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Lessons from Oakland's waterfront district

By combining new investment with careful preservation, Oakland has managed to modernize without sacrificing neighborhood character - and characters.
The regional Produce Market in Oakland's vital Jack London District

The regional Produce Market in Oakland's vital Jack London District Photo: Mark Hinshaw

Over the past decade I’ve been observing the gradual transformation of a section of downtown Oakland. Known as the Jack London District, it’s a four- by 10-block neighborhood sandwiched between the I-880 Freeway and the waterfront. Most people blow by it on their way to the Oakland airport or the Bay Bridge. At freeway speeds, it's a part of the city that is easily missed.

But if you get off the interstate you find yourself in a fascinating urban mélange of wildly disparate activities, all of which seem to nicely co-exist. Almost shockingly, the main line for Amtrak and BNSF freight runs down the middle of one of the major streets. That’s right; the tracks are within the street; long freight and passenger trains regularly rumble along with trucks, cars, cyclists and people on both sides. Given this placement, the trains are moving slowly, but they are obviously present. Anchoring the middle of the district is a snazzy, modern passenger depot that serves long distance trains running up and down the west coast.

This is not the only anomaly to be found in Oakland. A few blocks from the station you'll find a four-square block area that serves as a regional produce market. Trucks, forklifts, vans and workers scurry about the streets and sidewalks from 4:00 a.m. until late morning. Located there for many decades, with its broad covered sidewalks cum loading docks, the Oakland Produce Market reminds me of London's Covent Garden before it was turned into a tourist attraction. This bustling market hums with the commerce of buying and transporting food to stores and restaurants. It is gritty, noisy and wonderfully chaotic.

Nearby, other businesses are making meat products, distributing metal parts, assembling pipe and repairing big vehicles. The gleaming white cranes of Oakland's massive Port loom in the distance. With the trains and cranes and warehouses and welding, Oakland's Jack London district sounds like lots of other mature industrial “zones” all over the world.

But wait. That’s not all.

Within a stone’s throw of this raw industry and transport are at least a dozen new apartment and condominium buildings. At least one sits hard on the edge of the Produce Market; its residents look down on the swarm of seemingly random activity puncuated by the back-up beeping of delivery trucks and loaders. In other words, people are paying good money not to be in a quiet, verdant neighborhood, but rather right on top of the blue collar workings of American commerce.


The Oakland waterfront from the Bay Bridge's San Francisco side. Credit: dbaron/Flickr

Yet, Jack London is not a district whose days are numbered by an onslaught of hipsters and high-paid techies. No gentrification here. The City has been careful to keep the industrial sections zoned low rise and has conferred historic designation on many buildings. This is about preserving local jobs and industries, not giving them the boot. For incoming residents, it is essentially buyer beware. If you choose to live in Jack London, you better well know that your life is not going to be filled with quietude.

Even so, more than 1,000 new people have moved in. On the eastern edge of the district, former Port lands will soon be converted to a huge complex of housing, offices, shops and restaurants, as well as a new public park bordering an estuary. When California Governor Jerry Brown was mayor of Oakland, he ensured that at least 15 percent of the dwelling units were reserved for low and moderate income people. Indeed, several “below market” apartment buildings, cheek by jowl with luxury alternatives, already dot the district.

This year, the City was hit hard by the double whammy of the state's withdrawal of urban redevelopment funding and the decline in federal dollars. Even so, says Michele Byrd, Director of the Oakland Department of Housing and Community Development, “we are still firmly committed to providing below-market rate housing, as well as retaining local businesses in our neighborhoods.”


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Dec 3, 9:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Sounds great. Railroad tracks running down the middle of the street is just what we used to have on the waterfront — that's in fact how Alaskan Way (formerly Railroad Avenue) got its start.

Too late to have what Oakland has, but I do hope we realize that kicking industry out, as has largely happened Downtown and in South Lake Union and as is proposed in Ballard, Interbay, and Sodo, is ultimately a bad idea. Seems like it's just the Duwamish Valley where no one wants it gone — except for the residents of Georgetown and South Park, who I'm sure could do without the pollution.

Posted Tue, Dec 3, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

I know what the Bay Bridge looks like. Sharrowed heavy rail is a lot harder to imagine. How about a photo for the young folks at home?

afreeman

Posted Wed, Dec 4, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

I posted some pictures and a video from onboard a train here: http://blog.ouroakland.net/2013/12/trains-in-oakland.html There's also a bit about Oakland's heavy rail history on the OaklandWiki.

Posted Wed, Dec 4, 5:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Assuming "Our Oakland" is not Mark Hinshaw (my assumption prior to taking a look). All the same, that is not the graphics I had in mind. Mark. You there? The only thing that moved in that whole video was the train from which it was shot and a single lone man. A few parked cars, no bikes, no strollers, no urban bustle whatsoever happy to share the public way. One overpass.

Soon after the lone male the tracks recessed into the pavement with a building abutting the sidewalk, and atop the track, a slow, if moving at all, double-decked passenger car. Yes, I agree it certainly did look strange. The text mentions accidents to no conclusion, other than some people learned the hard way that trains do not "dodge."

afreeman

Posted Tue, Dec 3, 11:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Good essay. I like Oakland. I find Jack London Square a bit too mall-ish, but the city overall is a decent urban place.

Oakland is the counterpart of the San Francisco that Seattle seems to want to become. And it's got Berkeley just up the road if you need a yup or hip fix. Together the two have half a million population, and a much better climate than SF.

louploup

Posted Thu, Dec 5, 12:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Of course you like Oakland. It's poor, nasty, and crime ridden, and full of addicts. Just your kind of place. Want a one-way bus ticket?

Tell us: What's your favorite part of Oakland? That the murder rate is 5 times the national average, or that there are twice as many rapes per capita? Would it be the seven-fold multiple of car thefts, or the 88% higher burglary rate?

Would it be the terrible schools, the dysfunctional city government, the permanent fiscal crisis? Or are you just in love with the rats?

NotFan

Posted Wed, Dec 4, 10:13 a.m. Inappropriate

louploup -- the Seattle city council wants to become whatever city has implemented a program they want to implement -- say Eugene and its program for car campers, SF for just about everything but you'll note that they never brought up SF regarding district elections, they want to be like NYC by turning parts of streets into parks.

Back in the late 70's Jack London Square was a total hotspot but it died down after a few years. It's probably why they focused on the area in trying to revitalize Oakland for the umpteenth time. Personally there are some great areas in Oakland -- Lake Merritt for example but it seems no matter how much money they throw at Oakland, very little changes -- just like Tacoma.

Norge

Posted Wed, Dec 4, noon Inappropriate

Sometimes "very little changes" is a good thing.

louploup

Posted Wed, Dec 4, 5:05 p.m. Inappropriate

That's true and I would like a few less over here in Ballard!

Norge

Posted Thu, Dec 5, 12:17 a.m. Inappropriate

I like the idea of train tracks on the waterfront. It would provide endless entertainment to watch the idiotic bicyclists of Seattle try to cross them at an oblique angle like they do in Ballard, and fall over and try to blame everyone else for their stupidity.

NotFan

Posted Sun, Jan 19, 7:43 p.m. Inappropriate

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cherryw

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