As a practicing urban designer, I’m not that different than any other person in the Bay Area in that I constantly think about how to improve my surroundings. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but we need to make some big changes so we can preserve what we love about living here. And in order to preserve, I believe we need to start by tearing down.
There are two nagging questions that continue to haunt me about urban development in our region: 1) Why not Oakland? While the rest of the Bay Area booms, it smolders. 2) Why can’t supply keep up with demand?
Dismantling an unneeded freeway could be one part of the answer. The John B. Williams Freeway, better know as the I-980, connects the I-880 to Route 24 and I-580 while creating a gash through Oakland, separating West Oakland from downtown. Mike Linksvayer has made an eloquent case that the Bay Area doesn’t need the 980, the most underutilized freeway in the region. Linksvayer’s post, Occupy 980, inspired me to think more about the many ways the 980 corridor could be transformed into something more useful to Oakland and region overall. Tearing down the 980 could be just the right kind of catalyst to finally let Oakland take advantage of its location at the center of the Bay Area.
Tearing down 980 from 7th Street to West Grand Boulevard and replacing it with a beautiful multi-way boulevard that could easily handle the traffic load and flow of 980 would transform the area and reconnect West Oakland to downtown. In addition to the five streets that currently cross the 980 gulch, six additional streets could reconnect. Eleven new city blocks could be created, providing approximately 17 acres of new development. These reasons alone should be enough to convince most that it is time for the John B. Williams Freeway to become John B. Williams Boulevard.
But there is even more potential for the corridor. Such a project could ultimately make possible the expansion of BART and the addition of a second Transbay Tube.
BART currently undergrounds heading south on 980 just north of West Grand Boulevard. A second BART line running under John. B. Williams Boulevard would help improve capacity through Oakland without the need for boring an expensive tunnel. A new stop at 14th Street could serve the new development and would be less than a half- mile from Frank Ogawa Plaza. A second transfer stop could be located at 4th and Market Streets to serve Jack London Square and any new development at the Howard Terminal.
Matier and Ross in the Chronicle recently reported that private interests are suggesting the terminal as a potential location for the Oakland A’s. Maybe it will be the future location for the Warriors, an MLS team or even a Giants minor league team if the A’s move to the South Bay and displace the San Jose Giants. Whatever it becomes, it is a prime location for development that should be served by BART. From here BART could continue across the channel and stop at the stalled Alameda Point project. Maybe with a BART stop the project could finally reach its true potential and become a dense walkable hub of activity without flooding the Posey Tunnel with traffic.
From Alameda, the new tube heads under the Bay and connects to the San Francisco. The big question is how it would connect to San Francisco? Is it just a BART tube that simply connects into the Market Street corridor and adds capacity to the existing line? Does the line connect to areas of new development in Mission Bay, Hunters Point Shipyard, Candlestick Point and south to the Brisbane Baylands and SFO? Is the second Transbay Tube a double-decker that brings Caltrain and high-speed rail across the bay and connect to the Capital Corridor? Or is the second tube not BART at all, only heavy rail connecting to the Transbay Terminal?
Whatever the answer to these specifics, the changing geography of jobs in the Bay Area and the impact of that change on housing supply and costs makes clear that innovative change, such as dismantling obsolete infrastructure, is needed, and soon. The latest generation of upwardly-mobile employees, which includes me, is having a profound impact on land use around the country. That impact is especially acute in the Bay Area.
We are not a population that will easily put up with long commutes to suburban office parks. We want to live and work in walkable communities that allow us to have a deep emotional connection to the cities in which we live. Many of us grew up in the car-dominated suburbs and refuse to return. The tech giants of the Bay Area are starting to follow the talent pool to the urban core. San Francisco’s influx of employees that commute to campuses on the Peninsula, as well as companies moving into the City, have exacerbated an already desperate lack of housing supply.
Now that demand for housing is migrating to Oakland, causing a surge in rents and housing prices. Many longtime residents are getting left behind. It is time to look toward big ideas to solve our problems. Seventeen new acres of developable land will not solve the supply problem on its own, but it could be a start. Beyond the new development such an area could make possible on its own, it could spur more redevelopment in downtown Oakland and beyond to make the city the great destination for business that it should be. Adding capacity to the core of our mass transit system could also help alleviate housing supply issues by better connecting more communities to the key employment centers. Such improvements may not come quickly, but it’s time for a first step. Tearing down the 980 wouldn’t fix these many issues overnight, but it would clear the way for finding better answers.