Rockridge Out and About

Oakbook reminds me Out and About in Rockridge is Sunday on College Avenue between Claremont and Manilla Avenues. Looks like there will be a fashion show, chef stage, wellness tent, and a green living expo, as well as food, arts and crafts, and a "tots town" for the kids. Interesting that the logo (image above) uses the same craftsman-style font used by the City of Berkeley; my cousin always refers to Rockridge as the "Berkeley part of Oakland."

For those who think Rockridge doesn't go far enough, there is the 13th annual How Berkeley Can You Be?


A Bridge To Star

On Wednesday in the San Francisco Chronicle we learned the new eastern span of the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge is quickly becoming a local icon. At least according to an ambitious politician who held local office at groundbreaking and the architect who designed it. No word yet from the bridge itself.


A Band on Vehicles

A few weeks ago I noticed my neighbor's car, which had been stored at the back of the driveway between our houses since I'd moved in, was gone. It was a fairly nice car that I admit to coveting, if only because it sat there unused for so many months. When I next saw my neighbor, I inquired about it. The reply was the kind of vague answer neighbors often give.

Then several days ago, looking at the post on abandoned vehicles at We Fight Blight, one entry somehow caught my eye. There I found my neighbor's address and vehicle. The car had been determined abandoned and moved.

So I left a comment on the blog post. I was alarmed specifically about the removal of my neighbor's vehicle, and generally about removal of vehicles from private property.

Generally I support this program. A month ago, after learning of it from We Fight Blight, I called in an unfamiliar vehicle that had sat unmoved in front of my house for a week and a half. But I am vexed by the lack of distinction between vehicles parked on private drives versus public streets, and the seeming failure to account for the condition of the vehicle.

In response to my comment, We Fight Blight wrote that I did not identify the vehicle, so it was hard to know which one I was referring to, but that is part of the point. I am concerned our neighbor may now think I reported it (whom else would have?). And because I am aware of the program and the situation, I fear in discussing this with my neighbor I would only look more guilty. But that is truly a minor personal problem.

What bothers me is the attitude taken in the original posts and the response to my comment. It is one of self-righteous assurance, without a trace of doubt that what is being done is anything but completely correct. Given the nefarious purposes for which labeling something blight has been used in the past (see urban renewal, Robert Moses) I would expect more deference. After all, it is hard to imagine anyone interested in these issues to be unaware of the history of the term, and the awful things done to cities and their inhabitants by its abuse a half-century ago.

So I admit to having briefly cringed when I first saw the use of the word 'blight' in that blog. But I generally found it moderate, though the tone noted above did appear on occasion. I have no doubt the author has anything but the best of intentions for North Oakland neighborhoods, but in some of the language you hear the songs of the past: community standards, public health hazards, property values. I fear it begins to go beyond concern for neighborhood and into intolerance of difference.

And that frightens me. Because one of the great things about living in a diverse urban neighborhood is difference. And while sometimes I don't like living across the street from screaming kids, tire of the rubbish the neighbors down the block leave in the gutter, and wish some would take better care of their yards and bring in their trash cans, I understand that this is part of it. And I fear if those things were gone I would lose something else too.

I don't have the answers to all these questions. I certainly don't think cars should sit on public streets for weeks on end, but I also don't think people should be forced to move decent-looking cars from their own driveway, just because they aren't used on a regular basis. And, because of the subjectivity that would be necessary, it is probably difficult to write an abandoned vehicle ordinance that takes into account the condition of the car.

But my doubt about the correct response, as compared with the self-certainty exhibited by those who claim blight, is disconcerting. In the end, this seems a short road to approving a palate of acceptable paint colors for houses, banning laundry lines, or deciding a neighbor's proposed addition doesn't "fit in with the character" of the area. And then it would be no longer be a city neighborhood, nor one I would want to live in.

And because I'm not sure I even completely trust my own words here, I end this post with those of German filmmaker Wim Wenders,

"Every kind of urban planning, by definition, tends toward some kind of homogeneity. The city contradicts that. The city defines itself through oppositions; it wants to explode."


BART (Conservative) Pricing

East Bay Conservative disagrees with my take on the new BART pricing proposal. I commented on EBC in response to the original post, but have been unable to do so again. You'll have to read that post and the subsequent comments for this to make sense, but the following is my response:

Jim M - We don't expect a flight to Paris to cost the same as one to Las Vegas. Why should we expect a ride to Pittsburg to cost the same as one to Lafayette?

Mark Ross makes some good points, correcting my term "market-oriented pricing" with the better "opportunity pricing." And of course he's right on BART's fare problem. But this is a problem with every transit agency and with state highway and federal freeway spending as well. But the losses he writes about are not fixed or constant; It is not like they lose $.75 (or some such amount) on each additional rider.

