Issue 540

Four Plans That Shaped Downtown Oakland’s First 100 Years

To understand Oakland — and particularly the history of its downtown — requires an understanding of what is happening in the broader region.

Urbanist Article

Downtown Oakland began as a small town set in the midst of oak groves that grew along the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay. The underlying urban form of downtown was established shortly after the town’s founding: a basic grid that begins at today’s Jack London Square and extends north.

As we launch our work in Oakland, SPUR is focusing initially on downtown for a number of reasons. Most notably, downtown is where the city began. It is the place of greatest density and the focus of its transit network. And a successful downtown provides revenue for public services and opportunities to a city’s residents. So we decided to look at the planning history of its downtown, and to focus on decisions and plans that influenced the urban form and structure of downtown from the 1850s until just before WWII. Features such as the harbor, railroads, highways, BART and the scars of urban renewal have all left important legacies that affect the city today. Several of those topics will be explored in future articles in The Urbanist.

Here, we explore the early history of downtown Oakland through four key plans that shaped the place:

  • The Kellersberger survey and grid (1852);
  • The Robinson Plan, which emphasized civic infrastructure but was not implemented (1906);
  • The Hegemann Report (1915), which resulted in the implementation of much of the Robinson Plan and included a regional vision for connecting to Berkeley; and
  • The Bartholomew Plan, which ushered in planning for the automobile (1928)

By 1914, several iconic structures that are still around today were visible along Broadway around 14th Street. In the distance is the Cathedral Building under construction.

In 1900, oak trees grew throughout downtown Oakland, here at 5th and Clay.


1 | An urban village emerges: The Kellersberger survey and grid (1852–1900)

Oakland got its start as a cluster of development set among the oak trees near the mouth of the Oakland Estuary, along what is now the Oakland Inner Harbor. City founders Horace Carpentier, Edson Adams and Andrew Moon incorporated the area into a city in 1852, and they facilitated development by hiring Julius Kellersberger, a Swiss engineer, to lay out the city’s original grid. The town then began to grow from the waterfront north to 14th Street.

At this time only two “country roads” — San Pablo and Telegraph — led into the area. The Lake Merritt we know today was then an estuary formed where several creeks emptied into San Francisco Bay. Even into the 1870s, only a handful of residents lived near Lake Merritt.

Kellersberger used a plan format typical of contemporary western towns. Starting at the water’s edge, he surveyed 14 blocks north (from Embarcadero to 14th Street). In the center was a new street — Broadway —that at 110 feet was wider than the others. There were eight parallel streets on each side, including Webster, Castro and Clay. This created a grid of 224 city blocks measuring 300 by 200 feet each.[1] The plan also included five public squares, all of which remain today.

In 1883, W. Bordman completed a new survey for Oakland that extended Broadway to the hills and extended a series of grids throughout most of the flatlands. He also established Lakeshore Boulevard, though his idea for having the road wrap around the entire lake was not fully implemented.

The 1852 Kellersberger grid plotted the city up to 14th street with five plazas (all of which remain today).

Source: Kellersberger Survey Oakland in 1852, United States Circuit Court of Appeals Reports; Bird’s Eye View of Oakland in 1893, Courtesy of the Oakland Public Library.

Coincidentally, it was another Swiss-born engineer, Jean Jacques Vioget, who established the San Francisco grid in 1839. A defining feature of both was a grid laid on top of the existing topography. In Oakland’s case there was a slight elevation increase of perhaps 40 feet from the waterfront to 14th Street where the original grid ended. With its northernmost point at 14th Street, the Kellersberger grid enabled, though didn’t expressly propose, downtown’s most unique feature: the convergence of the three dominant streets of the East Bay.

Though the Kellersberger grid is rational and relatively easy to navigate, one critique is that neither Kellersberger nor the young city of Oakland contemplated was a clear definition of the city’s edges along the water, either at what is now Lake Merritt nor the Bay shoreline around today’s Jack London Square. There was no walkway along the waterfront, and the path around Lake Merritt did not come until much later. Some of this oversight was due to the particular nature of how the waterfront developed into a harbor as well as its control and ownership, first by individuals and later by the railroads.

Kellersberger revised his Oakland design in 1857 and introduced a new diagonal road, Market Street, which angles north and eventually crosses San Pablo at 30th Street. Perhaps drawn from San Francisco’s diagonal Market Street, Kellersberger hoped for Oakland’s Market Street to become the main corridor of the city. While Oaklanders did refer to areas of the city as “west of Market” or “east of Market,” the street never took on a central role for the city the way Broadway has.

By 1860, Oakland’s population was just over 1,500, and the geometry and significance of streets radiating north and east from the city’s center at 14th and Broadway was complete. As the city’s population grew to nearly 35,000 in 20 years, many of the new homes built were Victorians, some of which are still found on 8th street and in Preservation Park.

