Expansion plans upset West Oakland residents

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In the late afternoon, steady streams of cars and shuttles wend their way up and down Robinson Street past vehicles parked straddling the sidewalk. Same thing in the morning.

For many people who work at Oakland institutions, Robinson is a quick conduit to and from the Boulevard of the Allies and the parkway. But the convenience for commuters has become such an imposition on residents that some are urging limits on a much-needed office development at the bottom of the street.

It's not just traffic that concerns them. They're also feeling squeezed.

The proposed expansion of the Oakland Portal Project, which began with a 47-unit apartment building on Fifth Avenue just west of Robinson, would provide one 13-story and two eight-story buildings and a hotel in a market that has almost no office vacancies. The 12-acre site sits between Fifth and Forbes avenues. Representatives of the developer, LW Molar Associates, expect the city's planning commission to vote on the proposal tomorrow. Planning hearings begin at 2 p.m. in the first-floor conference room at 200 Ross St.

There will be no public comment; that was taken two weeks ago, when residents told the commission the plan fails to include solutions they suggested during community meetings last fall and earlier in the winter.

One solution, said Barbara Brewton, a longtime resident, would be to prevent cars from being able to get on the parkway via Robinson Street. Commuters now turn right illegally from Robinson to get onto the parkway via the Boulevard of the Allies.

A traffic study by Trans Associates indicated that more than 300 vehicles travel on Robinson every hour in the afternoon. The company proposes reconfiguring the Fifth and Robinson intersection to better accommodate Port Authority buses and a new signal to make the right turn for cars legal and safer.

Planning Director Noor Ismail said the city has signed off on the development site plan.

It calls for retail on the plaza level, landscaping and integral parking. The first building is to be eight stories and would accommodate 274 cars, mostly underground. The developer wants to break ground on it by summer.

"Many of us feel the project would hinder the objectives for this community as specified in the Oakland 2025 plan," Ms. Brewton said, referring to the larger neighborhood's vision that calls for enhancements of the residential and transportation experience throughout Oakland. Ninety people have signed a petition, she said.

Traffic and the height of the tallest proposed building are the major issues.

Gary Willingham-McLain, pastor of the Friendship Community Presbyterian Church, said the massing of Oakland institutions makes it "difficult for a truly residential neighborhood to retain its character as a place people want to commit their lives to." Numerous people have made that commitment, including his family for 17 years, he said, "but we have seen large institutions eat up residential streets."

West Oakland is wedged up against the University of Pittsburgh's athletic complex, Carlow University, the Oak Hill housing community and Fifth Avenue.

Many residents are elderly and low-income, and the home ownership base is giving ground to student rentals. To support homeowners, the Oakland Planning and Development Corp. provides facade improvement grants, and the church recently opened a community center, The Corner, at 200 Robinson.

"I know neighborhoods change," said Mark Kramer, director of The Corner, "but you want to see good things happen for people who have been here a long time and have a lot at stake. We are overrun by people who work at Pitt, Carlow and other institutions parking in our neighborhood. We feel pretty unanimous that the development is going to increase the volume of traffic, and, given our numbers, we should be heard."

Wanda Wilson, executive director of Oakland Planning and Development Corp., said the nonprofit organization "commends the plan for widening sidewalks, providing bicycle parking and green space," but the plan does not propose street level activity on the Forbes Avenue side, she said, adding, "Oakland 2025 identifies priorities for pedestrian amenities."

The new traffic signal that would legalize turns to get on the Boulevard of the Allies, she said, "will vastly increase the use of Robinson by commuters."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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