One of the most interesting phenomena of the urban-infill craze of recent years has been the conversion of industrial corridors, such as riverfronts and railroad tracks, into middle-class housing, “creative” office space and touristy retail.
Places that earlier generations had hidden from view because of their filth and lack of gentility are now becoming civic ornaments. Introverted industrial zones are becoming extroverted public playgrounds. Former industrial corridors are the locales of new parks, museums or other cultural uses, as well as profitable homebuilding.
Developers who seek out opportunities in urban infill, however, are looking for trouble. In contrast to the comparative simplicity of greenfield development, where the suburban builder has a free hand in laying out streets and buildings, the infill developer must contend with contaminated soil, historic buildings, antiquated infrastructure and frequently intense political pressures. Infill developers must also navigate between competing goals, such as housing and open space. And with high land costs and a slow entitlement process, open space may end up the loser.
The Central Station project, which flanks an abandoned Union Pacific station in the industrial section of West Oakland, is a Bay Area example of corridor gentrification. Local developer Rick Holliday, who has a background in loft conversions in San Francisco, bought the 29-acre property in December 2000 from the Union Pacific, including the handsome Beaux Arts-style rail station, which Amtrak used until the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989.
Although Holliday had originally envisioned a mixed-use district with up to 2 million square feet of commercial space, the robust housing market coupled with the weak office market in the wake of the dot-com crash convinced the developer to re-position the project as an urban village. He plans about 1,400 units, which vary in height and density, from three stories on the southern boundary to seven stories on the north, at West Grand Avenue.
In 2002, Holliday divided the property into nine different “development areas” keeping two for an affiliate of Holliday Development and selling the rest to different merchant builders. Notable among them is BUILD West Oakland, the CalPERS-funded, for-profit arm of Bridge Housing, the prolific non-profit homebuilder. Significantly, BUILD West Oakland owns both the 8,000-square-foot train station, the reuse of which remains undecided, as well as a three-quarter-acre site directly south of the building that planners have earmarked for open space.
While most of the housing is to be built during the next decade, the developers have promised “moderate priced” housing in the $250,000- to $400,000-range, which is well below the median prices in the Bay Area and may create home ownership opportunities for first-time buyers. (There is no designated low- and moderate-income component, however.) The site plan indicates a variety of housing types, including conventional apartments, townhouses and courtyard housing.
The planning on the Central Station site is sophisticated. Zoning guidelines for the area known as the Wood Street Zoning District call for plentiful landscaping, the undergrounding of utilities, and setbacks in the profile of tall buildings to prevent streets that look like shadowy canyons. Best of all, the guidelines provide pedestrian connections across a six-block area of the Central Station site. These connections allow people on foot and bicycles to avoid traffic throughout the entire site. Equally important, the connections make it impossible for cars to zoom through the neighborhood as a short-cut to Interstate 880, which lies directly west of the site. This simple but powerful design move ensures safety and comparative quiet for the new residential neighborhood.
Starting with these guidelines, David Baker + Partners, a San Francisco architectural firm, prepared a conceptual site plan on behalf of the developer that has a number of sensible touches. The site planners appear to be struggling with the difficulty of somehow softening the impact of this great wall of housing, which starts at three stories and steady rises as the plan moves northeast from 10th Street to West Grand Avenue, where the buildings are slated to be seven stories.
The site planners rightly make the old train station into the visual centerpiece at 16th Street, where passers-by can enjoy an unobstructed view of the historic building. They create wide streets at two-block intervals between 12th and 20th streets. The designers also provide something like a linear park along the western frontage road that parallels I-880. The tallest and most dense structures are located to the north, where the 90-foot-tall buildings are to loom over the elevated roadway of West Grand Avenue.
What Baker has not been able to do, however, is to create adequate open space for a neighborhood that could house more than 3,000 people in a little less than 30 acres. It is true that the streets will be walkable and that the pedestrian connections between blocks go a long distance toward providing some opportunities for exercise. But open space is essential to quality of life, both to provide the background for exercise and to offset the oppressive atmosphere of tall buildings. It is unfortunate that the largest single open space in the Central Station design is the “front yard” of the train station, which is less than an acre.
The site planners might retort, with reason, that the ratio of green space to buildings is actually high, and, further, that the linear park spaces allow plenty of opportunity for jogging and bicycling. What is missing, however, are ball fields and spaces suitable for large gatherings. Large open spaces also have esthetic value, providing what might be called psychological breathing room.
The ultimate culprit here is the city, which appears to have sacrificed a quality-of-life issue — parks and open space — in the name of maximizing homebuilding. By failing to do so, the city has lost a once-in-a-century opportunity to provide for the public realm. One possible solution would have been for the city to buy one or two of the parcels as parkland, using park bonds to buy the land and creating an assessment district in the Central Station area to pay them off. Maybe that would have reduced housing affordability. However, the shortfall in open space mars an otherwise admirable plan.