185 Post Street

Though it is one of the most important metropolitan regions of the country, the Bay Area is still lucky to have an architecture and urban design critic writing for one of its daily papers. This type of position has been in decline for decades, with fewer big city newspapers maintaining staff to review and critique cultural production. And while I subscribe and enjoy reading it daily, the San Francisco Chronicle is no NYTimes, LATimes, or Chicago Tribune, whose home cities are large enough and their writing serious enough to find it unthinkable that they wouldn't comment on new buildings and projects.

It might just be because the Raiders and 49ers are so bad this year, but the SFChron sports pages are home to some of its most thoughtful and critical writing. But I find their constant rah-rah of Silicon Valley grating, and the cult of personality exhibited in the Food and Wine sections annoying. All of which is a roundabout way of introducing John King's excellent column Tuesday on 185 Post Street. I have my quibbles with his writing; too often he waxes poetic on the urban experience. But when he sinks his teeth into a straight-up architectural critique he can frame interesting issues I hadn't considered and illuminate ideas latent in the buildings and spaces surrounding us.

Working in San Francisco the last few years, I had the pleasure of watching 185 Post Street transform from a dull workaday building into a commercial jewel. Designed by Brand + Allen Architects, the taut glass facade contrasts with both the encased inner structure and the surrounding masonry buildings in a completely compelling way. As King alludes, it is a building begging to be viewed from numerous angles and at differing times of the day, especially at twilight, when its lighting and translucency interplay to remarkable effect.

King mentions a previous proposal on this site by Rem Koolhaas for a new building with a steel facade punched with 8,000 portholes, comparing favorably this work of locals with what might have been. And I couldn't agree more, this building is "every bit as good." He continues, "if not as a work of architectural theory, then as a fresh twist on the preservation" referring to Koolhaas' reputation for enlightening observations on contemporary cities and culture. But here King discounts this building, and at the same time inflates Koolhaas. This is an interesting work of architectural theory, including the theory of preservation. It also references the role of modernism in our post-modern age, and the possibilities for the modern (and post-modern) to co-habitate with and also transform the traditional in the contemporary city. As such, this truly is a theoretically challenging piece of post-modern architecture. Which of course is the kind of architecture also practiced by Koohaas.

Just because Koonshing Wong, the lead designer for the project at Brand + Allen, hasn't written a bunch of theoretical books doesn't make it any less a work of architectural theory. And the theory Koolhaas expounds has always been more about urbanism than the architectural anyways.

Though King laments the subversion of Wong's original idea to leave the brick facade of the existing building unpainted, this was a happy accident. It improved the architecture; the building wouldn't be nearly as "ethereal" with a rough brick facade behind the smooth glass wall. And had the brick been left unpainted, the idea may have been too literal, and thus worked less well on a theoretical level.

As it happened, the brick was first "encased" in a traditional material - paint, before being surrounded by glass, a modern material. Which added another level of reading to this building, strengthening the argument. And making it a joy to behold.


The Living

If you were like most architects starting a practice and needing to call it something, you'd probably use your name and add "architects", "architecture", or maybe "studio" after to let the people know what you do. If you wanted to sound a bit more like an artisan, with a yeoman connection to the craftsmen who construct your designs, you might use your name but call it a building workshop. If later you added a couple of partners, became an office of some stability, and began to take on more corporate and institutional clients, maybe you'd be a three-letter firm. And if you wanted to project a cool, detached demeanor, sound more arty, and benefit from a calculated obscurity, you might choose a self-consciously generic name.

But if you wanted to transcend all that, and sound like you could be a German new wave punk rock band, or a 70's art and media group that drove a Cadillac through a wall of burning televisions, or a collective of cyborgs bent on assimilating the universe, you'd call yourself The Living.

And you'd be speaking tonight (Monday) at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco at 7 pm.


BRT Redundancy

Partially in response to numerous comments on the original post (and perhaps my own post on the topic), a few days ago V Smoothe reiterated that AC Transit's BRT proposal does not mimic the BART Richmond-Fremont line. The most compelling argument being that while the proposed BRT route mirrors the BART line, the service does not. It is an important distinction, and also correct as far as it goes. The problem is, it doesn't go very far.

