West Oakland Walk Honors Neighborhood Achievements

Two architects plot the past’s future in an often-overlooked neighborhood.


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Architects Banta and Hooks want to reconnect West Oakland to downtown and have an ambitous plan, right. So far, they have enountered no detractors.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

 

At first blush, the project might not seem like a big deal. Connect 4.5 miles of West Oakland with some signs, plants, and street bulbs, then complement the loop with a short history lesson.

But according to the architects who envision the “West Oakland Walk,” their idea is monumental.

“This could be one of the country’s largest recycling projects,” architect Philip Banta said. “It’s the height of sustainability. And it could be a magnet for similar ideas.

”Together with longtime friend and fellow architect Norman D. Hooks, Banta for six years has plotted, dreamed, and designed grand plans for this walkable, thematically linked historical tour of West Oakland. The pair figure they’ve each spent about $250,000 in time, staff, and drawings to communicate their vision, which they tout wherever they can find an appropriate audience.

In a nutshell, their plan is to create a rectangular loop—complete with banners, signs, and other visual cues—connecting Wood Street near Raimondi Park off Mandela Parkway to 18th and 19th streets to Lake Merritt, and then down 14th Street back to Wood. Within this stretch, there are 23 parks totaling 154 acres, four BART stops, seven freeway entrances, and a number of historically significant buildings.

“It’s an opportunity to reconnect that part of Oakland to downtown,” Hooks said. “It’s an opportunity to highlight hidden gems that people aren’t aware of.

”To execute their design, nothing major needs to be constructed or torn down, and no property must be acquired via eminent domain. Banta and Hooks have just homed in on what they call a “found design,” which already exists in Oakland.“We’re not re-purposing anything,” Banta said. “We’re just re-presenting it.” But despite the lofty recycling talk, the plan would be far from free. The concept, which has been included in the city’s West Oakland Specific Plan, is still years away and likely hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars from becoming a reality. But that’s not deterring the architects, who prefer not to burden their imaginations with timelines or price tags.

“We just dreaming right now,” Banta said.

Since the city of Oakland is unlikely to fund the project, Banta and Hooks are not planning to ask. Instead, they’re looking for a grant writer to help them secure possible funding through The San Francisco Foundation and the East Bay Community Foundation. Banta said they’ve also formally partnered with the Prescott-Joseph Center for Community Enhancement, whose mission is to “promote the ongoing renewal of community spirit among West Oakland residents.

”The next immediate step is to find an estimated $300,000 to advance the design to solicit community input and create a final design to seek funding and grants. Some of that money would also go to building a website to display their progress online.

Oakland City Council President and West Oakland Councilwoman Lynette McElhaney said she was excited about the idea. Her chief of staff, former Oakland pedestrian planner Zac Wald, applauded the visionary concept. He calls the 4.5-mile loop a nice complement to McElhaney’s vision of creating an African-American cultural district along 14th Street, from West Oakland to Lake Merritt.

Aware that money will be the biggest challenge to advancing the architects’ vision, Wald said he hopes to help locate funding from transportation money and other local or state grants. Banta and Hooks also are aware of the potential costs. So, they’ve broken the project into about 10 phases, each one building on the prior stage. For example, the idea could start with colorful street banners that say “West Oakland Walk.” The next step could be new lightbulbs along the route, possibly to change color at night. Step three could be street improvements and redesigned sidewalk curbs. Subsequent steps would include bike lane striping, landscaping with common shrubs and trees, historical signage, and a smartphone app that pedestrians could tap while walking through the neighborhood. In addition to learning about the history of Children’s Fairyland and the Fox Theater, pedestrians and cyclists walking the loop would also learn about the famous people who helped shape Oakland into what it is today. Did you know Delilah L. Beasley was an American historian and columnist for the Oakland Tribune in the early 1900s? Or that Julia Morgan, the first licensed female architect in California, was born and raised in West Oakland? Or that the revolutionary Black Panther Party was founded in West Oakland in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale? If the two architects were allowed to dream even bigger, they’d like to build “mobile porches” for the neighborhood’s elderly to “share their collective wisdom,” Banta said. They’d also love to foster homework clubs within the loop for youths and create outdoor theaters for all to congregate for community shows.

“We’d love it if the circuit would be used for social purposes,” Hooks said.“

Just think of what we could do with this space,” Banta said. “Parades, protests, the first electric car race.”As for the “why” of it all, both architects are civic-minded. Hooks served on Oakland’s Historic Preservation Board and has been involved in the renovation of about 35 Oakland parks. Banta has engaged in similar projects, but also has a less-practical reason for devoting so much energy to the idea. “Architects are suckers for beauty,” he said. “And there is sheer beauty to this idea.

”This loop would certainly not be the first in the world to connect a neighborhood by visual cues.

“There are examples all around the world of communities investing in their parks,” Banta said.He ticked off the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle; The High Line, a 1.45-mile linear park built in Manhattan on an elevated section of a defunct piece of New York Central Railroad; and the Superkilen in Copenhagen, Denmark, as three examples. And to Banta and Hooks, these walkable paths say so much more than a patch of green, a streetlight or a swing set. And they’re hoping that Oakland wants one to call its own. “It’s a signal,” Banta said, “that the city cares about itself.”

To get involved with the West Oakland Walk, contact Philip Banta at PBanta@BantaDesign.com or Norman Hooks at NormanHooksArch@gmail.com.

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