A large, capital-intensive transit agency like BART has a lot of fixed costs, but the marginal cost of adding another car onto an existing train is fairly negligible. And so it would be a good idea for BART to charge a bit less and run longer trains during off-peak hours, if the resulting higher revenue from fares was greater than the increased operating costs.

In the original post EBC laments BART discouraging use of public transit by increasing peak-hour fares. And I agree, this is not something BART should do. Instead it should raise fares at peak-hours just enough to push those more price-sensitive riders onto slightly earlier or later trains to better spread out the peak and maximize ridership. BART is approaching capacity during peak hours and, apart from some huge capital investments, will have trouble meeting the additional demand that rising gas prices, increasing population, more road congestion, and attention to greener lifestyles will bring.


Oakland Love 001

Over the weekend Apartment Therapy discovered Oakland, linking to a guest post on decor8 titled Things I Love about Oakland, California. It features some of the places and people that make Oakland great. One of them is Oakland-based graphic designer Jason Munn of The Small Stakes. Since discovering his work about a year ago, I have been coveting this poster for Rainer Maria exhibiting some Wisconsin Love (image below). Unfortunately, it is sold out.

The guest post on decor8 is by Leah over at More Ways to Waste Time, who has a whole series of similar posts there under the label Things I Hella Love About Oakland.


Naval Congestion

A post at Future Oakland from a while back reminded me that I wanted to comment on an article in the East Bay Express on the Alameda Naval Air Station redevelopment from a few weeks ago. The lede was that the development for somewhere between 4200 and 6000 housing units now proposed by SunCal would "either cost local taxpayers millions of dollars or snarl traffic throughout Alameda and downtown Oakland."

For the "costing taxpayers millions" option the article states how the traffic projections of the development are only slightly higher than for the originally proposed 1800 unit development. But those numbers factor in comprehensive BRT service and or even Personal Rapid Transit (PRT - think cars you can't steer!?!) that SunCal is unwilling to fund. At one point the article even suggests not enough Alameda residents will ride BRT and thus it will not be "cost-efficient," but when viewed this way, transit rarely is.

The end of the article says all the right things about dense urban development and lessening suburban sprawl and we just want the devlopers to level with us on the costs. But it suggests that these both (taxpayer millions or snarled traffic) are equivalently bad outcomes. And they're not, Alameda and downtown Oakland should be encouraging their traffic to become snarled.

Why? Because in the long run, snarled traffic leads to more transit use (BRT or not) and slower traffic. And more transit use leads to more people walking by Alameda and Oakland-based businesses on their way to transit. And slower traffic leads to more people looking out their windows at Alameda and Oakland-based businesses while sitting in traffic. And more people walking by and looking out at Alameda and Oakland-based businesses leads to... more business in Alameda and Oakland. And even if you hate business, for those of us who love cities, it is just more fun to have more people around.

This is called congestion. And congestion is supposed to be something all right thinking people want to avoid. But as Dutch architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas theorized in his first book, cities should be "cultures of congestion," not the insipid malled, plazaed, parking-lotted and garaged, open-spaced places they have become due to those who fear and fight congestion.

Think about some of Alameda and Oakland's best places: Chinatown - congested, Alameda Marketplace - congested, Bakesale Betty in the early afternoon - congested, Grand Lake on a Saturday morning - utterly and hopelessly congested. It reminds of a quote attributed to Yogi Berra, "no one goes there anymore, it's too crowded."

Now, I don't know enough about the SunCal proposal to say whether it is a good idea or not. But it definitely won't be a bad idea just because it increases congestion.


Park(ing) Day 2008

Just a reminder, Friday September 19 is Park(ing) Day. On the website you'll find a map with at least four Oakland locations. But according to their blog (different from the website), the Nomad Cafe is participating, and they aren't included on the Oakland map, so their may be others. If you know of any, share them in comments.

Meanwhile, it seems you can't swing a stick in central San Francisco without hitting some park(ing). You can find a description of the San Francisco highlights here. Unfortunately, the Oakland description is somewhat confusing.

If you are heading into the City, I highly recommend downloading (1.2 MB) the PDF map of the San Francisco park(ing) locations. It looks like the base is by the folks at Raven Maps, a company that makes maps so beautiful you could cry. If you like what you see, they also make large state maps and benchmark atlases.

Careful though, you may never settle for the graphically-challenged Google maps again. As far as free internet maps go, try Yahoo maps, which are a bit easier on the eyes, though they don't have that cool street view feature.

