Big ideas sought for Oakland Bay Bridge park

By John King, Chronicle Urban Design Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010

It’s a good bet that few drivers crossing the Bay Bridge pay attention to where it touches down in Oakland – a smear of maintenance yards and parking, stray buildings and scrub.

But with the new eastern span of the bridge scheduled to open in 2013, government planners are floating the idea of a much different role for the 1.5-mile-long strip: a park that would celebrate the bridge and the region, with attractions scaled to the immense cranes of the nearby Port of Oakland.

There’s no design and no budget – yet. The public process is only now getting under way. But with a working group whose members range from the city of Oakland to Caltrans, boosters argue that if a genuinely compelling vision emerges, the funding will follow.

“It’s a challenging site, but … this could be a park unlike any in the world,” said Karen Alschuler of Perkins + Will, the architecture firm hired by nine public agencies to oversee a design process expected to take at least a year.

Alschuler spoke Thursday night at the first public meeting to explore ideas for what is being called Gateway Park – an area of roughly 50 acres along the eastbound descent of the span.

The presentation focused on spelling out the unique nature of the site and soliciting comments as to what role the space could play within the larger context of the bay shoreline and the nearby communities.

The aim would be to agree on a general park concept this fall, with formal design work to follow.

The presentation by planners and officials emphasized the patchwork nature of the site.

One chunk is used by Caltrans as a base for the tow trucks that respond to problems on the span; another is owned by the U.S. Army but reserved for open space. The city of Oakland has a redevelopment site in the middle. Three billboards have long-term leases.

Access is equally confusing, because there’s none from Interstate 80. The site can be approached only by roads beneath freeway ramps used mainly by truckers doing business at the port.

What excites park supporters is the setting. It’s directly across a channel where container ships are unloaded by the port’s iconic 220-foot cranes, while the narrow spit could take visitors far into the bay.

As for the noise and traffic, that’s part of the drama.

“This can’t be a regular old neighborhood park,” said Sarah Kuehl of PWP Landscape Architecture, which will shape design concepts with Perkins + Will. “Bridges and parks go together. Where you touch back to land is a symbolically important place as well as a physically important place.”

After the presentation people were encouraged to weigh in on their desires for such a space. Some wishes were predictable, from soccer fields to a dog run. Other people keyed in on the dramatic potential of the site: One suggested a “sail-in” movie theater while another went so far as to propose “big swings or Ferris wheels to experience the views of the site.”

The most ardent boosters of the park don’t hide their belief in the need for bold visual strokes.

Caltrans officials are excited by the idea of a transportation museum, for example – not just exhibits within one of the site’s historic buildings, but perhaps a walking trail lined by such oversized artifacts as the fog bell from the old Carquinez bridge, or the neon sign that topped the original toll booths at the Bay Bridge.

There’s also the potential of industrial art on the scale of some of the Burning Man installations – both to stir the interest of passing drivers and create a space that can hold its own between a working port and a roadway that handles 280,000 cars on a typical day.

“The park is going to have to reach out and bring people into it,” said Will Travis, executive director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Other agencies involved in the working group include the Bay Area Toll Authority, the East Bay Regional Park District and the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which owns 66 acres east of the study area.

Travis urged audience members to set their sights high, a “testimonial to inspiration” that in its own way would be as stirring as the Statue of Liberty.

That level of ambition is what’s needed for the idea of a Gateway Park to gain political support, Travis suggested afterward.

“If the team can come up with something inspiring and spectacular, I’m confident we can get funding,” Travis said. “If it’s ordinary, we can’t.”

For information on the Gateway Park concept, go to

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