money pit, as long as it exists. It will never change. It will just cost more and more for the pleasure of being mugged outside your $2000 a month tiny one bedroom shoebox of an apartment while the city tears it’s self down around you. Oakland is a lost cause. Liberal Utopia at it’s finest.

  • A A

    What about protected bike lanes?

  • M Simmons

    Enough with the ignorant Debby Downers of Trumpland. Your ideology has destroyed rural America while liberal States such as California, Washington, New York, Massachusetts, etc. thrive. Keep voting Republican as you lose your health care, Medicare, and rural American ghost towns crumble around you. If California could only be as great as Kansas or Oklahoma.

  • Removing the Broadway off-ramp is by far the best idea here. None of the others would increase safety or reduce noise pollution (unless I’ve missed something; please correct).

    Lowering the speed limit on that stretch of I-880 would help.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Zero tolerance is sort of correct, but it is actually a dumb idea. The important thing is for people to care bout places. Places that are worth caring about are cared for.

  • Bernard Finucane

    There’s also a railroad line down there, so the chances of a really livable space are fairly dim. It’s pretty much a write-off as a livable place.

    The area under the bridge should be walled up and rented out for industrial use or something. Jiffy Lubes would fit there. Also, measures should be taken to reduce the noise the road causes.

    If Oakland wants to improve itself, it should start with the horrible streets. Also the 980 teardown seems like a sensible idea.

  • OaktownPRE

    Puleeze. Exactly how do you get people to care about some place if they don’t really have give a damn about anything or anyone? The city spent millions turning Lapham Square into a showplace and immediately the snowflakes are out ruining it with skateboards while the Cathedral Building still gets covered in graffiti. Zero tolerance sounds just fine with me. Punishment sounds great too. From what I can see nobody is in charge in this town and the people covering it in graffiti, and the bums taking over the streets know it.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Why should I care what sounds good to you since you obviously hate everyone? You need therapy, seriously.

  • 1976boy

    Eliminate all on and off ramps along this stretch.

  • basenjibrian

    As long as it exists?
    So you are proposing demolishing the entire city? All of it? Even the lovely parts that put many cities to shame (and there are many)
    Of course, given your language, I assume you are proposing the Conservative Utopia. A Final Solution, so to speak.

  • basenjibrian

    People who love everybody and everything also suffer from a therapeutic condition. I suggest being helicoptered into Bogota’s The Bronx neighborhood where you can be turned into a torture plaything for the kind of skells you seem to be defending here.

  • Noneyabusiness

    Wow you sure did get triggered, lol. Better watch out, the Russians are coming.

  • Noneyabusiness

    It’s interesting how you assume my ideology and support for Trump from one anonymous online statement. Also the “liberal” states aren’t thriving anywhere near as well as say Texas a “conservative” state. I don’t “vote Republican” I don’t play party politics.

  • corbu

    you’re stupid and annoying

  • Noneyabusiness

    Good one, lol!

  • corbu

    go back under your bridge troll

  • Noneyabusiness

    Cry more! Lol.

  • corbu

    troll more

  • corbu

  • Noneyabusiness

    Ok will do.

  • corbu
  • I would like to clarify that by “zero tolerance” I wasnt specifically talking about arresting people or anything like that. Just immediately and effectively removing trash, “waste” and cleaning up to demonstrate people do care about these spaces. Some people will claim paying taxes to have someone else clean up for you doesn’t show you really care but I disagree, and anyway it’s the most efficient way to do it. Of course with the tax system the people who don’t care get a free ride I guess, but all societies will have freeloaders who think they owe society nothing. But by and large those that do care are willing to cover for them.

    These spaces are between two neighborhoods, surrounded by busy, noisey, dark streets and the freeway. IMO they are just not good candidates for being beloved community spaces with climbing walls etc. They just need to be functional, clean and safe as transit thruways. Spend the big bucks on maintaining our existing multitudes of parks and City facilities in sensible and appropriate locations.

    Regardless, there are plenty of people in the neighborhood who care deeply that these spaces are now sub-functional as even thruways. However largely being private land and not being able to interpose in the people problem with risk of arrest there is little we can do without the “authorities” doing their job. And that is what an increasing number do want. As a starting point the streets in my area are swept every single day, why not do the same for sidewalks?

  • I think it was claiming Oakland is any kind of “Liberal Utopia”. It’s no more that than say Somalia is a Libertarian Utopia.

    However I’m a firm believer that no one has a right not to be offended. So say what you want, I won’t be offended. And no, the Russian style authoritarian plutocratic oligarchy isn’t coming, it’s already here.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    This comment suggests you’ve never been there. The four blocks between the railroad and the freeway, times twenty blocks in the other direction, is ample space for some real place-making. It’s more than 160 acres of land.

  • Noneyabusiness


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