the urban prospector

Searching for Golden Opportunities in America's Cities

City Center: Oakland

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I recently went to the Bay Area for a couple of days. During this time, my girlfriend and I explored Oakland for a day. One place we stumbled upon was City Center. According to Wikipedia (I wish it was a better source, but for the time this will have to do) this is an outdoor shopping mall and is a “textbook example of redevelopment urban land planning…” The site was developed through eminent domain and involved the displacement of many residents and businesses. This is the sort of history that I cannot support and unfortunately has happened too many times across the country. However, compared to typical urban redevelopment projects, this one has a great physical design.

The Physical Design of City Center

The following pictures go from East to West, starting at the Bart Station at City Center and proceeding towards Preservation Park.

Bart Station Entrance

This is the entrance to the Bart Station at City Center

This is the entrance to the Bart Station at City Center. The station is below grade; notice street level at the top of the image.

This is the first area experienced upon leaving Bart.

This is the first area experienced upon leaving Bart. Though limited, movable tables and chairs as well as a ledge provide seating opportunities.

City Center; Steps and Water

Steps begin the movement out of the Bart station; first to a sub-grade shopping level and finally to grade level.

This mini plaza was superbly designed. The children on the ledges are playing with a water feature. The large amount of legdges creates ample spaces to sit while the trees provide shelter from the sun.

This mini plaza was superbly designed. The children on the ledges are playing with a water feature. The large amount of legdges creates ample spaces to sit while the trees provide shelter from the sun.

Another set of steps leads the pedestrian closer to ground level.

Another set of steps leads the pedestrian closer to ground level.

These escalators and steps lead the pedestrian to ground level and the beginning of the main part of the plaza.

These escalators and steps lead the pedestrian to ground level and the beginning of the main part of the plaza.


 

Main Plaza

Upon reaching ground level, this is the view that greets a pedestrian.

Upon reaching ground level, this is the view that greets a pedestrian.

This sculpture and water fountain works superbly as a center of attention, drawing ones eyes further towards the federal buildings in the background. The ledges and pads surrounding the fountain encourage sitting. Although I am indifferent to the art, the placement and usage of it represents great urban design.

This sculpture and water fountain works superbly as a center of attention, drawing ones eyes further towards the federal buildings in the background. The ledges and pads surrounding the fountain encourage sitting. Although I am indifferent to the art, the placement and usage of it represents great urban design.

Plenty of movable chairs and tables along with shelter from the sun. This allows City Center to be a busy and energetic place.

Plenty of movable chairs and tables along with shelter from the sun. This allows City Center to be a busy and energetic place.

With tables and chairs set in the center, there is plenty of space for walking along the edges. This puts potential customers closer to stores, making purchases more likely.

With tables and chairs set in the center, there is plenty of space for walking along the edges. This puts potential customers closer to stores, making purchases more likely.

 

Federal Plaza

This Federal Building was superbly executed. It nicely frames the continuation of the City Center pedestrian street. I don't like the idea that the central atrium could be closed off and imagine this is an impediment to nighttime activities in this area.

This Federal Building was superbly executed. It nicely frames the continuation of the City Center pedestrian street. I don’t like the idea that the central atrium could be closed off and imagine this is an impediment to nighttime activities in this area.

There are two sides to the plaza in front of the Federal Building. The northern side is dominated by brick. While this leaves a wide open space in the middle which needs activation, there is a large amount of seating and shade around the edges.

There are two sides to the plaza in front of the Federal Building. The northern side is dominated by brick. While this leaves a wide open space in the middle which needs activation, there is a large amount of seating and shade around the edges.

This is the atrium to the Federal Building. Unfortunately if it is closed, the pedestrian connectivity is ruined. I was here on a weekday so I cannot tell how often or when the doors are closed. If they are closed every night and on weekends, this is a terrible waste of a great pedestrian street. Given the security needs, there should be security guards on site at all times that could handle this area being left open.

