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League of Women Voters of Oakland
Waterfront Study

Chapter 9.  Renewed Horizons

Waterfront cities are unique. Only at such places do land and sea transportation converge, offering opportunities which are not available elsewhere. The shoreline also inspires with visions of distant lands and natural life. The Waterfront is not just a physical horizon; it is also a horizon for the human spirit.

Oakland has always offered new horizons. In the late 1800's the City was the horizon for the continent. As the terminus of the intercontinental railroad, Oakland was the end of the westward journey to California. The bustle of the Waterfront excited the imaginations of writers and adventurers like Jack London and Bret Hart. Later the Bay Area's first trans-Pacific airport made Oakland the horizon for Doolittle, Earhart and other early aviators.

Early this century the Waterfront also provided a different kind of horizon. The western railroads offered new opportunities and so by 1930 the first major labor union open to Blacks, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, found a home in Oakland. Later the War-era shipyards gave birth to forces which would change the role of racial minorities and women in American society.

Oakland's Estrangement from its Waterfront

Oakland has more than nineteen miles of shoreline; stretching from San Leandro Bay, along a busy estuary and a powerful harbor, and beyond the Bay Bridge. This is the longest bay front of any city in the Bay Area. It is also one of the most varied shorelines in the world, ranging from a massive cargo cranes to natural marshlands.

Until the middle of this century, the bay shoreline was central to Oakland's existence. The Waterfront contained the terminus of intercontinental railroads, a bustling harbor, dry-docks and fishing wharves. Industries developed near the docks because goods from many different places could be combined and traded there.

The West Oakland community thrived on the harbor and grew rapidly with the expansion of the ferry terminals. By the 19301s thousands of people traveled daily through West Oakland to the ferries and to jobs at shoreline industries. The Waterfront was the heart of the East Bay, pumping life through the arteries which radiated from it.

Beginning late in the 1930's, though, four major forces reshaped Oakland, turning it inward from the bay:

  • National Security: During World War n the federal government established the Oakland Army Base and Naval Supply Depot in West Oakland and converted the Oakland Airport to military use. These bases excluded the public from the Waterfront for reasons of national security.

  • Death of the Ferries: With the opening of the Bay Bridge, commuter rail lines were diverted from West Oakland. The loss of commuter traffic pulled the commercial underpinnings from West Oakland.

  • Industrial Change: Industries, such as manufacturing plants, fisheries and the shipyards vanished from the shore and were replaced by highly mechanized cargo handling facilities which employ far fewer workers.

  • Physical Isolation: Freeway construction imposed an awesome physical barrier between the residential community and the water.

Misconceptions which Bolster the Isolation

This physical separation has been strengthened by common misunderstandings about the nature of tidelands and the role of the Port of Oakland in its operation. These common misconceptions can be summarized as:

  • The tide/ands may only be used for narrowly defined purposes. Much of the Waterfront is subject to a public tidelands trust. It is commonly believed that this trust restricts use of the tidelands to a few, narrowly-prescribed maritime activities. The range of allowable uses, however, is not limited to marine transportation. The terms of the trust also promote recreation and conservation and, in some cases, permit many types of commercial and residential development. In fact, a large section of Oakland's shoreline, especially from San Leandro Bay to Jack London Square have very little value as shipping terminals and great potential for publicly oriented uses.

  • Increasing cargo volumes is the same as "economic development". The airport and marine terminals are highly mechanized facilities, creating relatively few jobs per acre. The great majority of the jobs attributed to these terminals are not in the operation of the facilities themselves, but in secondary industries which use them. These secondary industries include agricultural, manufacturing, distribution and trading firms. The vast majority of these secondary industries reside outside Oakland. Therefore, while increasing the volume of cargo passing through the terminals is an important goal; this alone will not produce many local jobs. Only by attracting secondary industries can Oakland make the Waterfront transportation facilities the powerhouse that they should be in the local economy.

  • The Port's use of tidelands is dictated by private market forces. The Port of Oakland is often viewed as a business driven by the same incentives as private enterprise. In fact, the Port's land is not subject to holding costs which motivate private owners to develop their land, nor does the Port calculate an internal rate of return on its investments as do private businesses.