Early Oakland did not develop in isolation — just southeast was “Brooklyn Township,” which Oakland annexed in 1872, only two years after Brooklyn (New York) itself incorporated as a city. South of the harbor was Alameda, which incorporated as a city in 1854.


2 | Civic architecture and the City Beautiful movement: The Robinson Plan (1900-1915)

By the turn of the century, Oakland’s population had reached 67,000. Given technological changes in architecture, the skyscraper was suddenly possible and downtown Oakland became a significant site for major buildings. The next decade was Oakland’s fastest growth period ever. By 1910, the city’s population had more than doubled, to 150,000, and some considered Oakland poised to be the leading metropolis of the west.

The city center continued to shift north from its original location close to the harbor channel. Beaux- Arts-style buildings, which made a strong use of steel frame construction, rose along Broadway. Beaux-Artsinfluenced city planning included long symmetrical vistas, tree-lined boulevards, grand landmarks and axial avenues. New office buildings, movie palaces, hotels and department stores began to unfold around the center of downtown at 14th and Broadway.

While ambitions for growth existed for years, it wasn’t until the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco that Oakland really grew from a town into a city.2 Even while San Francisco was burning, refugees flooded into Oakland. Within weeks, nearly 3,000 businesses and professionals had relocated their work to Oakland. The influx to Oakland was not temporary; later that year only about 200 had returned to recovering San Francisco.

A a view of Washington Street and City Hall in 1888.


In this 1907 image, the three radial streets — San Pablo, Telegraph and Broadway — are clearly visible as is the First National Bank building in the foreground.

Source: Washington Street and City Hall in 1888, public domain; Broadway , Telegraph and San Pablo: the three quasi radial streets, Public domain (Flickr, Creative Commons).​

Even before the earthquake, Oakland prepared itself for growth when new Mayor Frank Mott hired Charles Mulford Robinson in 1905 to produce a plan for the beautification of the city. The plan — quickly adopted in 1906 after the earthquake — reflected Oakland leaders’ desire for a “prompt and concerted effort to make Oakland more metropolitan, especially in the manner of lighting up the streets and supplying that variety of entertainment which is naturally to be found in a large city.” [3]

Robinson’s hiring was akin to San Francisco Mayor John Phelan’s hiring Daniel Burnham in 1904 to develop, with Willis Polk, a 50-year plan inspired by the City Beautiful movement. But the Robinson plan lacked both the grand vision for a metropolis and the civic transformations expressed in the Burnham Plan. The Robinson Plan was more of a report that identified the city’s conditions at the time and proposed recommendations and strategies for “what can be made out of Oakland, not how it might be made over.”

The Robinson plan dealt primarily with parks, fences, streets and boulevards, including the land around Lake Merritt, which was to be turned into a park with a boulevard built around the lake. In addition to major beautification recommendations, Robinson strongly urged the city to bury wires on Broadway, abolish telegraph poles, regulate sidewalk advertising, substitute stone and concrete curbs for wooden ones, and install street lighting. Shortly after the Robinson plan, the city also enacted ordinances and issued bonds for improvement of public spaces. In the 1907 election, voters approved nearly a million dollars in bonds for parks. Two years later, the people not only voted for $2.5 million in harbor improvements but also over a million dollars for a new City Hall to be erected in the triangle at 14th Street, San Pablo Avenue and Broadway. A year and a half later, they again authorized the expenditure of public funds for needed public buildings, including $775,000 for elementary schools, $738,000 for high schools and half a million dollars for a civic auditorium to be built at the south end of Lake Merritt.

Built in 1914, the Oakland Civic Auditorium, later renamed the Kaiser Convention Center, was the only prominent civic structure adjacent to Lake Merritt. Shown here in 1917, the building and the lack of related surrounding uses demonstrates the promise of the lake but shows how the city largely grew up without connecting sufficiently to it.

Built in 1914, the Cathedral Building was the first Gothic Revival style skyscraper west of the Mississippi River.

Source: Kayser Auditorium, Oakland Public Library; Cathedral Building 1914, Oakland Public Library.

Despite these investments, few of Robinson’s specific recommendations were immediately implemented. It wasn’t until 1915 that the plan’s ideas were more fully realized in Walter Hegemann’s much longer and more detailed planning report.


Population Growth for the Bay Area’s Three Central Cities: 1850-2013


While the population seemed to grow faster in Oakland than in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco doubled its population between 1910 and 1950, while Oakland’s growth stabilized over the first half of the 20th century.


3 | The emergence of regional ambitions and comprehensive planning: The Hegemann Report (1915–1927)

In 1915, in the middle of a decade when Oakland added another 75,000 residents, Mayor Mott hired Werner Hegemann, a German city planner who prepared “Report on a city plan for the municipalities of Oakland and Berkeley.” Hegemann’s report included a broad range of recommendations, from specific details such as the need for more neighborhood parks to a particular focus on the impacts of the Kellersberger grid on congestion around 14th and Broadway (due to the convergence of major streets), the still-present challenges of the “too long blocks” between 14th and 19th east of Franklin Street, and the “extraordinarily long unrelieved cross streets” between San Pablo and Telegraph, particularly north of 19th Street. As remedies, Hegemann proposed a number of new streets added to these long blocks within the downtown grid.