In that post, V Smoothe laid out arguments for why the first BRT line should go in the BART Richmond-Fremont corridor, mostly having to do with the huge percentage of Oaklanders who live within a half mile of the corridor and the fact that existing bus routes through the corridor make up a large percentage (though smaller, hmm...?) of AC Transit ridership. Additionally, V Smoothe points out that the East Bay's largest employment centers also lie in this corridor. All of which are great arguments for locating the first BRT route as AC Transit has, if the BART Richmond-Fremont line did not exist.

V Smoothe uses an example to make the point, but one I think equally illustrates the potential of less costly means for achieving similar service. The example is one of traveling from downtown Oakland to 46th and Foothill on a weekday afternoon. On BART, the trip to Fruitvale takes 7 minutes. From Fruitvale station there are 3 existing bus routes (1, 14, 47) within 2 blocks of 46th and Foothill. Currently on a weekday afternoon, routes 1 & 14 have 15 minute headways and route 47 has a 30 minute headway. Given that, you'd expect to wait about 10 minutes for a bus at Fruitvale station, and the trip itself would likely take no more than 10 minutes. Which makes me wonder why V Smoothe would not take BART on this trip.

Looking more closley, the AC Transit online schedule tells us both routes 14 & 47 leave Fruitvale station (their origin) at 3:06, the exact time a BART train arrives from downtown Oakland. Perhaps someone interested in defending the decision making of AC Transit can explain why they don't leave at 3:10, as the BART headways for the line at this time are exactly 15 minutes as well. To me, this is inexplicable. The closest timepoint for AC Transit's 1 route puts it at 23rd and International (umm...why isn't the timepoint at 34th and International, essentially Fruitvale station?) at 3:02, which would put it at Frutivale station about 3:06 as well. And so now we understand why V Smoothe did not take BART for this trip. It is because AC Transit does not even bother to coordinate their schedules with BART.

And yet we are supposed to trust an organization that exhibits this kind of decision making (elaborated on in my previous post) with a capital-intensive improvement program that will reshape numerous neighborhoods along its route. Frankly, it hard for me to understand where the support for this BRT proposal is coming from, as AC Transit has been making such poor decisions of late.

Imagine if we could convince people in Washington D.C. (from where the BRT money is coming) that we know better how to spend this money. And so instead of spending it on the massive capital improvements this BRT proposal requires, we added buses, increased and expanded service feeding BART stations, and better coordinated transfers between AC Transit and BART. My guess is we could easily achieve the same level of service in the corridor, if not improve it with more and better routes perpendicular to it, and have enough money left over to better serve other routes and areas as well.

V Smoothe makes another point in support of this BRT proposal, mentioned briefly above, which I think can also be used to argue against it, the fact that this corridor contains the East Bay's largest employment centers. All are well served by BART stations. Which suggests the alternate proposal outlined above could work, because as V Smoothe rightly points out, most riders on the proposed BRT are going to/from work. And so these riders would only be required to make one transfer (at most), from a bus route near their home to/from a BART station. Now obviously it is better to have no transfers, but devising such a system is prohibitively costly. And it is the difference between one transfer and two where a transport system really begins to exhibit gross inefficiencies.

The example provided here is one of someone who now drives to MacArthur station to take BART to downtown Oakland, but might switch to BRT. But this hypothetical person only switches to BRT if they live along the BRT route and near another proposed BRT station. If instead s/he lives at 46th and Adeline, the proposed BRT doesn't much help. What would help is a feeder service that ran down Market and fed into MacArthur station or more frequent service down San Pablo on route 72 (which goes directly downtown Oakland), both of which would likely be possible if we didn't spend all this money on the capital improvements required by BRT. This is what I mean when I discuss the opportunity costs of BRT.

At the end of the day, I agree with supporters of BRT that transit service in this corridor should be vastly improved. In fact I believe transport funding in our country should be massively shifted in favor of transit (and the repair of existing streets and sidewalks) and away from the expansion and creation of new roads, where much of our spending now goes. What I disagree with is the most effective way to improve service in this corridor. Or rather, I am unsure what the most effective way of doing this is. And it is the responsibility of its supporters to explain why they think BRT is the most effective way of improving service in this corridor. As yet, I haven't seen that argument; I am still waiting.


