Lake Merritt Reborn

How Oakland voters transformed the city’s “Crown Jewel.”



Photos by Stephen Texeira

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The lake has never looked so good. But many newer Oakland residents and even some longtime ones may not realize how much Lake Merritt has changed in the past 15 years. Since 2002, when 80 percent of Oakland voters passed Measure DD, a $198 million bond measure, to pay for extensive improvement projects, Lake Merritt has been reinvigorated and is now a far more inviting destination for both humans and wildlife. And the work is nearly complete.

Measure DD also set aside money for creek restoration, youth recreation facilities, and improvements to park access and water quality of the Oakland Estuary. As of December, more than $140 million of the bonds had been spent, including more than $78 million of the $88 million allocated for lake improvements. And that’s not all. The city also treated the bond funds as “seed money” to aggressively pursue matching grants, and as of late last year, had raised more than $60 million to supplement the bonds.

 

In January, crews finally got started on improvements surrounding Snow Park, the last of the big projects for the lake area. Construction is expected to last until sometime in 2019, expanding the park with renovated restrooms, a new putting green, a new pedestrian promenade, as well as new bike lanes and racks. Some more work around the entrance to Children’s Fairyland at the intersection of Grand and Bellevue avenues is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

But as the work has carried on over the last decade, even signature projects like the restoration of the Municipal Boathouse and the reconfiguration of 12th Street have become so intrinsic to Oakland’s current day-to-day life that the full impact of the extensive work on the lake might be lost on people. Oaklanders may take for granted the picturesque pleasantness of a stroll along the lake on a warm, sunny afternoon as seagulls swoop overhead, crew teams row by, children frolic with dogs, and picnickers lounge about on the lawn.

 

While the lake has always been a popular destination for walkers, joggers, and bicyclists, its south end used to be extremely uninviting. A narrow sidewalk ran along a wide, high-traffic road with cars speeding by on their way from East Oakland to downtown. Pedestrians were elevated well above the lake’s narrow, rocky shoreline, which was often strewn with garbage and debris, including furniture and mattresses. It was a constant target for illegal dumpers, and it was loud from the traffic and often smelled.

“Twelfth Street was formerly what we called the shortest freeway in the world,” said Oakland Watershed Program and Measure DD manager Lesley Estes. “It was essentially a mini-freeway on top of a dam, and that’s what we got rid of.”

 

The city completely reconstructed the road, the sidewalk, and the shoreline. Crews demolished the culvert under 12th Street, and turned Lakeshore Avenue into a cul-de-sac leading to a pedestrian park and amphitheater by the lake’s shoreline. The redesign kept traffic elevated, away from the park, and redirected toward First Avenue and International Boulevard by a new bridge over the widened channel to the bay.

Estes said that while working on the project, she has witnessed a cultural shift of the use patterns around Lake Merritt. By making the entire 3.4-mile circumference pedestrian-friendly, it’s become more attractive to people outside Oakland, and even residents are using it far more widely than they used to. Now people are out at all times of day and jogging the lake before dawn.

“I don’t think anyone expected it would be this big and this great,” Estes said of the refurbishment project. “It’s become this incredibly high-desire place to walk around, and I think it’s really a result of Measure DD.”

The pedestrian upgrades included improvements to sidewalks and park space stretching up Lakeshore Avenue on the east side and along Lakeside Drive to the west. Many of the improvements were made with an eye to the lake’s history, including restoration of the 18th Street Pier and the Municipal Boathouse, now open as a public dock and home to Lake Chalet restaurant.

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