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Unexpected Company
A redesigned urban square attempts to serve the needs of Oakland’s homeless community and downtown office workers.
By Clare Cooper Marcus

It’s half past noon on a pleasant Wednesday in April, and Lafayette Square, located three blocks southwest of city hall in Oakland, California, is an urban crossroads. Two young women in business suits approach the rectangular, 1.5-acre park from the direction of the municipal offices and settle on seats near its edge, chatting over their brown-bag lunches. Thirty older African American men form an animated cluster—talking, laughing, greeting each other—in the center of the square; some stand, others sprawl on benches and take in the scene. An elderly Asian woman sits on a bench in a fenced play area watching two small children in her charge clamber on a bright red climbing structure. And close to the sidewalk, a white man in his 20s claims a bench, buries his nose in a book, and absently eats a deli sandwich.

Unexpected Company (Lafayette Park):
Photo by Peg Skorpinski

None of the users is unusual here; all seem comfortable in each other’s presence. Peaceful coexistence of diverse user groups was one of the goals in a $2.2 million, two-phase reconstruction, completed in 1999 and 2001, during which part of the park always remained open. The Environmental Design Research Association cited Lafayette Square with a EDRA/Places Design award in 2000.

The lead member of the design team was landscape architect Walter Hood, who practices at Hood Design in West Oakland and is a former chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. Hood proposes that landscape architects who redesign urban parks should try to accommodate the people who already use them (see Shared Wisdom, Landscape Architecture, April 2002), and the lunchtime scene in Lafayette Square demonstrates that notion while suggesting that design can help diverse user groups peacefully cohabit in such places.

“The biggest issue for the park,” Hood says, “was to come up with a new design that looked forward but also looked backward.” A pivotal moment in the square’s recent history occurred 10 years ago when the city made a bold decision not to design the homeless and unemployed regulars out of the park, an intent that stands in marked contrast to that of the recent redesign of Union Square in San Francisco’s shopping district, which discourages indigents and the homeless.

Oakland Tribune columnist Brenda Payton remarked in 1993 that Lafayette Square would be restored for a mix of uses, meaning “it will be used by the homeless people who have congregated there for years as well as the office workers who have recently moved into the new downtown buildings.... Imagine the lessons that might be learned. The regulars might realize there are horizons beyond the park. And the new park-goers might come to understand what a regular told me 10 years ago: ‘You might not be where you are if you had been where some of these people have been.’”

One of the Bay Area city’s seven original public spaces, Lafayette Square has suffered periods of attention and neglect since it was platted 150 years ago. A Victorian observatory and a public assembly hall occupied the square for nearly half a century. Abandoned in 1918, the buildings survived for another decade until the city cleared and relandscaped the square in the late 1920s.

The Great Depression years saw the beginning of a use that continues to this day: a social space for unemployed men. An Oakland women’s club helped finance a renovation in the late 1950s, but 30 years later the improved restrooms, putting green, horseshoe pit, checker tables, and a large shelter were beat-up and out-of-date. As the surrounding Gateway neighborhood declined, the park became a refuge for transient and homeless people to hang out, sleep, and eat; Lafayette Square acquired the sobriquet Old Man’s Park.

The square today is located within an Oakland preservation district, and the Gateway edges some of downtown’s most valuable land, including City Center, an upscale office-retail complex; Preservation Park, a cluster of 16 Victorian houses—11 original to their sites and 5 relocated—where nonprofit groups and small businesses are located; and the busy Broadway commercial corridor. In contrast to the affluence of those user groups, a sizable minority of Gateway’s several thousand residents, who are predominantly black, Latino, and Asian, receive some kind of government assistance.

In 1990, Oakland police closed the park’s toilets, shut off the drinking fountain, and tried to evict the indigent people—moves protested by the Oakland Union of the Homeless and Mary Ann “Mother” Wright, who had been feeding the people there for almost a decade. Fearful of an effort to rid Gateway of the homeless to attract developers, the nonprofit Center for Urban Family Life (CUFL), based at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, formed a coalition of concerned property owners, residents, and the homeless along with service providers, members of churches in the neighborhood, and representatives of the city government and Alameda County. The coalition acknowledged that Lafayette Park needed improvement and joined the City Homeless Commission and the Arts Empowerment Working Group in urging the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department to engage the park regulars in efforts to improve conditions.

Early in 1994, CUFL held a community meeting in the park to gather the perspectives of park users and social service providers. Six goals were identified: provide a mix of uses; improve the park’s image; create a safe park for all; improve existing facilities and provide new ones; involve community members in replanning the park; and provide housing and other services for homeless people who use the park. Budget constraints precluded the last of the six, but the other goals were adopted and eventually met.

