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November 23, 2011

Oakland continues working toward master plan

oaklandskylinePlanning for Oakland took another step forward last week as urban design experts reported on findings from a series of community dialogues, forums, focus groups and workshops held over the spring and summer.

The planning effort — dubbed Oakland 2025 — is part of a year-long process to develop a master plan for the neighborhood. Oakland Planning and Development Corp. (OPDC) is coordinating the project with support from neighborhood institutions and community partners, including Pitt. School of Social Work and Community Relations office affiliates are assisting with the project. The project also has been endorsed by the University Senate community relations committee.

Focusing on five areas that will form the basis of the final plan, consultants from Pfaffmann + Associates, a Pittsburgh-based architectural/urban design firm, provided an overview of many consolidated recommendations, as well as a statement of objectives for each area, in a Nov. 17 community forum.

In addition, consultant Todd Poole reported on proposed economic strategies to accomplish the plan’s eventual final recommendations.

The plan focuses on housing and building; business and development; open space and art; community building, and transportation.

Consultant Rob Pfaffmann said, “What we tried to do is develop a simple mission statement for each area that incorporates key words and concepts that we heard in the workshops.”

• Housing and building. The overall goal of this portion of the plan is to “attract a diverse population by promoting quality of life, conservation and innovative new choices,” according to recommendations in the proposal.

“Housing, obviously, is a very important part of the plan,” Pfaffmann said. “We saw a lot of areas in Oakland where there are opportunities for infill; for restoration and rehabilitation, and for new large-scale development.”

Potential targets for housing improvement/development or business development include: the Oakland portal area; the “trail head” neighborhoods of Junction Hollow and Bates Hollow; the Bates/Zulema streets triangle; Bates/Semple streets; the Lawn Street overlook hillside; the former Syria Mosque site, and Wadsworth and Robinson streets.

• Business and development. The goal in this area is to “focus on local, unique, diverse businesses that grow from Oakland’s innovation economy and support neighborhood health.”

“In business development, there is a density of businesses in the lower end of Fifth and Forbes, at the Oakland portal,” Pfaffmann said. But other Oakland areas are ripe for business expansion, he said, including the Atwood Street restaurant row; Bates/Semple streets retail area; Bouquet/Joncaire/Forbes Field district; the Boulevard of the Allies neighborhood retail area, including the old Isaly’s building and surrounding property, and the Craig Street/Centre Avenue business district.

• Open space and art. The goal here is to weave green infrastructure (trails, parks and hillsides) and public art into all economic development initiatives.

“You have a world-class park next to you in Schenley Park, and the incredible restoration of Schenley Plaza could become an anchor for greening the rest of the neighborhood,” Pfaffmann said. “But we also have clear gaps, a lack of connection between South and Central Oakland and West Oakland. The use of trails as an economic development tool, greening the streets, making the quality of life on the streets at the same level of Schenley Park and Schenley Plaza” are all solid recommendations, he said.

In addition, recommendations in this area include cleaning up hillsides; building parklets, community gardens and playgrounds; improving stormwater management infrastructure, and adding landscape improvements and public artwork.

• Community building. The goal of this section is to reinforce neighborhood identity and increase social capital through community consensus, social networks, stewardships, gathering places and increased connectivity.

“There is really a constellation of places and spaces in areas where people are working on a number of different issues related to building community,” Pfaffmann said.

Among those issues are looking for ways: to better connect the community to local institutions; to create cross-generational open spaces such as community gardens; to build or restore the pedestrian stairways and trails that can connect the various sections of Oakland; to improve access to social services; to open community senior or recreation centers; to strengthen the various Oakland neighborhoods’ identities with signage, public art and markers for historic sites, and to expand the number of walking tours, he said.

In addition, Pfaffmann said, the preliminary plan calls for making Oakland more family-friendly, supporting immigrant communities, attracting amenities such as a full-service supermarket, supporting local youth with job training and internships and building a robust communication network for the entire Oakland community.