But I digress, just go park(ing), but don't forget to feed the meter.


STAND Best Picks

In doing some research for another post, I came across the website of Standing Together for Accountable Neighborhood Development (STAND). I had seen their booth around town and always thought they were anti-development. It turns out I was wrong, they are anti-design. On their Best Picks page, they highlight three recent developments they like. None are good.

The first, Il Piedmonte (image above), on the corner of Pleasant Valley and Piedmont Avenues, is at least not terrible. From Piedmont Avenue it gives the impression of a decent courtyard building that was filled in badly at the height of the post-pop period, around 1983. From Pleasant Valley Avenue it resembles three separate buildings. I can only imagine that somewhere in design review it was suggested that the architects "break up the massing", thinking that would make a large building better; it rarely does. The scale seems about right, though it would benefit from adding one more floor and losing the pergola fronting Piedmont Avenue on the habitable roof deck. Were it a single coherent building and maybe a story higher, it could have been the kind of solid work-a-day corner building found at major intersections in great cities all over the world.

The two other developments are so bad they aren't worth explaining (I hope it is obvious), though I reserve a special hatred for the last (image at top), both because I walk by it several times a week, and it is just a block or so away from the lovely Nomad Cafe.

I understand those who think recent development in Oakland is too dense. Generally I disagree, but change is difficult, and people typically don't like to share, whether it be their toys or their neighborhoods. I think Oakland would benefit from more people living here, especially along transit corridors and above shops. I like having a diversity of housing options, and think it great someone could live several floors above a store, a block away in a detached single-family house, or somewhere in between, depending on their preferences and station in life. But to hold these projects (especially the last two) up as some kind of design model is just beyond the pale.


BART Pricing

On Friday we learned BART is considering using pricing to alleviate congestion during peak periods and at busy stations. Today we learned what the San Francisco Chronicle thought, along with the reaction of Oakland SF Chronicle reader Sarah Babcock.

The thing that struck me most was the poor framing exhibited by BART. Consider the opening sentence of the article on Friday,

"BART is becoming so popular during peak commute hours that agency officials are looking to charge patrons more to ride trains, park in its lots, and use certain stations when demand is highest."

Now if you reread the above statement, replacing the words "more" with "less" and "highest" with "lowest", you understand what I mean. And really this is how the issue should have been presented, that BART would discount fares of those who ride at off-peak times. Either way it is disconcerting that BART board president Gail Murray expressed her skepticism of the plan by saying, "when you have market rate pricing, that's essentially a fare increase." That is false - it is only a fare increase if revenue from fares increases.

You could devise a plan (as I think BART should) that would be revenue neutral, or even one that would lower overall revenue from fares slightly (which might not be a bad idea, since they've bungled the PR), by increasing the fares during peak times, and lowering them at all others. Ultimately, I think it would be good to have a three tier system, with highest fares for the peak hour of commuting, a slightly lower fare for the hour on either side of the peak, and a considerably lower off-peak fare.

Certainly I would generally like to see transit fares go down across the board because, as we saw with "spare the air" days, transit usage increases dramatically with lower pricing. And there are so many external benefits to transit, it really is something our government should be funding more. But the reality is that BART is more valuable as a commuting option for most people, and should be priced accordingly. And while I sympathize with Ms. Murray's concerns for social justice in relation to BART pricing, I'm not sure BART is the correct governmental agency to address income inequality, and besides there are other, better ways BART could mitigate the impact of higher peak fares on the poor.

Finally, I'm always amused by people like Maggie Frank (quoted in Friday's article) or writer Sarah Babcock, who both ask BART to contact their employers regarding their ability to start later. I wonder if their bosses would mind if they started earlier. And if, as Ms. Babcock suggests, a fare increase will not change the behavior of high demand hour patrons, then BART has been undercharging those customers for years, and we have all suffered for it through the less extensive routes and lines she bemoans.


Sunday Streets

Today is the second and last Sunday Streets day in San Francisco this year. Four and half miles of street from Chinatown to Bayview are closed to cars and open to bikers, walkers, joggers, and rollerbladers. Along the route there will be yoga, dance, martial arts, health screenings and all around fun.

Unfortunately I had conflicts on both days this year, so I won't be there. I wanted to take my bike over on BART and ride from the ferry building (which I know fairly well) all the way to Bayview (of which I know little). If you go, let me know what you thought. Hopefully it will happen again next year. And how can we do something like this in Oakland?


Ashby Station 002

Nearly a month ago now proposals were presented for the modernization of Ashby Station. Last week I posted some initial thoughts on the timing and structure of the meeting. But the actual presentation and plans deserve comment. The first part was presented by FMG Architects, who seem to do a lot of work for BART. After quickly going through a site analysis, they presented several major recommendations.

