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League of Women Voters of Oakland
Waterfront Study

Chapter 6. The Outward View

Oakland is blessed with a beautiful, lively shoreline that serves as a gathering point for exercise, contemplation, conversation and celebration. Accessible to all, it provides common ground for our diverse community and is a singular place of beauty.

This wonderful urban space is the three miles of shoreline along Lake Merritt. It is the heart of Oakland, central to our city and community life. It is Oakland's inward view.

Oakland has another nineteen miles of shoreline - from the wild marshlands of San Leandro Bay; northward along the Estuary, teeming with water craft of every imaginable type; past the gigantic cranes of the Outer Harbor to the free-spirited sculptures on the Emeryville tidelands. This shoreline offers vistas and wildlife, fun and adventure, and dreams of distant worlds. This is Oakland's outward view.

Oakland's Historic Retreat from the Waterfront

Although Oakland has more bay shoreline than any Bay Area city, it lacks identity as a waterfront city.

Oakland once touched its shore, when ferry terminals, warehouses and shipyards clustered at the northern Waterfront and fisheries lined the Estuary. Beginning in the 1930'5, though, Oakland withdrew from the shore.

The rail tracks along the shoreline always posed somewhat of a barrier, but until the late 1930's ferry terminals and industries drew people to the Waterfront nonetheless. Eventually ferry travel declined, industries closed and new obstructions arose.

World War II brought military bases which excluded the public from the most of the northern Waterfront for reasons of national security. Freeways added a formidable obstacle and the growth of highly mechanized container facilities further restricted access to the Waterfront.

Today there is little public access to the shoreline and the Waterfront is detached from Oakland's business and residential districts. Even Jack London Square is isolated from downtown and the Oakland Convention Center.

Where Can We Touch the Water?

Map One (ch 6)This study has divided the Waterfront into three areas, the Intermodal Gateway, the Estuary Shore and the Airport Complex. Just as each has a distinct character, defined by topography, industries and land uses; so too do the recreational and aesthetic opportunities differ among the areas of the Waterfront.

Map One shows the public access points on the Waterfront. The following provides a general description of each area.

The lntermodal Gateway

Major Features: This is one of the world's great land/sea transportation hubs. The enormous cargo cranes and container ships convey a sense of power and importance. This is one of the most exciting parts of the Waterfront. However, the large military reservations and concerns for public safety in the marine terminal area have restricted access to this area.

Public Access: Currently there is only one public access point in the Intermodal Gateway, a one-acre park in the Middle Harbor. Until recently, access was also available at Port View Park, a 4.5 acre area containing an observation platform. This park was closed after the Loma Prieta Earthquake, and will be reopened after the Port of Oakland completes the relocation of Seventh Street late next year.

The Estuary Shore

Major Features: The Estuary is a lively "water boulevard" with an unending parade of water crafts. It also offers a wide variety of recreation, including boating, fishing and jet skiing. The shoreline contains restaurants, small boat repair and other commercial enterprises, many of which are water oriented.

Public Access: There are several mini-parks and fishing piers in this area. Water-oriented commercial developments and marinas are concentrated at Jack London Square and Embarcadero Cove. The new ferry service from Jack London Square revives passenger travel through the Waterfront, and offers commuters wonderful contact with life on the Estuary. The Potomac, FDR's Presidential yacht is docked at Jack London Square and houses a small museum. Bike and pedestrian pathways have been constructed along several sections of the Estuary Shore, but the lack of a continuous pathway prevents travel for any significant distance.

The Airport Complex

Major Features: The undeveloped shoreline of this area, curving along San Leandro and San Francisco Bays, offers sparkling vistas. The extensive wetlands, marshes and sloughs contain an amazing array of wildlife.

Public Access: Martin Luther King, Jr. Regional Shoreline Park is 565 acres of dedicated open space consisting of bay and wetland. A trail system provides restricted access to delicate natural areas and along Tidal Canal and Doolittle Pond. Picnic areas, boat launch facilities and fishing piers are also available at the park. Galbraith Golf Course is located southeast of the Oakland International Airport. The future of this facility is in doubt, since the Port of Oakland has selected it as a disposal site for dredge spoils.

A New Approach to the Water: The Bay Trail

Another form of public access is by pedestrian and bike trail. Only a few miles of trail are presently available, but a new effort has begun to develop a continuous path along the Waterfront and between the Waterfront and inland attractions.

