Letters for the week of February 1-7, 2006 

Grime is attracting its own crowd. Transit Village plan was too timid, its debut retailers are guinea pigs, and you missed all the positive stuff.

Lady Sovereign CD review, Hearsay, 12/7

Autonomous grime
I read your review of Lady Sovereign, heard an interview with her on KUSF, and saw the posters at Amoeba. I listened to her CD at KALX (I'm a DJ, and a lot of people at the station are excited about her music). I was not very impressed with her style, content, or beats. However, I think I am reacting to the excitement about artists like Lady Sovereign and MIA from people who do not usually listen to hip-hop or dancehall. You demonstrated this point in another article where you mentioned that the New Yorker reviewed a grime compilation, and that the magazine reviews hip-hop about as much as Giuliani visits Amadou Diallo's family. This shows me that a different set of people is reacting to grime.
Matt Price, Oakland

"Ghost Town," Feature, 1/4

We need more chaos
I'm not convinced your ghost town story is all that frightening. In the not-too-distant future, when demand for oil continues to increase and production falls away and that threshold moment called 'peak oil' hits with a shock of forever increasing gasoline prices, then places like Fruitvale Village will undoubtedly do much better. And that will be pretty soon.

But such 'transit villages' would do even better yet if they were conceived as in-town 'town centers.' They were too humbly, even fearfully founded, as modest 'village' intrusions into real urban fabric, next to real urban transit. Fear of density of the sort that used to work in older cities with trains and streetcars has kept heights rigidly down to four stories in this first generation of 'transit villages.'

What the Fruitvale Villages along metropolitan rail lines need is more height, more breadth, more 'ecology' and more chaos. The planners of Fruitvale Village including Unity Council's Gilda Gonzales are right when they say more housing nearby is needed. To get enough, it would be very helpful to go a few stories higher, to create something of an 'urban hill' with terracing and rooftop gardens, some accessible to the public. Solar greenhouses on the south, bridges between buildings, more plants in the right places and other elements of design to enrich and make the place more fun for the pedestrian would also help. The higher density zone should spread into the adjacent neighborhood two or three blocks. Have different architects who don't like each other's work do adjacent parcels for a little of the old urban chaos that makes cosmopolitan multi-cultural life more enjoyable. Then you'd have an ecologically tuned, commercially vital, exciting transit town center instead of an in-town suburban implant with the bare first inklings of success in an expensive energy future.
Richard Register, Oakland

What do you want?
As someone quite involved with transit-oriented developments, I found Eliza Strickland's article as well thought as it is well written. The market tramples the best of intentions, especially political ones. The owners of private retail centers usually ruthlessly go through a few generations of business failures until the center "learns" what it is supposed to be. The question is whether and how, in a non-profit context, to enable the initial businesses to hang on longer than they would in a for-profit development. I hope that the Unity Council can have a comprehensive what-do-you-want survey done of BART riders and the neighborhood that might shorten the learning process.
Greg Harper, Emeryville
president, AC Transit; vice chair, Transbay Transit Center Joint Powers Authority

Desire is there
Creating transit villages, which put new homes and shops near BART and other transit, is a critical way to accommodate growth, provide needed housing, reduce sprawl, ease traffic congestion, and invest in our transit system. Many components come together to make this model of development successful. Your story focused on only one component -- the stores -- before slamming it and critiquing the transit village model. The story missed Fruitvale's successful components and failed to look at other transit-oriented developments that also offer lessons for Bay Area communities.

Fruitvale Transit Village connected the existing BART station to International Boulevard, a thriving commercial strip that was already providing for local shopping needs. The stores in the transit village have been unable to attract either local residents or BART commuters. This could be due to the surrounding competition, the choice of stores compared to the market demand, and the high rental rates the stores are charged. For the sake of the business owners and for future development, we need to understand why.

However, Fruitvale, like all transit villages, has other components. Fruitvale included 47 homes that didn't exist before, including 10 rented to people earning low incomes. All the apartments rented before construction was complete, revealing both the dire need for housing in the East Bay and people's strong desire to live within walking distance of stores and transit. In addition to housing, the senior center and library have seen much activity and success. In the fall, the plaza was turned into an outdoor movie theater where families gathered at dusk. Furthermore, the community was involved in creating this Transit Village. Residents and local businesses chose this model of development to replace a surface parking lot and many are enjoying and benefiting from that decision.

Across the Bay Area developers are finally banging on City Hall doors to build Transit-Oriented Development. Fruitvale helped to teach us that involving the community and planning are critical so that new developments meet the needs for parks, libraries, health facilities and other affordable housing. Certainly, we can learn from the successes and drawbacks of Fruitvale and other transit villages. Dismissing the idea just because they put too many stores in makes no sense. Working together we can incorporate these lessons into future developments to create a region that works for everyone.
Stuart Cohen, Berkeley
executive director, Transportation and Land Use Coalition, Oakland

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