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Broadway Valdez Public Workshop set for this Thursday, April 28 (Analysis)

Ruth Miller

Earlier this month, a coalition of livability advocates asked neighbors of the Broadway Valdez area to envision a better Broadway. Almost on cue, the city of Oakland announced they will hold the first in a series of public workshops to craft the second attempt at a Broadway Valdez District Specific Plan.

The meeting will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, April 28,  at the First Presbyterian Church at 27th and Broadway. Mayor Jean Quan will make the opening remarks, and translation services are available with an advanced request.

The Broadway Valdez area roughly spans the area along Broadway from Grant to I-580, about a block deep, as well as the area between Valdez and Broadway (in the Broadway Valdez triangle).

Few streets embody Oakland’s rise, fall and potential for revival better than Oakland’s Auto Row. Since the original Buick dealership opened in 1914 at 3300 Broadway, near what is now Honda of Oakland, auto dealerships lined upper Broadway. Just as manufacturing slowly left the city, the Broadway auto dealerships suffered competition from suburban dealerships with more modern facilities and lower property values.

In 2005, the city estimated the dealerships would only survive another four to six years. Now, with Oakland’s 16.3 percent unemployment rate and the larger troubles facing the domestic automobile market, the area is more depressed than ever. In 2009, the city found that 37 percent of parcels on Broadway’s Auto Row were “empty or underutilized.”

The first attempt to redesign Broadway Auto Row ultimately failed. The city proposed three alternative plans in 2010, each with a mix of retail and housing, but all three were panned. Critics pointed to the “absurd amounts of parking” and preponderance of big and medium box spaces as a sign that Oakland was trying to replicate Emeryville’s Bay Street. Others cited the lack of affordable housing and focus on higher end chains as a warning that the development would not serve all of Oakland, let alone the surrounding neighborhood.

Led by the Greenbelt Alliance, a coalition formed around several qualities sought by neighbors and residents, including:

• Viable retail for Oakland’s bottom line
• Homes we can all afford
• Feasible parking policies
• Quality jobs for Oakland residents
• Walkable streets with compact homes
• Greener ways to get around
• Adaptive reuse of existing buildings

These advocates asked that Oakland not just recreate Bay Street, but do one better. The historic auto showrooms offer truly unique architectural opportunities. Pedestrian-scaled buildings would make the streets safer and inviting for neighbors, as well as shoppers. Plus, this shopping area would be in the middle of an existing neighborhood – space should be available for local businesses and for the sale of goods less exclusive than J.Crew.

Even as the planning process stalled, the Greenbelt platform kept the conversation alive. Into the current mayoral administration, the Broadway Valdez project was often mentioned in the same breath as that other symbol of Oakland’s bright future – a new A’s stadium at Jack London Square. But because redevelopment largely depends on redevelopment agencies, the plan took another hit when Gov. Jerry Brown began working to dismantle redevelopment.

Unwilling to let their vision for Broadway Valdez evaporate, the Greenbelt Alliance and its partners hosted a community open house earlier this month. The open house was well attended. Councilwoman Libby Schaaf addressed the crowd of about 100 people.

“I don’t know how anyone on the Oakland City Council can turn down a coalition like this,” she said. “I’m so excited that I have the opportunity to vote for a vision like this.”

Only three weeks later, the city will attempt to restart the Broadway Valdez planning process. The meeting on April 28 appears to be as close to starting over as the city can reasonable do. The new project schedule only runs through the draft concept.

How will the new alternatives differ from the rejected first plan? Will affordable housing be included in the project without redevelopment agencies? How will the future retail on Broadway Auto Row compete directly with Bay Street? This remains an area with more questions than answers, but lots of excitement.

This article was originally published in Oakland Local.

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