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Lessons from Art & Soul

Last weekend’s Art and Soul Festival continued the nascent tradition of bringing a huge, extravagant multicultural festival to the streets of downtown Oakland. Every year it gets bigger and the headliners get better. The diverse, lively, and hip snapshot of the city teaches us a few lessons about Oakland’s future.

1. People like shade. In the controversy over the Lake Merritt Zoning Update, for which staff may have a proposal this Fall, many residents complained about tall buildings “casting shadows” over parkland. Other residents said they like some shaded areas, perhaps for picnics. The Art and Soul festivalgoers voted with their feet, with the vast majority of people clinging to the shade.

Seeking shade downtown

2. The Lovemakers reveal some of Oakland’s physical challenges. Their somewhat lackluster early-afternoon show last Saturday wasn’t their best work, but their recently-released music video EP contains a few telling scenes. In “Misery Loves Company,” the title track, Lisa Light points out some of the problems presented by Oakland’s long legacy of disinvestment.

Here, she steps over a ruined, ancient sidewalk in her stylish stilettos…

Typical sidewalk in an Oakland video

On her way to her substandard housing.

Steep stairs to an ancient duplex

Most of Oakland’s housing stock is over sixty years old, presenting various livability problems (such as energy inefficiency, difficult access, or lead paint) and posing major life-safety hazards. While rent-control and “historic” activists spend their energy fighting attempts to upgrade or demolish these legacy buildings, it is vital that Oakland build new housing in appropriate locations (like our many transit corridors).

3. Oakland is ready for Prime Time. Some anti-development activists point out the weakening housing market when opposing dense transit-oriented projects. Some of our politicians seem pessimistic about the desire of the private sector to invest in our city. At a recent gathering of Ignacio de la Fuente supporters, one developer expressed frustration with the proposed four-story height limit on Telegraph, noting its proximity to transit. “How big do we want to be?” she asked.

That’s a good question. With dense, mid- and high-rise development along major transit corridors like Broadway, Telegraph, W. Grand, Macarthur, International and E. 12th Street, Oakland could swell to 500,000 residents. Or, if we impose arbitrary, infeasible and inappropriate density and height limits, we can stagnate or even shrink as young professionals push families out of the limited housing supply. Banning skyscrapers from much of downtown would not only limit housing opportunities, but also office towers and their jobs. Meanwhile, demand for newly-built homes will continue spreading sprawl.

The Art and Soul Festival attracted tens of thousands of people from all of the Bay Area. Everyone had a wonderful time, with music and activities for many different ages and cultures. Downtown looked beautiful, clean and safe (important for luring mobile Gen Y workers). Almost everyone there would consider shopping, living or working in downtown Oakland and other parts of the city. We have the opportunity and ability to rapidly develop our residential, employment and sales-tax base, if the government doesn’t artificially stymie it.


Our opportunities are clear: embrace dense development in appropriate locations, or continue the decades of disinvestment and population stagnation that has left us decaying infrastructure and buildings. Or we could take an even easier solution, also from the Art & Soul Festival. To take a suggestion from Lucinda William’s performance of “Change The Locks,” perhaps we should “change the name of this town.” Worked for East 14th, didn’t it?

Posted in citycouncil, dellums, housing, oakland, planningcommission.


7 Responses

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  1. Eric says

    Nice post; great overview of a lot of important issues. I especially enjoyed the picture of the people gravitating towards the shade! I think that the feeling of oscillating between patches of warm sun and the cool shade from skyscrapers is one of my favorite features of urban downtowns.

  2. dto510 says

    Thanks! Oakland’s key problems confront many residents on an almost daily basis. The Art & Soul Festival underlines our issues, but also our opportunities.

  3. Incredibledaze says

    I was at Art & Soul and we hunkered down in the Shade as well but so many of the performances and seats were in the sun and I don’t know who enjoyed roasting, er, sitting there. We also longed for a downtown of shopping opportunities to combine all our needs that day but that’s wishful thinking at this point.

  4. dto510 says

    I think the worst part of the festival was the entirely unshaded main stage. The guy selling parasols made a killing! Myself, I brought an umbrella.

    I’m pretty optimistic about downtown shopping. If the dealers can be relocated to the Army Base, the Auto Row area could be a great retail/mixed-use development. Like Bay Street, but not as lame. If brokers can find the right space, there are major retailers interested in downtown Oakland (like Target). One of downtown Oakland’s retail problems is that the buildings are inappropriate for contemporary retail – the spaces are either too big or too small, originally built for watch repair or a department store.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Shorenstein should ask for more FAR « Oakland’s Future linked to this post on September 28, 2007

    [...] speakers (besides Sanjiv Handa, who bemoaned downtown Oakland’s lack of parking and dumped on the Art & Soul Festival) lived in the 102-unit condo complex across the street from Shorenstein’s property. One speaker [...]

  2. Surfing in the heat « FutureOakland linked to this post on August 27, 2008

    [...] comparing Black Rock City to Oakland. Last year, I used examples from the Art & Soul Festival to illustrate some local controversies. I’m much less thrilled than usual about the Festival, what with the absence of The [...]

  3. City Council passes zoning update, with modifications | A Better Oakland linked to this post on July 9, 2009

    [...] buildings for light and air, and also to minimize the shadows cast on the street. I happen to like the shade, and therefore am not much of a fan of the mandated tower and base form, but lots of people came [...]