The first was to add a digital timetable at the entry outside. Basically it would take the real-time information already found at the platforms and put it on a large screen outside. This is a good idea that would make for a more civilized experience.

FMG also suggested reconfiguring the lighting. The idea was to hang a row lights from the ceiling along the length of the platforms, but it was unclear if this would replace, or merely enhance the existing lighting. Now it isn't saying much, but Ashby Station (image at top) is actually one of the better stations in the BART system. This stems from two main components: the natural light and visual connection it receives from the west entry and windows, and the vaulted, ribbed concrete ceiling that gives it an austere brutalist beauty. The proposal to drop lights from the ceiling would detract from these features.

The final major proposal was to add the word "ASHBY" in big building block-style letters above what looked to be shelters on the sidewalk on Adeline Street above. It is hard to describe, but if you took a typical bus shelter found at the Uptown Transit Center (image above), extended the spires up and placed large individual letters above each one, you'd have about what was proposed. The letters looked to be at least 10 feet square, and would have a huge negative visual impact in the neighborhood. Several commenters correctly noted how auto-oriented the sign was.

And it is, but aside from that, the identity problem with Ashby Station isn't that people driving over it don't know where the station is. The problem is, as SF Cityscape pointed out a while back, that people walking (and driving) in the immediate neighborhood a few blocks away might not know which direction the station is, or how to get there.

Unfortunately, SF Cityscape has been reconfigured, and the post on wayfinding near BART stations is no longer available. But I'd encourage you to click the link above anyways. If you do, you'll see some great maps produced pro bono, including one of a proposed downtown Oakland circulator. I'll save my thoughts on what should be done at Ashby Station for a future post, hopefully a bit sooner than the last.


Sustainable Communities

This article from Newsweek (via Urbanism) sums up nearly perfectly my attitude toward green building. I especially like the line midway through the first paragraph:

"Grassy roofs? Swell! Recycled gray water to flush toilets? Excellent! But if 500 employees have to drive 40 miles a day to work in the place - well, how green is that?"

And although the author surprisingly fails to mention it, the U.S. Green Building Council has been working with the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) to add green neighborhood development certification to its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, called LEED-ND.

Which is all a round about way of introducing an upcoming one-day conference called Sustainable Communities 2008, put on by the CNU. The conference features local green stalwarts such as Peter Calthorpe, Sim Van Der Ryn, and former Oakland Hizzoner Jerry Brown. Early registration ends in just over a week, and the conference is September 26 at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square in San Francisco.


Urban Policy Positions

Agents of Urbanism did a nice rundown a few weeks back on the differences between Barack Obama's and John McCain's urban policy proposals. As you can tell from the available links, the biggest difference is that, well, John McCain doesn't seem to have any.

That said, a lot of Obama's urban policy prescriptions fall into either the "motherhood and apple pie" who could object category, like "support job creation" or aren't really specifically related to urban areas, such as, "provide a tax cut for working families".

"Establish 'Promise Neighborhoods' for Areas of Concentrated Poverty" sounds like it could be good for Oakland, as does "Increase the Supply of Affordable Housing throughout Metropolitan Regions". But "Control Superfund Sites and Data" sounds weirdly big brother. All in all, it is about what you'd expect - a lot of fluff and jargon, with a few interesting ideas, and the devil of all of them will be in the details.

The most disappointing aspect of Obama's plans is the lack of any ideas under a transportation heading. The single most important thing the federal government could do for cities would be to shift transport spending away from new roads and toward mass transportation and the repair of existing roads and sidewalks. As would using it's vast spending power to discourage over-regulation of the built environment by local governments, which keeps most communities less dense than they naturally would be with a freer market.

But, as with many issues, if the federal government won't lead, states must. It looks like this may be beginning in California. And this is a welcome change. The creation of buildings is the most regulated good produced in our country, with predictable results. Supply is severely restricted, which benefits the powerful (those already owning homes, who gain value from supply restrictions) at the expense of the less powerful (renters, who suffer higher rents from same). This is all the more unfortunate because the actual production of buildings is more market-like than almost any other good made, there are numerous producers relative to consumers, unlike, for example, cola.

In addition, all this regulation happens on an extremely local basis, which is done with almost no other good. It is no wonder housing costs are so high.