“We like to think of community-building as a way of sustaining the plan and being stewards of the plan,” he said.

• Transportation. The stated goal here is to “create new transportation choices that strengthen neighborhood connections and emphasize innovative, safe and high-quality design.”

Pfaffmann said: “Transportation is one of the most challenging aspects of this project. We’re still digging into the data and collecting information. We think we need to think outside the box and raise the bar on what we should expect from the transportation system.

“The main Fifth-Forbes corridor is the subject of a potential bus rapid-transit system. But what we’re also looking at are ways to connect your neighborhood circulation networks.”

Consultant Mike Morehouse offered a number of “What if?” scenarios regarding transportation issues. “Serving the Pittsburgh area are so many shuttle services, I’ve lost count. The medical center and the universities and the major employment centers and of course the Port Authority — everybody’s running buses. But you can’t necessarily get on any of those buses. They are not available to everybody, especially if you’re living on the south end of Oakland where bus service recently was discontinued,” Morehouse said.

“What if we eliminated all the competing bus services and have one consolidated, unified bus service? Could that work in Pittsburgh? We know there are institutional barriers. But it’s being done in other places, and we should explore that,” he said.

Mostly in Europe, but also in some North American cities such as Toronto, there are mobility hubs, which are multi-modal transfer nodes between parking, commuter rail service, bus rapid transit, local shuttles, bike rentals and car-sharing, all with real-time transit information available, Morehouse said.

“The idea is if you’re coming from outside Oakland into Oakland, you want to park your car once and be able to get around any number of ways, whether it’s a Zipcar or a shuttle or a bike or a bus,” Morehouse said. “What if we built mobility hubs in Pittsburgh? Would that work? Again, it’s working in other places,” he said.

“When we start thinking about transportation issues in Oakland, we should realize that streets are part of our public realm; they promote interaction and community-building. The conventional, classic engineering wisdom is that we build our roads to satisfy the surge in demand. Usually that happens in the morning when we go to work and in the afternoon when we go home from work. But for the other 20 or so hours a day, how can we re-think our roads to accommodate people who ride buses or bikes or who are walking? What if the roads were prioritized for buses and bikes?”

Other transportation recommendations include: Make major corridors green and pedestrian friendly; provide intelligent transportation systems using technology; provide bike infrastructure, such as bike-sharing programs; expand car-sharing programs and provide real-time digital parking information; expand permit parking in high-impact areas; improve pedestrian safety with crosswalk patterns and better traffic enforcement; reduce through-traffic on residential streets; create traffic patterns to encourage traffic flow around the central Oakland neighborhood, and add perimeter parking garages.

Consultant Poole then spoke on economic strategies related to the Oakland 2025 plan recommendations.

The overall goal of the plan’s economic strategy, Poole said, is to “test Oakland’s ideas and opportunities within socioeconomic and real estate market reality; validate assumptions with developers and institutions, and create strategic priorities identifying the way forward to 2025.

“How do we do all this? First of all, where we are at this stage of the game is talking about concepts and ideas and prospective choices to make when we’re deciding on what gets built, where and when,” Poole said. “In putting on the developer’s hat or the investor’s hat, which we have to do, we’re going to go through a series of steps that we refer to as ‘ground-truthing.’ Ground-truthing is basically validating the types of projects that are under consideration with market reality and also with the reality of demographic shifts and changes,” he explained.

The overarching economic goal is to promote an increase in entrepreneurship and business and retail development.

“The economic engines in Oakland really are the institutions themselves: the hospitals, the universities. That’s fine and it actually is a very strong engine and one that will continue to grow. The issue becomes how you leverage that economic engine,” Poole said.

There are many good examples from around the country of how university-towns and their communities interact to strengthen those communities, he added.

“Some of that deals with the supply-chain opportunities. These institutions purchase goods and services; sometimes they purchase those from a long way from their community. Services such as laundering the materials that come out of universities, or repairing equipment or servicing a food contract are local opportunities,” Poole noted.

