One Less Bridge to Cross: Part Two

by Ken Katz
Last month’s article about tentative Caltrans plans for upgrades to 580 between Webster Street and Fruitvale came (in 2019) with an estimated budget of 20.9 million dollars. Part of that cost can be attributed to the demolition of the existing pedestrian overcrossing between Santa Clara Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, but the lion’s share is for building a replacement POC roughly 750 feet to the west. As an alternative to building a new bridge, the City of Oakland’s Transportation Department is proposing significant traffic, pedestrian, and bicycle safety improvements for the impacted areas extending from Grand at MacArthur to the slip lane across the street from the Grand Lake Theatre. Our article included a detailed summary of those improvements provided by Jason Patton, the Bicycle & Pedestrian Program Supervisor for the City’s Department of Transportation (OakDOT), Safe Street Division. If you haven’t already read the article in its entirety, we highly recommend that you do so.

We were pleased to see that seventeen individuals filed comments — roughly half our subscribers and the other half members of the Oakland Now Facebook group with whom we shared a link. All the comments thus far are posted on a Splash Pad News page that we will continue to update over the next several months leading up to a critical neighborhood public meeting yet to be scheduled by Caltrans in cooperation with Oakland’s Department of Transportation.

Based on a such a limited sample, it’s impossible to come to any conclusions, but several threads seem to be emerging. The most obvious is that the existing bridge gets minimal use. Only one respondent reported that he uses it regularly, and a second said occasionally. Both agreed that maintenance has been deplorable and, if a new bridge is constructed, it needs to be safer and better maintained. The least surprising thread is that the majority of comments are in favor of the city’s option, with a focus on street improvements for pedestrian and bike safety.

For the balance of this follow-up article, I’m going to share my own personal views in response to some of the comments posted thus far, with the understanding that every single neighborhood stakeholder has an opportunity (some might say, “obligation”) to share his or her opinions using the comment tab below or via Facebook or email.

One reader, Doug, posted, “Spend the money to improve the pedestrian and bike crossing along the surface streets. Rebuilding the POC would be a complete waste of money.” I agree wholeheartedly but also agree with Caitlin’s concerns about avoiding changes that would back up vehicular traffic.

Carter said, “Getting rid of the slip lane is a great idea.” I think it’s a no-brainer, especially since the photo of the slip lane I took on a Saturday happened to coincide with the lane’s closure as a new billboard was being installed. Even on a busy Saturday, hard right turns at the corner of Grand and Lake Park were seamless. The only downside, the loss of seven curbside parking spaces, would be significantly outweighed by the elimination of one of the scariest crosswalks in the neighborhood.  The liberated space could be used, in part or as a whole, for new greenery and, as already mentioned in the DOT’s proposal, it could provide  a bike path linking Grand to Santa Clara Avenue and/or a parklet with plaza seating. If that last option is selected, David Thorne (the landscape architect profiled by Jerry Barclay in last month’s edition) has offered to have his staff provide preliminary drawings pro bono.

Naomi said, “If CalTrans would maintain their facilities and the stuff under the overpasses, I would be a lot more sympathetic. I do use this POC but am appalled about the lack of care for Oakland’s many freeway-uglified fencelines, underpass sidewalks, miscellaneous embankments, and overcrossings. It seems like it’s always easy to come up with capital money (a lot of it is federal), but the maintenance follow-through is weak.” I’m with Naomi on this and would add a bit to the historical record. In 2002, Tora Rocha (at that time a Gardener 2) came up with plans to clean, weed, and re-landscape the planting bed to the left of the eastbound Grand Avenue freeway exit. City and Caltrans staff worked alongside a small army of volunteers to complete the project, which looked beautiful as long as it lasted — which wasn’t long at all. By a strange coincidence, a couple of hours after writing the above words, I accidentally happened upon the original plans that Tora and a Caltrans landscape architect drafted.

Knowing that “first impressions always count,” and with those plans already on hand as a starting point, let’s redo what Tora did two decades ago, whether or not a new POC is constructed. But this time, Caltrans will have to commit to maintaining the landscaping and irrigation system. The right side of this offramp as you approach Grand Avenue is equally problematic. Ivy is growing up over the sidewalk reducing its width by a third and the hillside is a tangled jungle. If it’s private property, as appears to be the case, the city needs to file a blight complaint and follow through with enforcement. Currently, the only landscaping alongside the westbound onramp across from the theater is the triangular piece at the corner which could use some upgrades. As mentioned above, landscaping plans are already available for the large tract to the left of the westbound offramp behind the school. The one change that would have the greatest impact is already being considered in the DOT plans — namely, the addition of trees to the barren stretch where the on and off ramps are side by side.

If there’s a consensus against building a new pedestrian POC, ongoing maintenance and major improvements to the Grand Avenue underpass to make it safer, cleaner, and more attractive will be absolutely critical. The improvements that the Department of Transportation is talking about focus on infrastructure changes, but we should also be looking at amenities that Caltrans may or may not be willing to underwrite: better lighting; removing the chain link fence that borders the parking lot; and, if at all possible, having Caltrans provide matching funds for the restoration of the Grand Performance mural — something that’s been under discussion for years.

As mentioned above, the scope of this project is limited to this short stretch of Grand and the freeway on and off ramps, but we need to be looking simultaneously at ways to minimize traffic accidents in the adjacent commercial district while improving pedestrian and bike safety. Several weeks ago, a car skidded out of control on Lake Park and ended up wrapped around a Queen Palm in the traffic island — tragically killing the driver. This was not an isolated incident. Nine palms were planted in 2003 and only three remain; all the others were similarly destroyed. Several years ago, a woman crossing the street between Ikaros and Bake Sum late at night was killed by a hit and run driver. A few doors up the block, a car plowed into the parklet in front of M2 and another went up over the curb on Lakeshore and came to rest at the foot of one of the homes converted for use by Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church. These are mostly (if not all) late-night events that may be difficult to address, but we need the DOT to be looking for solutions and potential sources of funding.