Durable Growth, Transportation

Tear down 980 to transform Oakland’s geography

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.

A new, multimodal boulevard in place of a freeway. Image by the author, on Streetmix.

A new, multimodal boulevard in place of a freeway. Image by the author, on Streetmix.

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.

A new BART line could activate the new corridor. Image from Google Earth, edited by the author.

A new BART line could activate the new corridor. Image from Google Earth, edited by the author.

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.

Written by Christopher Sensenig

Christopher is an Urban Designer practincing in San Francisco and living in North Berkeley. He commutes daily using causual carpool and the Transbay Bus. Christopher has been working at Van Meter Williams Pollack for over 8 years and has worked on a variety of projects including the Leland Avenue Streetscape, Schlage Lock | Visitacion Valley Master Plan, and the HOPE SF redevelopment of the Potrero Terrace and Annex.

19 comments to Tear down 980 to transform Oakland’s geography

  • td

    980? the one that connects 880, 580, and the east bay past the Caldecott tunnel? Just because you don’t personally use it doesnt make it useless.

    This comes off as one of those incredibly elitist posts from someone who doesnt really think very hard about about how working people in this area go about their day.

  • kaveh

    i was pleased to see an alternative to the space that 980 now occupies but was gravely disappointed that you would fail to include bicycles in it at all; especially as an urban planner who used public transportation himself to commute. you live in berkeley, so you must see the massive advantages to businesses that bicycles bring; take out one parking spot and 10 bikes can fit there giving businesses a lot more financial opportunities. you instead chose to incorporate 8 lanes of traffic, albeit split, which was a cool design, but all you have done is turned a freeway into a kinda freeway.. if it is not being used that much, would 6 lanes of traffic, 2 bike lanes in either direction work just as well for traffic flow because the advantage to the community, businesses, the environment are all obvious.

  • Evan

    If you add this CSS, you shouldn’t have those images running outside the left column anymore:

    #middle img {max-width:570px;}

    Good post. Love to see this kind of thinking.

  • The two projects — replacing I-980 with a boulevard and a new BART extension — are separate, and ought to be studied separately. I agree that replacing I-980 with a boulevard could be of great benefit to Oakland, particularly West Oakland, but that’s true whether or not there is a BART extension there.

  • Daniel Jacobson

    Love the idea. It’s essentially restoring something close to the 1970s design, in which 980 ended at San Pablo and became a couplet on Brush and Castro. http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/world_cities/san_francisco.jpg

    I’m not sure if a boulevard is necessary–by re-purposing existing street space, you could probably remove the freeway and develop the area in its entirety.

  • JG

    The one thing is noticed when I moved here from Oregon was the over complication of roadways. If this was a city in simcity, the upkeep to roads would leave them unmanageable. Nice article and thoughts.

  • Easy

    How is 8 lanes for cars “multimodal”?!

    Missing: A transit lane, side-walks wide enough for pairs of people to pass, and curb-separated bike lanes.

  • FAA

    If it were my money–you’re talking billions here–I’d invest it in the school system with the aim of having Oakland students strongly represented in Bay Area Universities and that those not interested in post-secondary education have opportunities to be trained as artisans and trades people. I’d be sure all students attending school were well nourished.

    Next, I’d want to support the development of more small businesses in the area. I’d want to establish programs that maintain the incredibly vibrant artists community in the area in the face of the cost of living increases.

    How about closing the gap on OPD funding adding the final third of recommended police officers to the force?

    All of these items must be done in a sustainable way. In 20 years things here would be very different.

    Money left over? Create bike/ped friendly pathways along the service roads on each side of I980 and six bike/ped friendly over passes.

    West Oakland is, right now, a great place to live. I’m not concerned with satisfying the housing requirements of the SF overflow. People live in Oakland right now. Why shouldn’t that kind of money be spent in a way that benefits current residents immediately?

  • Jack Lin

    Instead of BART extension, create a loop between Broadway, Uptown, Jack London Sq and the new corridor (Obama Parkway?) with existing Broadway shuttle. Much better use of money. While we’re at it, lets loop the 72 and the 57 through it too.

  • Tim

    “West Oakland is, right now, a great place to live. I’m not concerned with satisfying the housing requirements of the SF overflow. People live in Oakland right now. Why shouldn’t that kind of money be spent in a way that benefits current residents immediately?”

    If those SF overflowers want to live in West Oakland, they’re going to do it and displace someone else. They don’t need 980 removed to accomplish that. 980 was a horrible idea from the start and removing it would be a great thing for west oakland. It wouldn’t be easy or cheap, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on the table. Other cities have managed to remove freeways; we should be able to as well.

    • FAA

      Hi Tim, I don’t think you understood my point. Basically, I just don’t think 980 is the biggest concern. Anybody moving here needs schools, no? Anybody moving here needspublicsafet, no? Why do you think 980 is a bigger issue?

      • Tim

        All right I don’t necessarily disagree with you in that specific respect. But I’m glad to see big good ideas brought to the table despite what seems like political or budgetary difficulty or infeasibility today.

  • OaklandResident

    The road design above is ridiculous. You should include parking-protected bike lanes, transit-only lanes in the middle of the street for a BRT system that’s separated from other lanes by a median, and wider sidewalks.

  • Joe

    I love the big thinking, especially combining two big ideas into one project. But help me understand: if you replace the freeway with an incredibly wide boulevard, how do you create 11 new blocks of real estate? It’s all taken up by roadway, isn’t it? Or is this incredibly wide boulevard still narrower than the 980 right-of-way? (Regardless, seems unnecessarily wide; not a good use of space.)
    Also, I assume you propose retaining the north portion of 980 because it’s above ground? Since we’re talking about burying a BART line in the current footprint of 980 and building above it (aren’t we?), why not retain one half the width as a connector tunnel for auto traffic to Hwy 24 and use the other half for BART? Then bury both and develop the surface. New real estate; 2nd transbay tunnel; connection to 24 retained. Win win win?

  • Joe

    Why are people fussing about the lack of bike lanes just on the basis of a crude and elementary drawing? Is it really so hard to just imagine them there? It’s a basic diagram just so people can get an idea for what a boulevard really is… sheesh. People are so quick just to jump on this article for an incredibly minor detail.

  • Dan

    If you support this idea, here’s a thread on Neighborland – https://neighborland.com/ideas/oak-to-remove-highway-980-wh

  • Dave

    So glad to see this idea surface. I had this idea the minute I moved to Oakland and saw what a waste of land it is, all within half a mile of a BART station.

    But do it right! And do it right away! Don’t convert it to a boulevard. Convert it to housing and parks and offices. Restore the urban grid between downtown and West Oakland. See this map for an idea of the sheer scale of what would be freed up: almost 43 acres. My map has 26.5 acres of development and 8.3 acres of parkland.

    Let’s do it!

  • As an update to an old post: if you’re interested in rethinking I-980, you should check out ConnectOakland. ConnectOakland is a citizens group that has grown out of this thread. We advocate the removal of I-980 and its replacement with a boulevard over a combined BART/rail tunnel that could connect to a new transbay tube.

    Check us out at http://www.connectoakland.org/