There also are opportunities for increased retail business given how much the universities have expanded their employment base in recent years, he said. “For example, we’ve identified that there are retail gaps, such as grocery stores. We found that Oakland as a community is underserved in not having a full-service grocery store.”

There also are entrepreneurship opportunities as well as local employment opportunities, Poole said. “What is needed is incubator space near housing and transportation. Because of the types of business you have here, you have university research-clustered communities. And that research often is spun out in commercialization,” he said.

University researchers and scientists create new technologies that eventually get to the marketplace. “But before that can happen, usually the combination of a researcher and a business person have to flush that idea out in terms of raising venture capital. That usually takes place in an incubator setting. The point being: You want to assist that process because as that flourishes the community benefits in terms of attracting investment, creating more businesses and making the community a more inviting place,” he maintained.

Improving the quality-of-life amenities a community has to offer also is important, Poole pointed out. “It’s well-documented for businesses today, that if you want to attract the up-and-coming knowledge worker — those folks who work in laboratories, do research or even work in finance — what’s as important as almost anything else is access to open space, parks and trails in and around an urban environment.”

Cities like Boston, San Francisco and Austin — all locations with strong, vibrant high-tech industries — also have attractive open space. “That’s not easily quantifiable in economic terms, but we can all agree that it provides a benefit that adds to the allure of working in that place,” he said.

The plan’s recommendations also include fostering community economic partnerships, Poole noted. “What happens here in the next 10-15-20 years should not happen in isolation strictly with the institutions or with national chains or regional businesses. What happens here should also draw on partnership with local businesses,” he said.

“That requires leadership, such as what OPDC provides, to make sure that technical and financial assistance gets to smaller local businesses. That partnership also extends to workforce housing. We’ve identified that the housing stock, the quantity of housing in Oakland, has not kept pace with the explosion of employment that’s happening,” as evidenced by the low-vacancy rates and the high cost of land, Poole said.

“The spike here in Oakland is higher than any other area in or around Pittsburgh. This is critical: If you don’t have housing that’s affordable for all income levels, sooner or later the employer has to pay out-of-pocket to recruit or retain their employees. Eventually, the business looks to relocate to a lower-cost environment. When we’re thinking about land-use choices, we need to keep in mind we need good workforce housing in locations that can support it.”

Finally, Poole said, financial partnerships are needed. “But financial partnerships are a two-way street. The major institutions here benefit greatly in Pittsburgh in terms of its labor force, in terms of amenities and the tax situation they currently enjoy. They also should be looking to form partnerships with nonprofit groups and small businesses,” he said.

Poole pointed to a few key findings that influence economic strategies. “What has jumped out in our analysis includes that nearly six in 10 residents in Oakland will be 18-24 years of age by 2015. Already, one out of four 18-24-year-olds in Pittsburgh lives in Oakland,” he said. “The median population age in Oakland in 2010 was 23. In the city of Pittsburgh, the median age is 37. Since 2000 up to 2010, the majority of the population decline in Oakland took place among family households who typically are not affiliated with a university. In addition, 62.2 percent is the percent of renter-occupied housing in Oakland. That means almost seven out of 10 live in rental properties,” Poole noted.

“Nationally, that 70 percent is roughly the number who own their houses. So there’s a very transient population with students, and you’ve got younger people who can’t afford or don’t want a mortgage. However, when you get such a high percentage of renter-occupied housing, you also get less stability in investment and other quality-of-life issues in a given community. So, we need to be thinking about how we can get more home ownership in Oakland, which ultimately helps to stabilize the community.”

The full set of Oakland 2025 recommendations is expected to be posted soon at A final draft of the Oakland 2025 plan is expected to be presented at a community forum in early 2012, OPDC officials said. Following that, the consulting team will present the draft plan and conduct two training sessions for Oakland stakeholders and public officials. The final plan is expected to be released to the public and local officials by May 15, OPDC staff said.

For more information on Oakland 2025, go to

—Peter Hart


Filed under: Feature,Volume 44 Issue 7

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