Bus Rapid Transit 001

Last Saturday there was a meeting regarding AC Transit's Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposals hosted by Jane Brunner. Despite being reminded by Future Oakland and Living in the O, I missed the meeting. This topic has interested me for a while, and is one I've been learning about and forming opinions on for some time, but I wanted to attend this meeting to make sure I wasn't missing something. Because the opinions I have been forming are dangerously similar to a typical Berkeley conservative nimby, and frankly I am not at all comfortable with that.

Fortunately, Living in the O provided a great rundown of the meeting the next day. And Wednesday a post at A Better Oakland moved me toward BRT like nothing I'd read yet. As I mentioned in comments at both blogs, I am skeptical. But I am also a huge supporter and user of public transport, and willing to be convinced I have it wrong. So consider this a snapshot of where my head is at right now.

My first exposure to AC Transit's BRT proposal was through graphic design. I noticed the bus signs for the Rapid service, probably on the 1 and 72 routes, because they are so dang ugly. On this you can't change my mind, no matter how many cupcakes you give me.

My second experience was much better. Several weeks ago, on a weekday late morning, I needed to go from Uptown Oakland to San Pablo Park in south Berkeley, located between San Pablo and Sacramento Streets just north of Ashby. Now this isn't a trip I normally make, so when I got to the Uptown Transit Center (UTC) I looked at the map and figured out I could take the 72. I didn't bother to check NextBus or the posted schedule, because I find neither seem to correspond with the other, and often around town the schedules posted at individual stops don't correspond with those online. Thus the only schedule-related thing I typically do with AC Transit is note the headway and pray I'm on the short end of it.

As luck would have it, the first bus to arrive was a 72R. It was wonderful. We flew down San Pablo, not once pulling over for someone just resting at a random bus stop. Now because the online schedule for the 72R does not list individual stops (arrgghhh!) I don't know how much time I saved, but for the 72 that trip is scheduled at 19 minutes, I'm guessing mine was more like 12 minutes. There are two ways to look at that, both valid. On the one hand I only saved 7 minutes, on the other, my transport time was reduced by 37%, though when you factor in my walk on either end and wait time for the bus, it was probably more like 15% (7-8 minutes on either end, with a 5 minute wait). But regardless, it was great.

There are so many aspects to the AC Transit BRT proposal it is hard to know where to start. So let me just begin with the route. It is redundant to the BART Richmond-Fremont line. Now at that link, you'll find some decent arguments for why it is not redundant, but regardless of your take, the redundancy issue is the reason why it was a mistake to make this the first route. I agree with those who argue that BRT can fill a need between BART and standard local bus service. The problem is that there are several major East Bay corridors (San Pablo, MacArthur/I-580) that don't have BART service. And so, if AC Transit was interested in vastly improving transit service in the EB, it would have located the first BRT line there. They didn't, and this goes to my next point.

AC Transit is simply not making good decisions right now. I've already discussed the choice of the first BRT route and the graphic design of the Rapid, and the Van Hool debacle has already been well documented, but there are others. Some people seem to disagree, but NextBus rarely works for me. I often take the 15 or 18 lines home from the downtown Oakland YMCA in the early evening, and on occasion I'll get there and it says the next bus will be 25 minutes out, even though the headways are supposed to be 15 minutes. Before, I would turn around and go to BART. For me the timing is about the same, but the bus shortens my walk, and I don't fear my safety so much as I'm lazy. But then one time after seeing 25 minutes or so on NextBus, the bus showed up as I was walking back to BART. And now, though I see 25 minutes or some crazy number that doesn't even correspond to the posted headway somewhat regularly I just wait, and sure enough, mostly a bus arrives in 5-10 minutes.