To question the conventional wisdom is not to suggest that the Waterfront is being mismanaged or misused. On the contrary, the marine terminal is one of the most efficient harbors in the nation and is truly essential for the economic health of the Bay Area. The Oakland International Airport is not only an increasingly important passenger and cargo hub, but also has produced at least five thousand subsidiary jobs in aircraft maintenance, distribution and traveler services in Oakland.

 However, only if we recognized the flaws in the conventional wisdom and can we gain a more realistic picture of how the Waterfront can once again become the centerpiece of Oakland's economic and cultural growth.

Reconnecting Oakland's Waterfront

There are three aspects to restoring Oakland's identity as a Waterfront city - by reconnecting the Waterfront to Oakland physically, economically and culturally.

Physical reconnection depends upon the establishment of linkages and gathering points.

  • Linkages are needed between inland Oakland and the shoreline, such as extension of the bike/pedestrian trail from Lake Merritt to Jack London Square and the completion of a continuous pathway within the Waterfront, as contemplated by the East Bay Trail. Important roadways such as Fruitvale Avenue, High Street and Broadway also can help link inland neighborhoods to the shore.

  • Gathering points are also important, drawing people to the shoreline and making it a part of community life. Commercial developments, promenades, vista points and publicly oriented uses should be placed along the shoreline to feature the natural waterway and diverse activities on the bay and estuary.

Above all, a master land use plan is needed for the Waterfront. Presently, zoning decisions within the Waterfront are divided between the City and the Port. The two agencies use different land use policies and practices, even though in some areas, such as Estuary Cove, Jack London Square and Hegenberger Road, Port land is indistinguishable from City land. The two jurisdictions recently began collaborating on land use planning, but inter-agency discussions are infrequent and there is no common master plan for the Waterfront.

Two planning efforts are underway which will affect land use planning within the Waterfront. The Port is currently developing a master plan for land within its jurisdiction. The City is also updating the Land Use and the Open Space Elements of its General Plan. These efforts warrant public participation, with a vision to making the Waterfront relate more directly to inland Oakland.

Economic reconnection is crucial if Oakland is to tap the full potential of the Waterfront. This is important in two key respects:

  • Direct economic impacts: Economic planning should be aimed at maximizing the local economic effects of the transportation operations themselves, by using local small businesses, creating employment and training opportunities for local residents and mitigation of adverse effects of the facilities upon surrounding neighborhoods.

  • Secondary economic impacts: A strategy is needed for attracting industries which rely upon the marine and air terminals. These secondary industries are the real job producers, yet neither the Port nor the City has systematically addressed this problem. The Port focuses on maximizing the tonnage of cargo passing through the terminals; while the City, deferring to the jurisdiction of the Port, directs its economic strategy elsewhere.

Finally, the Waterfront should be used as an educational and cultural resource. Oakland has always been a special place due to its Waterfront. This has attracted creative people and great adventurers. The Waterfront can provide the same magic today, if we treat it as an important community asset.

  • Education: Our Waterfront is a laboratory. Arrowhead Marsh is perhaps the best example of marine ecology in any Bay Area city and the marine terminals illustrate the power of international trade and technology. What better way to inspire children about the natural environment or world economies than by allowing them to witness it personally?

  • Training: Local education and training programs can target the economic opportunities which are uniquely available on Oakland's Waterfront. Such programs as the Aviation Academy can inspire students with tangible opportunities and offer the best assurance that local residents will be prepared for the jobs offered by the airport and harbor.

  • Esteem: The intercontinental railroad, our military bases, the shipyards, the early international airport and the transformation of our harbor have placed Oakland on the cutting edge of the forces which have shaped our nation and society. What better way to convey pride in our city than to realize its historic importance?

Reaching for the Horizon

The Waterfront is an economic, recreational and educational resource which makes Oakland unique. To realize this great opportunity we must again reach for the horizon and restore the Waterfront to a central place in the life of our community.

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