This is the atrium to the Federal Building. Unfortunately if it is closed, the pedestrian connectivity is ruined. I was here on a weekday so I cannot tell how often or when the doors are closed. If they are closed every night and on weekends, this is a terrible waste of a great pedestrian street. Given the security needs, there should be security guards on site at all times that could handle this area being left open.

The southern side of the Federal Plaza is dominated by grass. There is still seating and shade. As far as plazas go, it isn't too bad.

The southern side of the Federal Plaza is dominated by grass. There is still seating and shade. As far as plazas go, it isn’t too bad.

 

Last Block

This is the last block of the pedestrian street. Here we have a parking garage on the south side hidden by stores and seating while the north side has new residences. The residences are a great addition and necessary to ensure this pedestrian space doesn't die at 5pm every weekday.

This is the last block of the pedestrian street. Here we have a parking garage on the south side hidden by stores and seating while the north side has new residences. The residences are a great addition and necessary to ensure this pedestrian space doesn’t die at 5pm every weekday.

This restaurant with movable tables and chairs as well as the seating in the background serve to hide a parking garage while creating a great pedestrian experience

This restaurant with movable tables and chairs as well as the seating in the background serve to hide a parking garage while creating a great pedestrian experience

Using ledges is a great way to create unique seating. People are able to find their own place to sit and to sit the way they want to. Not as flexible as movable chairs, but still very friendly for sitting.

Using ledges is a great way to create unique seating. People are able to find their own place to sit and to sit the way they want to. Not as flexible as movable chairs, but still very friendly for sitting.

The view to the east from the westernmost block of the City Center pedestrian street.

The view to the east from the westernmost block of the City Center pedestrian street.

These new residences will help this area maintain activity during non-business hours.

These new residences will help this area maintain activity during non-business hours.

 

Problems with City Center

While the physical design of City Center is impressive, there are a couple of points that ultimately kill this space. The selection of stores and shops is predictable. Places like Panda Express, Popeyes, Jamba Juice and Radio Shack dominate the area. If you are looking for something unique, do not go here. Furthermore, the management policies of the private owners of this pedestrian street all but ensures that nothing creative or spontaneous will be allowed to occur here. If you want to dangle your feet in the water, go somewhere else. If you want to find a street performer, this isn’t your block. Many of the activities that makes an urban space great are not allowed here.

The selection of stores in this area is predictable and very corporate. Here there is a Quizno's and a FedEx Office. There is a severe lack of unique shops and restaurants. You could probably find this selection of stores inside an airport.

The selection of stores in this area is predictable and very corporate. Here there is a Quizno’s and a FedEx Office. There is a severe lack of unique shops and restaurants. You could probably find this selection of stores inside an airport.

Starbucks and Scottrade help make Oakland City Center feel like a typical mall.

Starbucks and Scottrade help make Oakland City Center feel like a typical mall.

This pool was designed for interaction. The steps here lead peacefully down into the pool. However when my girlfriend and I sat down on these steps (not even getting to the water) we were required to move by security. This great feature is not being used due to private management policies of the land owners. This would be less likely to happen if this was truly public space.

This pool was designed for interaction. The steps here lead peacefully down into the pool. However when my girlfriend and I sat down on these steps (not even getting to the water) we were required to move by security. This great feature is not being used due to private management policies of the land owners. This would be less likely to happen if this was truly public space.


 

Conclusions

City Center has a horrible past, but the physical design is one of the best pedestrian streets I’ve experienced. Whoever designed this area did a great job. The jobs-housing balance is probably too far towards jobs thus leaving this place empty after work hours. Bringing in new residential units will help with this. Perhaps a better balance will allow for independent shops to move into the area. Then again, it may be that the private owners of the land are in favor of of chains. One good thing about chains is that you know what you’re getting. While they may be boring, you know both the quality of the food and the quality of the business model. This latter factor may make them more favorable to management. Nonetheless, it does deaden the cultural vibrancy of the space. Finally, places like this should be public property. Liability issues force management to keep people out of the pool. The private management keeps culture out of the area. By making the pedestrian street (not the shops) public, this area would become an actual part of the city and create a culturally vibrant space.

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