North Oakland gets greenspace proposals

Chatham architect students submit ideas

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Imagine getting off a bus with your bike at Centre Avenue and Neville Street in North Oakland and pedaling on a wooded trail to the Strip District -- a five-minute trip, with no cars, a tree canopy and a view.

Elaine Kramer sees the possibility with a design that follows the historic path of Neville all the way to Liberty Avenue, hugging a hillside above a deep ravine traversed by railroads and the East Busway.

A recent Chatham University master's graduate in landscape architecture, Ms. Kramer was one of several students who designed projects last semester for the Oakland Planning and Development Corp.

A handful of organizations citywide responded to Chatham's request for proposals from which its students could design projects. OPDC was chosen in part on the strength of its partner organizations and its role in building the Oakland 2025 master plan, said Jason Vrabel, an adjunct professor at Chatham. OPDC asked the Chatham architecture studio for attention to North Oakland.

"There are a lot of sites poised for redevelopment in North Oakland," said Wanda Wilson, executive director of OPDC, "but it hasn't had the attention other parts of the neighborhood have. The studio gives us food for thought. I think some version of some of these ideas could get legs."

Ms. Kramer's trail would address the 2025 plan's interest in transit-oriented development where the busway emerges from the ravine at Centre and Neville. David Wilson tied his design into the 2025 plan's tapping of a city pump station on Centre at North Dithridge Street for much-needed public greenspace. Revising the current yard into a park with a storm water diversion feature would fill two needs.

"The pump station looks like it's abandoned," Mr. Vrabel said. "Let's celebrate it and its function with a water feature and a park" right next to a high-rise apartment building.

Student Emily Sachs proposed enhancing the triangular intersection of Bigelow Boulevard and Craig Street with traffic-calming and pedestrian amenities including an overlook, a parklet and a plaza for public art.

Ms. Kramer was interested in making a wild urban space an asset that connects neighborhoods.

Her trail would roughly follow the curve of Gold Way into Polish Hill. It would also connect to Melwood Avenue, which dead-ends just past Pittsburgh Filmmakers but is accessible to Gold Way and reappears in tandem with it entering Polish Hill. Staying on the trail through the woods would let cyclists avoid traffic all the way to the bottom of the hill where, at Herron Avenue, they could head east to Lawrenceville or west to the Strip and Downtown.

The city recognized Gold Way was already a popular route last year by adding speed humps and painting bicycle logos on the pavement.

"So there is some congruence there," Wanda Wilson said. "And where the busway ramp comes up at Neville, there's a huge opportunity to improve amenities for transit users. It could really be an economic development driver."

Ms. Wilson said the connections "are intriguing, and ones people don't normally think about. We have had conversations with Polish Hill about other issues," and this trail could be one of them. "When you have drawings, you have more to discuss."

Today, Neville north of Centre is a little stub of pavement that dissolves into heavy foliage. The road was either abandoned or closed some years ago.

"I walked the whole way in winter and I needed a machete," said Ms. Kramer, a recent hire at Pashek Associates on the North Side. "As a trail, it could connect" to bike trails that loop throughout the city.

"It is always the goal" to see his student plans realized, Mr. Vrabel said. "We encourage them to be bold. For most of their careers, bold ideas will get watered down. But whenever there are good ideas, we owe it to the idea and ourselves to take it to the 'go' or 'no go' level. We are a city that sometimes succumbs to a failure of imagination. Here we have a big lush green valley in the middle of the city."

Many Pittsburghers have a vague idea the valley exists, but Ms. Kramer found evidence of its use -- remains of campfires, a tree swing, a man practicing tai chi.

Its dominant flora is knotweed, an invasive species that Ms. Kramer's plan acknowledges. She drew a knotweed station along the trail where people could share knowledge and experience on eradicating, or using, the plant.

Most of the proposed trail is city-owned. Some slopes are so steep that the trail would have to be elevated on piers.

"My interest is to draw people to nature in a non-threatening way," Ms. Kramer said. "I like the way the wild and the urban can mix. I'm sure hillsides can be assets all over the city."

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at

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