Six Ways Oakland Should Take the Long View for Its Downtown Plan
March 25, 2019

A mixed-used tower under construction at 17th and Broadway in downtown Oakland. Photo by Sergio Ruiz for SPUR.

In our 2015 report A Downtown for Everyone, we proposed that downtown Oakland was poised to take on a more important role in the region. To help turn that potential into reality, SPUR has been advocating for comprehensive, visionary and ambitious Downtown Oakland Specific Plan ever since. After many years of work, the City of Oakland has released a preliminary draft of that plan. 

Overall the draft plan is a comprehensive, well-organized, well-communicated piece of work that covers a wide range of issues. Nonetheless, we have identified a number of areas of potential improvement that could help the plan realize a vision and strategy for building a true downtown for everyone. In a letter to the city, we outlined our recommendations, including the following:

1. Embrace a bolder vision for the future of downtown.

The draft plan has the potential to be more forward-looking, visionary and ambitious. This vision should build on what makes Oakland special, embracing the diversity and creativity that make Oakland a national destination. To help ensure that downtown Oakland fully realizes its potential, we proposed a number of big ideas for the future in A Downtown for Everyone. One of them — reimagining the I-980 right of way as a multimodal transportation corridor and reconnecting West Oakland to downtown — made it into the draft preliminary plan. We encourage the Planning Department to explore two of our other big ideas, as well:  

  1. Begin planning for a second transbay rail tunnel that serves downtown, connects through Howard Terminal and converts a portion of the terminal site into a hub for major regional transportation networks.  

2. Bury the railroad tracks and Highway I-880 underground along the Oakland waterfront.  

2. Reserve enough space for jobs.

Downtown Oakland can and should accommodate at least 50,000 more jobs and become a more significant commercial employment center. Though the draft plan calls for over 17 million square feet of office space, only around 2 million square feet of that would be built on land actually reserved for office uses. The other 15 million square feet would be built in areas zoned for a mix of uses. But if the first proposals for those parcels happened to be residential buildings, it would foreclose the opportunity to develop a sufficient amount of office space in one of the most transit-rich locations in the entire region. To guard against this, we recommended that the city work with consultants to determine how many sites should be reserved for offices to meet a necessary minimum target for office development (such as 10 million square feet). In particular, we recommend that city staff identify and reserve parcels that can accommodate larger floorplates (at least 20,000 square feet), specifically those closest to the BART stations and the Broadway corridor.

3. Look outside downtown to meet housing goals.

SPUR strongly supports the creation of new housing in Oakland. The housing creation goal in the draft plan is greater than what we called for in A Downtown for Everyone (29,000 units in the draft plan versus our call to house for 25,000 new people). We believe great downtowns should accommodate a mixture of uses, including places for living, working, recreation and more. However, the city may need to rethink its housing target for this plan area if more sites are reserved for offices, as we recommend above. To that end, it might be useful to consider housing goals not just within the boundaries of downtown but also in areas immediately adjacent to downtown that could support greater housing density but are not suitable for office.   

4. Balance the costs and benefits of a density bonus.

We’re pleased that the plan aims to make downtown a place that builds community wealth, enables job growth for occupations across a wide variety of skills, and focuses on jobs skills and training for residents. However, we’re concerned about the plan’s proposal to pay for such programs with a density bonus, which would allow developers to build bigger buildings in exchange for providing community benefits like job training programs. While SPUR supports a strong package of community benefits as part of this plan, we fear that the proposed density bonus has the potential to deliver the worst of all possible worlds: development that is not of sufficient density for a downtown core and does not provide enough benefit to the community. If the requirements are set too high, the cost of providing community benefits could outweight the profit from building taller — prompting developers to forgo the bonus and simply build at lower densities.

To guard against this possibility, we recommended that the city work with a real estate economist to carefully calibrate the density bonus scheme and ensure that it is financially beneficial for developers to take advantage of it. Getting this right is critical to the long-term future of downtown — and the city as a whole. The real economic benefit for Oakland lies not in one-time exactions and fees but in ensuring that projects actually get built and start delivering increased property tax revenue — an ongoing source of community benefit.

5. Plan for a future with less driving.

Downtown Oakland is one of the most transit-accessible parts of the region, yet only 24 percent of downtown employees take transit to and from work. Over time, downtown should strive to increase the share of commuters who take transit, walk or bike to more than 50 percent. To achieve this, we recommended that the city create a comprehensive transit plan for downtown.   

6. Encourage a variety of ground floor uses.

We are pleased that the plan supports active uses such as storefronts and restaurants on the ground floor of new buildings. But it’s important to emphasize that retail may not be successful on every ground floor throughout the plan area and that retail requirements could result in very uniform types of businesses (such as bars and restaurants) across downtown. We encourage the city to think about which streets within downtown can function as “main streets,” the places where restaurants and bars could be encouraged, while considering the preservation of space on secondary streets for arts, cultural and other community uses.   

Conclusion

The Downtown Oakland Specific Plan has come a long way since it launched in 2015. We are very pleased that the plan acknowledges the regional significance of Oakland’s downtown while laying out a plan to support equity goals so that downtown can maintain and build upon what makes it so special: the people that live there, work there and visit. We hope our suggested improvements will help this plan realize downtown’s potential as a true place for everyone.

Read SPUR’s letter to the Planning Department >>

Read A Downtown for Everyone >>

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