And while certainly both the federal and state governments should be dealing with this through the carrots and sticks of the budget, it may be time for the state to step in and directly coerce local communities to deregulate. California attempts to do this to some degree with the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, but in the previous housing cycle, the areas you'd want to meet the goal didn't, and those you wouldn't did - that is, if you love cities like Oakland. And it doesn't go far enough, by, say, mandating the relaxation of zoning barriers to micro homes, housing over shops, or small multi-family buildings adjacent to single-family homes, and so doesn't challenge the existing status quo.

So you better buy now, housing in Oakland will only get more and more expensive.


Ashby Station 001

A little over two weeks ago was a meeting regarding improvements to BART's Ashby Station. Prior to the meeting Fight Blight posted a rundown of the existing conditions and some recommended improvements, which I think is a good starting point.

It began with the BART director apologizing for not including the public sooner. The meeting took place the day after the east parking lot was closed to begin construction on the Ed Roberts Campus. One of the first comments was from a young father. He and his brood have used Ashby Station as an underpass for the busy Adeline Street above on the way to and from school, and now with the closing of the east entrance, must cross it directly. He suggested adding flashing lights to the crosswalk, such as at Martin Luther King Jr. Street adjacent. It was a perfectly reasonable suggestion, and one the neighborhood deserves to have implemented to help mitigate the effects of building the Ed Roberts Campus. And it really isn't BART's responsibility, but the problem is that this meeting was taking place the day after the east parking lot closed, rather than 3 to 6 months before as it should have been, and that the City of Berkeley, who would be responsible for adding the suggested crossing lights, was attending the meeting, rather than hosting it along with BART.

This same problem cropped up in several other comments as well, where residents were there to complain or make suggestions concerning the surrounding neighborhood. Now anyone who has been to similar public meetings knows this is the case, it is to be expected, and therefore the relevant stakeholders should have been there to help host the meeting.

The reality is that this is a small project (the BART improvements, at about $3 million) that is taking place (rightly) in conjunction with a much larger project (the Ed Roberts Campus, at about $46.5 million), so you don't want to have numerous meetings on how to allocate the monies, two meetings should do it: one to present preliminary analysis, research and goals of the project and obtain community reaction and feedback, and another to present preliminary designs and obtain more reaction and feedback. And before these meetings even take place, the relevant stakeholders (BART, Ed Roberts, Berkeley, and probably the City of Oakland and AC Transit as well) should have met to coordinate all plans and projects for the area.

The meeting held a few weeks ago was more like what a second meeting should have been, except that the first meeting never took place, nor did the stakeholder coordination. The results were predictably bad. The designs presented were clunky and overwrought (think Oakland's Uptown Transit Center), and worse than that, it is not even clear they were meeting a community need. The problems were numerous, general as well as specific; I will post more detailed thoughts on them over the weekend.


Art Murmur - 2008 Sept

This Friday is Oakland Art Murmur, the monthly art event occurring the first Friday of each month, when local galleries stay open until 9:00 or 10:00. The crowds are usually pretty thick, and with the warmer weather expected to continue through the weekend, will probably be even more so. Even if you hate art, Oakland Art Murmur is worth checking out because it activates Oakland, making it feel like a denser, livelier place - it is a kind of becoming.

From Oakbook via Future Oakland, I learned that Esteban Sabar Gallery has closed. I met Esteban and his husband Marty about a year ago at Art Murmur, and was immediately impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm both exhibited for Oakland and the local art scene. I haven't spoken with them recently, but I wish them well farming and painting in the Philippines, and hope they return before too long.

I'll be checking out Johansson Projects and Mercury 20, among others, as well as the Rock Paper Scissors collective, located in what is probably my favorite building in downtown Oakland.

Also on Friday from 7:00 to 9:30 is a benefit at the Nomad Cafe which was robbed in the recent crime wave in Oakland. Proceeds will be used to fund security enhancements as well as provide the employees who suffered through the takeover-style robbery some gift certificates to a spa or some such to rehabilitate their spirits. Don't know if I'll be able to make it, but I get over their often enough - it is my favorite building in the neighborhood.


Recent History in Oakland

If you've had trouble keeping up with all the shenanigans in Oakland this summer, V Smoothe offers a brief history of our "banner summer" - depressing stuff. Most of it you may be familiar with, but V's last link to the Trib editorial by Mayor Dellums new Public Safety Director Arnold Perkins just blew me away. I still cannot believe we sent all of our Council members back for another term in June.


Architecture + The City

The fifth annual Architecture + The City Festival started on Friday and runs the whole month of September. All this month there are tours, lectures, exhibitions, and a film series. Although most of the events are focused on San Francisco, there is a tour of Margarido House in Oakland, which is slated for LEED-H platinum certification. And don't forget to mark your calenders for Park(ing) Day on Friday Septermber 19.