And AC Transit has schedule problems beyond NextBus as well. I used to take the F line into San Francisco fairly regularly during my morning commute. Again the timing is about the same as BART, but it is a lot nicer getting a seat and seeing the beautiful SF Bay in the morning, rather than standing in a tube at the bottom of it. But the schedule posted at the bus stop doesn't correspond to the schedule online. I've noticed this at other bus stops around town as well. Of course for the F line I quickly learned which one to believe (online), because I was a regular user of that line. But the schedules posted at bus stops aren't for regular users, they are for people find themselves needing to get someplace they may not ordinarily go from a place they may not ordinarily be in, and who may be trying transit for the first time. Having the wrong schedules posted at bus stops makes an awful impression.

I already mentioned the graphic design of the Rapid service, but the whole of AC Transit's design program is just awful. Take the new Translink cards, which I find to be generally useful, but the graphic design is terrible. Aside from the insipid green psuedo-futuristic image that looks like it was pulled off clipart, nothing about the card tells me it is for the Bay Area, and not Los Angeles, Denver, or Kolkata. Now for the most part, this card can be hidden away in your wallet or purse. But unfortunately the Uptown Transit Center (UTC) cannot.

And the UTC is dreadful. Certainly, as Becks mentioned in comments at A Better Oakland, it is safer than the alternative of waiting a few blocks away, but why does it have to be so ugly? Regardless of what you happen to think of the architectural style of the shelters (me, not much), why do they have to be painted in the same green as nearly every other municipal project built in the last two decades? Why do I have to approach each shelter to find out which buses stop there, instead of being able to read the whole with some bold graphic initiative? And why do I have to wait to board the bus to pay, instead of paying ahead of time at some cool shelter like they have in Curitiba (image above). The answer to all these questions, as it turns out, is that the UTC was designed by FMG Architects, the same people AC Transit has retained to work on BRT, BART is using for Ashby Station, and apparently designed (to be fair, I haven't confirmed this but they have lots of similar projects) that awful parking garage in Dublin that everyone rightfully hates.

So I'm not hopeful for the physical designs of the new BRT system. I've been to two meetings now on Ashby Station, and I am floored by how bad they have both been. Aside from FMG's design abilities, these guys have awful presentation skills. They are defensive and condescending when criticized, and are always pleading that their designs are still in progress, and so can't be judged by the images they present. I remember using a similar argument in my first architectural studio at graduate school; it didn't go over so well.

Now if you squint at the image at top, you can see the BRT bus shelters FMG is proposing (inasmuch as they are willing to propose anything) and to me these look like standard issue shelters from 1993. BRT is going to have a huge impact on the neighborhoods whose streets are going to be ripped up and reconfigured, I think it is incumbent upon AC Transit to do better by them. I am thinking of what Minneappolis did when they built light rail. I can't find a decent link, but basically they hired the best and brightest local talent to design their shelters. And mostly, they are gorgeous.

A bus shelter is the perfect size and scale for an unestablished architect to try their hand. This kind of thing is done all over Europe, where small commissions are awarded to young, creative firms as a way to build local talent and prevent the stultifying suburban sameness that seems to accompany nearly every municipal project in our country. And larger projects are awarded by open design competitions. Renzo Piano, who designed the wonderful new California Academy of Sciences, got his start this way, winning the competition (with Richard Rogers and Peter Rice) to design Le Centre Pompidou in Paris at the age of 33. Thirty-three. And yet here, in the Bay Area, one of the wealthiest regions of the world, we get FMG Architects designing what seems to be dozens of crummy parking garages, transit centers, and government administration buildings. And so I fear the shelters and stations for the entire BRT system will be the same off-the-shelf municipal designs, with no sense of place because all of them will be essentially identical. I mean, gag me with a spoon!

I realize many people don't care much about these design criticisms, and find them frivolous or tangental. But one of the things people who love Oakland should care about is the experience of being in Oakland. And these criticisms go to that. I am concerned that BRT will make the experience of being in Oakland worse.

In addition to all these design crimes, BRT significantly reduces street parking in commercial corridors. I am not familiar with the whole of the route and how much parking will be eliminated and where, so I am just going to focus on the situation in Temescal, which I think I know fairly well. It is my understanding that the basic BRT street section in Temescal will be two bus lanes down the middle, with a median on either side, separating a lane of traffic each way, and no street parking.

