Unearthing the Gems in Oakland’s Cultural Heartland

A performance on the steps of the Oakland Museum of California. The museum is exploring ways to contribute to street life in the surrounding neighborhood. Image courtesy Flickr user Tony Nguyen/Yung Grasshopper.

South of Lake Merritt, Downtown Oakland’s walkable street grid and historic fabric give way to superblocks, expressways and internally focused institutional complexes. This challenging environment is a legacy of 20th century planning and Urban Renewal. But just below the surface lies a wealth of assets and amenities that could form the raw material of a welcoming, integrated cultural district. SPUR has been engaged in discussions with the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) and its neighbors about such a possibility.

The neighborhood has an astounding concentration of assets close at hand. You might never know from walking the streets, but Lake Merritt, the Oakland Museum of California, Laney College, The Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium, Oakland’s Main Library and the Alameda County Courthouse, are all within a quarter-mile of the Lake Merritt BART station. These are some of the Oakland’s most significant civic and cultural spaces, closely tied to its evolving identity. And yet the neighborhood, so close to Chinatown, Downtown, and the lake, lacks a coherent identity, or even a name.

The Oakland Museum of California recently completed a renovation of its 1969 building (designed by Pritzker Prize winner Kevin Roche with terraced gardens by Dan Kiley) opening more directly onto Oak and 10th Streets, and is eager to do more. The open spaces and roadways along Lake Merritt have recently been rejuvenated using funds from Measure DD. A new pedestrian bridge provides a gateway to the Lake Merritt Channel, the first segment of which has already been restored. Proposals for the adaptive reuse of the historic Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center are under review, and Laney College has adopted an institutional Master Plan with a focus on restoring connection to its surroundings. The Oakland Unified School District is exploring joint development of its former headquarters site just east of the Lake Merritt Channel.

But with all these assets and positive movement, it remains a district of jarring discontinuities, largely devoid of street life. One-way streets divide buildings that always seem to turn their backs on the pedestrian, and some of the most tantalizing connections – from Laney to the Lake, say, or from the Museum to the Channel – are awkward or impossible.

Map from the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan demonstrating all the assets in the area. 

The Lake Merritt Station Area Specific Plan, adopted in December, has established a land use vision for the area, so a full-blown planning process is not in order. Instead, an opportunity exists to make small gestures that tackle some of the barriers to access, reveal the district’s hidden gems, and invite exploration. The Oakland Museum of California is an ideal hub for such an effort. Not only is it at the geographic heart of the district, but its mission is to “support Californians in creating vibrant communities,” and its curatorial lens often engages questions of place.

The south Lake Merritt area is an ideal candidate for “creative placemaking strategies, defined by the National Endowment for the Arts as: “public, private, not-for-profit, and community sectors partner to strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.”

Through performance, festivals and gatherings, design interventions and public art, creative placemaking uses the power of the arts to examine, engage and transform public space. Such strategies have the potential to tie this district together, overcome the barriers between its amazing resources and shift community experience and perception of the area.

Improvements could include parklets to tame busy streets, pop-up shops to activate building frontages, or artistic happenings that draw people into an unfamiliar place. The Oakland Museum of California’s wildly popular Friday Nights @ OMCA weekly food truck events offer an inspiring point of departure..

As SPUR begins its presence in Oakland, we look forward to engaging with OMCA and its neighbors and mapping out a process that can focus Oakland’s creative minds on this opportunity.