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Initiative underway to address neighborhood transportation issues

Oakland held its first public meeting last week as part of an ongoing effort to improve transportation around Mills College and the surrounding communities.

The city secured funding for the project after a neighborhood group surveyed locals and a Mills graduate student wrote her public policy thesis on the topic.

The initiative titled LAMMPS (Laurel Access to Mills, Maxwell Park and Seminary Avenue) aims to study and implement design changes from High Street to Seminary Avenue. The main goals of the plan are to improve pedestrian, bicycle and transit access, vehicle safety and unite structurally divided neighborhoods.

Iris Starr is leading the effort as a Senior Transportation Planner at Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA). She said the city doesn’t have the budget to extend the plan beyond High Street. She said the logic behind the project when CEDA began planning two years ago was that getting people to the entrance to the Laurel business district was a good goal.

When the I-580 MacArthur freeway was built in the 1960s, it split several regions of Oakland, including Mills and the Maxwell Park neighborhood, from the Laurel commercial district. The freeway wraps around one of the College’s borders.

When local residents first arrived to the Graduate School of Business March 25 for the first of the planning meetings, they were given stickers to place on a large map indicating where they lived.

Organizers set up several poster boards throughout the lobby and gathering hall depicting maps of the targeted region. In the last hour of the meeting, everyone broke into groups to discuss and write down their issues with transportation in the area.

Richard Cowan, Councilwoman Jean Quan’s Chief of Staff, said he is dedicated to helping form a comprehensive transportation plan from Seminary Avenue to the Laurel.

“This project has moved along greater and faster than my wildest dreams,” Cowan said to the crowd of about 30. “I am pleased to no end.”

The project began about five years ago when Maxwell Park resident Claire Antonetti, a recipient of Quan’s Local Hero Award, decided it was time to do something about the confusing and often dangerous labyrinth of paths under the I-580 overpass at the junction between the Laurel and Maxwell Park.

She said primary concerns then were the traffic flow off of the freeway, high speeds and people getting lost while navigating the labyrinth of paths.

She said motorists from Pierson Street “put their lives in their hands” when coming and going from MacArthur. Pedestrians have trouble because there are currently no pathways on one side of the street and bicyclists do not have a designated lane.

Antonetti worked with neighbors to develop a gateway project to improve safety and provide what Antonetti called “visual relief” by creating a small park under the overpass.

Antonetti joined her neighborhood’s Blight and Beautification Neighborhood Action team and quickly became its chair. The group decided to survey residents to get their input. At around the same time, Alysha Nachtigall became involved in the process.

After completing her undergraduate degree at Mills in 2007, Nachtigall entered the school’s new graduate public policy program. As part of her internship in Councilwoman Quan’s office, she met her thesis requirement by working on an analysis of the problems caused by the freeway.

Nachtigall helped tally the neighborhood surveys, which nearly 600 residents completed.

In 2008, Nachtigall’s thesis and the survey results led to $257,000 in funding from Caltrans, California’s transportation agency. The grant was awarded through the organization’s statewide competitive Community Based Transportation Planning grant program.

After the money came through, Quan’s office donated an additional $60,000 to the planning effort.

The money will all go toward Phase 1, which is dedicated to planning and design. Paul Krupka and his team at Kimley-Horn and Associates are developing a report of specific issues and proposed changes.

Krupka said when he surveyed the area in the last two weeks he found “conflict between vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists” mixed with a “convoluted set of traffic directions.”

While there are some bikes and pedestrians, the area is dominated by vehicles, he said.

Krupka said I-580 sees about 130,000 to 140,000 cars a day with 11,000 in its peak hour. For MacArthur Boulevard, it’s 10,000 cars a day and 1,000 in the peak hour. Seminary Avenue sees about 12,000 cars a day with about 1,000 during the peak hour.

Speed as well as volume is an issue, he said. When he surveyed average speeds in the last couple weeks, Krupka observed the average to be 42 mph in 30 mph zones.

Four bus lines serve the area, but during their peak period, they carry only between 50 and 100 passengers.

According to Campus Architect Karen Fiene, the College has been involved from the beginning. She said administrators recognize Mills is an integral part of the neighborhood and that the plan will impact the Mills community.

She said the College’s goals are “better access, a focus on safety and ultimately to make [the area] more beautiful.”

Officials said they hope the planning phase will be completed by the end of this year, at which time the project will undergo an environmental analysis.

The second meeting in the planning phase will be May 8. Those interested will arrive at Mills and set out on separate walking tours with members of CEDA’s consulting team.