Werner Hegemann’s report proposed modifications to the street grid, north of 14th Street in particular, where many blocks were considered too long.

This 1912 map shows the extension of Oakland and surrounding cities. Telegraph Avenue extended all the way to the University of California in Berkeley. (The University relocated from downtown Oakland in 1873).

Source: Werner Hegemann’s report on a City Plan for the Municipalities of Oakland and Berkeley (Oakland/Berkeley: Municipal Governments of Oakland and Berkeley, 1915); David Rumsey Historical Collection, Realty Union Map of Oakland and Vicinity, 1912.​

The report even includes a section on the “ideal spacing between skyscrapers,” which proposes that future developers of skyscrapers should pay their neighbors “for the guarantee of unobstructed air and light” (essentially an early version of transfer of development rights tools which were later used to preserve historic buildings).

Amidst these important details about city planning, Hegemann’s report reflected Oakland’s now larger regional aspirations. “The logical site for the great commercial and manufacturing metropolis,” he wrote, “...[is] where Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond are building.” Hegemann also spent considerable energy exploring the potential of an expanded “modern industrial harbor” in Oakland, and he also proposed a comprehensive plan for the improvement of public spaces and streets and advocated new East Bay transit lines through downtown Oakland.

The Hegemann report signaled the emergence of the new profession of city planning and the idea that civic beautification was not only a good thing, but it was also a prerequisite to create a strong reputation among cities. The report makes the forceful argument that cities could direct the course of their own growth instead of allowing it to occur haphazardly.[4]


4 | The rise of the automotive city: The Bartholomew Plan (1927-World War II)

By the late 1920s, Oakland’s population was approaching 300,000 and planning became increasingly concerned with the rise of traffic congestion. Prior to the 1930s, downtown Oakland was the transit hub of a growing East Bay, where most people moved around on streetcars or on foot. As car ownership began to grow significantly in the 1920s, cities throughout the country proposed changes to the street network to manage traffic.

In 1927, Oakland’s Major Highway and Traffic Committee of One Hundred hired Harland Bartholomew to produce “A Proposed Plan for a System of Major Traffic Highways.” Bartholomew, first hired by Newark in 1914, was the first full-time, municipally employed city planner in the United States, and he would later work on road plans for many major American cities as well as with Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the New Deal.

The Bartholomew Plan proposed a significant expansion of automobile routes throughout the East Bay, including a superhighway along the waterfront (that would later become I-80).

Source: Mel Scott, the San Francisco Bay Area, A Metropolis in Perspective, Second Edition (1st Edition 1986), University of California Press.

Bartholomew proposed the creation of a distributor loop around Oakland’s central business district, a superhighway along the East Bay waterfront from Richmond to San Leandro, parallel routes to relieve congestion on East 12th and East 14th streets, several cross-town routes above Lake Merritt, and the widening and extension of the Skyline Boulevard in the Berkeley Hills.

When the Bay Bridge opened in 1937, Bartholomew’s plan laid the groundwork for a continued expansion of auto-oriented growth within Oakland and beyond to the larger East Bay. With more cars, East Bay suburban drivers began to bypass downtown Oakland. The superhighway Bartholomew proposed was built as the Eastshore Freeway (today’s Highway 80). And Bartholomew went on to be one of the leading practitioners of highway construction and “slum clearance” as part of downtown renewal efforts. Like many cities, Oakland would soon experience the impact of the wrecking ball and the resulting dislocations.

But on the eve of World War II, the various plans of the past century had built up Oakland’s downtown into a center for business, shopping and entertainment. Its open spaces included both the remnants of 19th-century plazas and the grander City Beautiful public spaces like the area in front of City Hall. It had a collection of Victorians from the late 19th century, some important high rises and what is today perhaps the country’s largest collection of terra cotta buildings. Many of those features from Oakland’s first century remain largely intact and provide the basis from which to imagine Oakland’s future.

The four plans discussed here each reflected the desires and concerns of their respective eras. External events like World War II and subsequent migrations and economic changes would lead to new planning ideas for downtown. We will explore those eras in future articles.

[1] Jensen, Morten. 1990. “Developmental History of Downtown Oakland.” Kaplan McLaughlin Diaz report.

[2] Bosselmann, Peter, and Pellegrini, Stefan. Rebuilding the Urban Structure of the Inner City: A Strategy for the Repair of Downtown Oakland, 2003, California.

[3] Bagwell, Beth. 1996. Oakland: The Story of a City. Oakland Heritage Alliance.

[4] Scott, Mel. 1986 (First Edition). The San Francisco Bay Area: A Metropolis in Perspective, Second Edition. University of California Press.

Egon Terplan is SPUR’s regional planning director; Magda Maaoui is SPUR’s regional planning intern.