OAKLAND -- The City Council settled downtown Oakland's most spirited turf war Tuesday, dealing a blow to bicycle and pedestrian advocates who had pushed to limit car traffic and preserve a recently expanded plaza at a key downtown intersection.
The 6-0 vote means that two-way vehicle traffic will return to the V-shaped corridor where Telegraph Avenue flows into Broadway. And Latham Square, the adjacent century-old public plaza that briefly was extended across the intersection as part of a pilot project last year, won't be nearly as big as first envisioned.
The approved plan will restore two of the three traffic lanes that flowed between Broadway and Telegraph. Latham Square, which sits between the two thoroughfares, will swallow up some of the former roadway and nearly quadruple in size to 9,500 square feet.
Work on the project is slated to begin later this year through a $2.9 million grant.
Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan and Councilman Dan Kalb abstained from the final vote. They, along with Councilwoman Libby Schaaf, preferred a larger plaza design that limited auto access to just one lane flowing from Telegraph into Broadway.
"If we're serious about having a plaza area that is genuinely safe for pedestrians, having two-way traffic is not going to accomplish that," Kalb said.
The battle over Latham Square -- a relatively minuscule piece of real estate in the shadow of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza -- laid bare the divide over whether auto- or pedestrian-oriented projects will better ensure the future for Oakland's rebounding city center.
Proponents of expanding the square into a full-fledged pedestrian plaza said it would become a gathering spot and entertainment venue that could help bring the vibrancy of Uptown Oakland to the grittier downtown. Critics countered that diminished car access would harm the downtown merchants whose success is critical to increasing foot traffic.
The battle lines were messy from the start, with both merchants and city officials divided over the plaza.
Council members and residents were sharply critical of how city staffers handled the pilot project. The process was marred initially, observers said, by poor communication between Public Works, which initiated the traffic closure, and planning and economic development staffers, who were leery about restricting car access to such a pivotal intersection. At least one economic development staff member helped organize opposition to the plaza plan, city emails showed.
City officials quickly abandoned full closure of the intersection and opened one lane of traffic from Telegraph into Broadway, which severed the plaza from the adjoining sidewalk. Although plaza backers were furious over the move, they ended up lobbying council members to make the single traffic lane permanent as a compromise measure.
But the council majority was swayed primarily by concerns from merchants along Telegraph.
Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, whose district includes the plaza area, said the developer negotiating to buy and renovate the nearby Sears building wanted to maintain two-way traffic.
A city report found that about eight to 15 people used the plaza at any given time during peak afternoon hours. Councilwoman Desley Brooks said that wasn't enough to merit reduced car access.
"When you start to look at the number of one-way streets and how difficult it becomes for people to access the retail on this corridor, that becomes really crucial," she said.
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.