In 1987, the State Legislature adopted Senate Bill 100 to authorize planning of a trail around San Francisco and San Pablo Bays. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) was assigned the task of coordinating the trail's development.

The Bay Trail Plan, adopted in 1989, is a 400-mile network of multi-use pathways through all nine Bay Area counties. The key component of the system is a "spine trail" which will create a continuous path around the Bay. "Spur trails" will connect points of natural, historic and cultural interest along the shoreline and "connector trails" will link the main trail to recreational sites, residential areas and employment centers inland from the bay.

Map Two (ch 6)Map Three (ch 6)Maps Two and Three show the proposed trail network within Oakland.

The main trail will ultimately provide a continuous pathway along the entire Waterfront. Spur and connector trails will link the Waterfront westward to the Alameda City bayfront and eastward to other trail systems, such as around Lake Merritt.

The problems which must be overcome to complete the Bay Trail on Oakland's Waterfront illustrate the difficulty of obtaining public access within an intensely developed area.

  • While some sections of the Bay Trail will be on exclusive bike/pedestrian paths, most will utilize existing public streets and sidewalks. This compromises the recreational experience and results in a conflict between automobile and bike or pedestrian traffic.

  • Some parts of the Waterfront are so heavily developed that a continuous pathway cannot be built along the shore. For example, shoreline industries in the High Street and the Twenty-ninth Avenue areas cause the Bay Trail to be located several blocks from the water.

  • Since the Intermodal Gateway is a major truck and rail hub, heavy traffic and the presence of tracks in public streets pose hazards to bicyclists and pedestrians. The Port, City and ABAG are working to solve these problems, such as by designing protected pathways along existing streets.

A total of 2l miles of Bay Trail is planned for Oakland's Waterfront. At present, 8.5 miles have been completed, consisting of 6 miles in the Airport Complex and 2.5 miles in the Estuary Shore. Another 1.5 miles (of a planned 7 miles) are now under construction in the Intermodal Gateway.

Vistas and Visions

Two questions are paramount in considering the future development of public access to the Waterfront:

  • How can we develop public access which highlights the unique character of each area of Oakland's Waterfront?

  • How can we improve the relationship between Oakland's community life and the waterfront?

Response to the first question begins with recognition of the distinct aesthetic, recreational and educational potential of each area of the Waterfront and the problems which must be overcome to tap that potential.

For example, the Intermodal Gateway conveys an awesome impression of international commerce and seafaring adventure. However, safety considerations restrict public access within the marine terminal. The challenge is to provide view opportunities without endangering the public.

In 1986, the Bay Area Partnership convened a workshop to explore new visions for Oakland's western gateway. This led to the realization that, although several hundred thousand people cross the Bay Bridge each day, harbor operations are obscured from view. The workshop resulted in drawings which showed how view corridors could be created from the roadway and a vista point could be developed near the Toll Plaza. Views from these points would display a powerful image of Oakland and enable the public to capture the excitement of the harbor, without interfering with Port operations.

The second question involves recovering Oakland's heritage as a Waterfront city. Its answer has both a physical and an educational aspect.

The physical orientation of Oakland is inward. T o recover the identity of a Waterfront city, we must form links from the downtown and neighborhoods to the shoreline and create public spaces at important points along the Waterfront. The Bay Trail, with its connections to inland parts of Oakland, is an excellent start. A continuous pathway between Jack London Square and Lake Merritt, for example, would once again link the Waterfront and the downtown. The proposal to locate Oakland's Amtrak terminal at Jack London Square would also help restore the Waterfront as a crossroad of passenger travel.

The educational aspect of public access is often ignored. As a Waterfront city, Oakland has an especially rich heritage and great educational opportunities. Port operations are a vivid example of international business, world history and geography. The intercontinental railroad, World War II shipyards and early aviation adventures at North Field are not only an integral part of our local heritage, but also lead to a broader understanding of the social and economic changes which shaped our nation. The marshland of San Leandro Bay is an unexcelled laboratory of marine life.

Not only should our schools use the assets of our Waterfront, but public access points should also include interpretive programs to teach and inspire.

Looking Outward at the Possibilities

The central role which Lake Merritt plays in Oakland's community life illustrates the vitality that a shoreline gives to a city. However, Oakland's other shoreline - its outward view - is detached from community life.

The power of a harbor, the challenge of sailing and fishing, the energy of shoreline commerce and contact with our natural environment are only available in waterfront cities. These are assets that we can capture by once again looking outward to Oakland's Waterfront.

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