Model Cities Have Public Spaces 

Oakland should not let Forest City hide a promised park at the back of its development.

Part of the deal when the city of Oakland gave a subsidy of $64 million to Forest City for the Uptown project was that they would provide a park for public use. But they have betrayed the city. They are building a dark hidden park off the beaten path meant only for residents. It is located on 19th Street behind a yet-to-be-designed high-rise building on the corner of 19th and Telegraph.

This became clear at a March 19 planning commission meeting when chair Boxer asked the landscape architect why the public space was not located as a plaza at 19th and Telegraph with the building behind it. He replied it would then be used by the general public!

If the issue on the table had been the location of the park, they would surely have voted to locate it on Telegraph. But the only thing on the table was some changes to the previously permitted proposal. The police requested more lighting. The commission helplessly voted in favor of the change.

After this meeting, Forest City seemed to fear that the city might find a way to relocate the space to make it public, so with indecent haste, they starting constructing the park.

As a contemplative space, the park is beautifully designed. It would be a good fit in a suburban retirement community, if it did not allow visits from grandchildren. The landscape architects had to follow Forest City's xenophobic program, meant to disinvite possible users of a park at this location — students at the School for the Arts and children in the future affordable housing across the street. In fact, the rationale for locating the park at this site was that the affordable housing residents could use it. But they have consistently opposed any play equipment for children without giving any reason.

Due, seemingly, to their fear of crime in Oakland, they are creating an enclave in Uptown that turns its back on Oakland. Ironically, the park they have proposed will provide new opportunity for criminal activity. The term used by Australian police for sites like this with poor public visibility is RPO (rape and pillage opportunities). When will it become known as "Needle Park"?

How many months will it take before a crime in this park hits the newspapers? How many residents will want to live next to a needle park? Is a needle park an appropriate site for sculpture titled "Remember Them, Champions for Humanity"? Will such a park make theatergoers feel Uptown is a safe place to go?

City parks are required to be closed after dark, so how will it foster nightlife in the Uptown Arts & Entertainment District? And how will they close it when Forest City claims it will not be gated?

The only reason Forest City has given for taking the public out of the park was uttered by Susan Smartt, VP, at a commission meeting a few years ago, "You don't know what kind of people would use it." Well, we do know what kind of people will use a RPO park!

And we know what kind of people would use a sunlit public plaza next to the Fox Theater and the Floral Depot. And Starbucks knows. They have decided to add public plazas to stores because "the active ingredient in its success was sociability more than caffeine." Espresso, tea, and scone revenues allegedly climbed 619 percent at affected stores during the first week of the new plazas. (See PPS.org/info/newsletter/april2008.) Forest City does not seem to realize that a vital urban scene will make their housing more attractive to residents, young and old.

Where the plaza should be located, at the corner of 19th and Telegraph, Forest City has proposed a straight-up, no-setback, 14-story building that would overwhelm the Fox Theater.

After the commission gave it a thumbs-down last year, they have not brought it back. According to the State Office of Historic Preservation, such "a project may need a supplemental [environmental impact report] and the project appears to have a potential adverse impact on the historic resource that could lead to a National Register delisting." This would mean the loss of tax credits now part of the funding for the restoration of the Fox. It can hardly be called an unavoidable impact when simply flipping the public space with the building would not only avoid a negative impact, but would enhance the setting of the Fox Theater.

Are we going to miss the opportunity of finally having a downtown with an Arts & Entertainment District that will be safe and vibrant in the evenings and weekends? There is no approved proposal for Parcel 4 at 19th and Telegraph. We can demand that it become the public plaza. Model cities have public spaces where people can mingle day AND night.

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