There are plenty of people who argue that eliminating parking will hurt businesses and that moving to one lane of traffic each direction will cause terrible congestion. I am not one of them. I think congestion is good for cities like Oakland, and anyplace worth its salt has a "parking problem". Think about a couple of the best places in Oakland, upper College Avenue near Safeway and Grand Lake on a Saturday afternoon. Both are completely congested and hard to park at. So let me just say that I think less parking and more congestion in Temescal would be a good thing. But eliminating street parking is a huge psychological change in the makeup of the street. Instead of a barrier of cars protecting pedestrians on the sidewalk, they will be directly exposed to a lane of traffic, and those drivers will be more aggressive and agitated because congestion will be somewhat increased. And not only that, but there appears to be little room for a dedicated bike lane, which wouldn't be terrible (bike lanes are overrated), except in that case there may not be enough room for a typical vehicle to comfortably pass a bicyclist either, further exacerbating the situation. All of which is to say that sitting outside having a chicken sandwich at Bakesale Betty or eggs at The Mixing Bowl will become a significantly worse experience. And I don't think that is something enough people appreciate.

BRT supporters like to claim it as a boon to pedestrians and bikers in addition to bus riders, but that clearly is not the case in all places at all times. In Temescal, the pedestrian and bike experience will be worse. I am happy to argue with those who think this is a legitimate tradeoff. I disagree, but it is a debatable point. But I think if we proceed this needs to be recognized and mitigated (through better design?), and not just swept away with the assumption that what is good for bus riders is automatically good for pedestrians and bikers.

At the end of the day this all goes, to get a little teleological here, to what is the purpose of transit and what constitutes the good life as lived within cities. Many people argue for transit with the intention of increasing mobility, but a far better way to think about this is that we should be working on increasing access. For the last half century, our transport policies have unduly favored mobility, to the detriment of cities. Places like Oakland became mere pass-throughs, routes on the way to somewhere else. My fear is that BRT, rather than challenge this regime, reinforces it. In simple terms, perhaps it is time we begin to favor place over movement.

Though I've made some passionate arguments here, I want to reiterate that I am open to changing my mind. In fact I would like to do so, because as I mentioned, I am a huge supporter and user of public transport. But right now, as I currently understand it to be conceived, I think this AC Transit BRT proposal is a marginally bad idea. And not only for all the problems outlined above, but because there are huge opportunity costs to choosing it. As I mentioned in one of my earlier comments on A Better Oakland, what if we took this money ( I know, I know) and spent it instead on feeding better (way better) into the existing BART route. My guess is that it would go really, really far. Far enough (perhaps?) to provide a similar level of service as this BRT proposal with a lot left over for other transit improvements. I don't know, but I want to; tell me I am wrong.


Ashby Station Meeting 02

Tuesday is the second meeting on plans to modernize Ashby Station. I posted some thoughts on that meeting here and here, but never got around to sharing what I think the priorities should be. In that first post I mentioned that Fight Blight had a good rundown of existing conditions and some recommended improvements. I hope to make it to the meeting tomorrow, and afterwards I'll post my thoughts and have some suggestions on how BART should proceed.


Oakland Logo

A Better Oakland had a discussion last week on the City of Oakland logo. Apparently the new one (bottom) has replaced the old one (top). But in looking more closely this week, I've noticed the old one still in use on some city vehicles. I'm not sure whether this reflects a slower change over, or simply the use of multiple logos.

I agree with V Smoothe, the new logo is lame. Someone in the discussion said it looked like the logo for a golf course in Danville, which I think is about right. It also could be any number of other Oaklands throughout the country. The old logo was bold and distinctive, things you want in a logo, and it represented Oakland well.


Oakland Sidewalk Stamps

I just discovered this blog that catalogs Oakland Sidewalk Stamps. It is a side project of Andrew Alden, better known as the blogger at Oakland Geology, whose tagline I love, "focused on, near and under Oakland, California." Sidewalk stamps, along with building cornerstones, are great reminders of the history of place.