West Coast Green tackles a sustainable future for West Oakland

October 7, 2008

The concerns of West Oakland got a hearing at the latest edition of West Coast Green, the eco-builder conference held last week in San Jose that otherwise featured the usual suspects: a trade show floor packed with green building goodies and speakers such as Al Gore and environmentalist David Suzuki, host of the long-running Canadian TV show “The Nature of Things,” talking the righteous green talk.

 Tucked away in one corner of the conference, though, a discussion was going on about the future of West Oakland, a place not commonly thought of as having much of a bright future, green or otherwise.

The people doing the talking weren’t green movement celebrities, but a collection of more than 160 developers, government officials, designers, architects and community activists – all stakeholders in the future of an industrial and residential part of Oakland that has long suffered from high crime, pollution and neglect.

They were gathered together as part of what’s known as a planning charrette, a term used in urban planning circles (and other disciplines) to describe meetings designed to elicit input on a project from a wide range of affected parties.

Organized by Oakland’s Ecocity Builders, a nonprofit involved in the theory and practice of sustainable city design, the charrette was to help flesh out a report dubbed “The Sustainable Urban Villages Project.” Ostensibly a blueprint for a sustainable makeover of the area, the report is being funded by a $73,000 grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management Board. When completed in late 2009, Ecocity will share it with other cities such as Richmond.

Ecocity’s idea for the future of West Oakland, an area surrounded by freeways and streets full of big rigs going to and from the busy Port of Oakland, is to create affordable homes within “urban villages” in the area.

Executive Director Kirstin Miller defines an urban village as a neighborhood about a half-mile long where residents can easily walk or take public transportation to just about any activity – work or school, shopping and recreation. The idea is in keeping with Ecocity’s mission of “thinking through how to re-design cities more for people rather than cars,” Miller said.

The nonprofit also wanted to study a place that needed help. “That’s why we didn’t go to Montclair,” Miller said, referring to Oakland’s pricey hillside neighborhood north of Piedmont with a vibrant shopping district.

By contrast, West Oaklanders don’t even have a supermarket. An area that Ecocity foresees as a possible urban village is on Seventh Street across from the West Oakland BART station where there is currently a retail strip.

Another reason for choosing West Oakland is that Miller foresees a return to cities by suburbanites no longer able to afford their commute or McMansions. While it usually leads to the development of expensive urban lofts, Miller said community leaders she’s talked to want to make sure development in the area doesn’t leave local residents priced out.

To lead the charrette, Ecocity brought in developer John Knott whose company, the Noisette Co., is in the process of building affordable housing units on the site of a former Navy base in North Charleston, S.C. – an area similar to West Oakland, where residents wait and wonder to hear the fate of the nearby vacant Army base. Created with the help of community leaders, the development is seen as an enhancement to existing neighborhoods and property values are rising.

Among the ideas bandied about at the charrette were proposals to grow bamboo in West Oakland’s soil, long contaminated by local industrial runoff. Apparently, bamboo doesn’t need pristine dirt to grow and can be irrigated with reclaimed water. Bamboo is in demand for products such as flooring and rows of it would also break up the industrial landscape of the area. Another idea was to raise food crops in elevated beds to avoid using the toxic soil.

If an urban village is built in the area, activists made it clear that they want zoning laws enacted to preserve the many newly remodeled Victorian homes, such as those in the Lower Bottom, a part of West Oakland where a housing development is being built on the site of the Central Station, the former West Coast terminus of the transcontinental railroad.

Perhaps the greatest asset attendees came away with from the charrette was a sense of empowerment over a process they normally would feel left out of. The process showed them that by “thinking through the big picture vision an urban village has a logic to it. It’s not something that’s too obscure to figure out,” Miller said.