The first priority for park regulars was to reopen the restrooms and turn on the drinking fountain; they also wanted better lighting, a barbecue pit, replacements for worn-out tables and benches, and a new roof over the patio where people gathered on rainy days. Asian and Latino neighborhood residents wanted to make the park “more like a plaza,” and others wanted a neighborhood park with emphasis on sports and recreation for children and youth. But such a park already exists four blocks to the south. All in all, the broadest goal for improving Lafayette Square was achieved: to create an urban gathering place largely for adult users.

CUFL received a grant from the private, California-based LEF Foundation and engaged Hood Design and William A. “Willie” Pettus, an Oakland architect who specializes in affordable housing and community planning, to lead design workshops and write a master plan.

Meanwhile, the city received a $198,000 grant from the National Park Service’s Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program for demolition of park structures. “We had a closed and abandoned restroom and shelter structure sitting right on the corner of a prime entrance area into downtown Oakland,” says Kerry Ricketts-Ferris, a senior park planner for the city. “We wanted to rebuild them elsewhere in the park so that they could accommodate the needs of the people 24 hours a day and would be more functional and aesthetically pleasing.”

When Oakland voters approved a $60 million, general-obligation bond initiative called Measure I, $2 million was earmarked for implementing the foundation-financed master plan developed by the Hood/Pettus team. “We recognized that a variety of partnerships had already blossomed around the idea of improving the park,” Ricketts-Ferris says. “The city reviewed all the plans on a regular basis and issued payments through [CUFL] for work to the contractors. The city was a third-party agent,” a working arrangement under which CUFL was able to raise an additional $100,000 for the project, she says.

Some workshop-generated ideas were incorporated into the final design, including that areas in the park should be perceived as separate yet visually integrated and that the park include a play area for children, a picnic area, new bathrooms, and, as a central feature, a stage and canopy. Ideas that did not go into the final design included restoring the historic park layout; making a fountain with flowerbeds and historic light fixtures as a central focus; placing a fence around the park so that it could be locked at night to keep people from sleeping there; and adding such items as a sandbox, a basketball court, a flagpole, an information kiosk, and a park sign.

Before the redesign, Lafayette Square was a flat rectangle with entrances at each corner, picnic tables, a shelter, a locked toilet, and an array of mature trees. The boundaries of a park—and the ways of entering the space—affect those who wander in and the experience they have once inside the park. Fences, hedges, or berms can funnel people into one or more entrances, and from within the open space, those boundaries may provide a pleasing sense of enclosure. On the other hand, a small park that is essentially open around its edges permits entry from any direction but may dilute the pleasurable experience of being in a green oasis separate from the city.

The designers chose the latter approach, providing multiple entries that encourage users to freely enter, and, once inside the park, take in the surrounding city environment. They made the square a collection of spaces with semitransparent walls; inhabitants are conscious of others but can also maintain a sense of privacy.

The park’s most heavily and continuously used section is located near the midpoint on the western side. Here a wide concrete walk leads into the space where the unemployed men—largely African American, middle-aged, and older—gather every day, from midmorning to dusk, beneath a wide-spreading live oak tree. Picnic tables and benches, a small paved plaza, and proximity to the small toilet building, which fronts 10th Street to the south, make the space welcoming to them. Many, in fact, return every day to a place they’ve claimed as their own, just as others in their situation have done for at least 70 years. An adjacent horseshoe pit is rarely used, and the city’s plans for live performances and movies in the central shelter, with audiences sitting on the sloped lawn, have not been implemented for lack of funds, Ricketts-Ferris says.

The seating areas on the square’s eastern and northern edges are partially screened from the central gathering space by a grassy hillock and sloped lawn. Along Jefferson Street on the east, where an area is covered in granite chips and punctuated with four-person tables and benches, a pedestrian can detour slightly from the sidewalk and take a rest, chat with a friend, or eat lunch while barely being inside the park. This seclusion from the park’s interior welcomes people who may feel apprehensive about the unemployed and homeless regulars.

The northern edge, where a bosk of purple-leaf plum trees extends from just inside the park to the edge of 11th Street, presents a different experience. The pedestrian finds herself inside the park seemingly without having entered it. Tiles in concrete paving recount the history of Oakland; wooden benches are interspersed among the plums. Across the street, there’s a parking lot, eventually to be replaced by an office building. It’s a good spot—slightly separated from the interior of the park by a lawn—for the lunchtime set.

At the square’s northwest corner, 11th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, an open-sided mini-plaza with chess tables permits people to amble among honey locust trees, take a seat close to the sidewalk, or walk into the center of the park. Farther along, the western edge presents a series of low, grassy mounds, picnic benches, and barbecue grills. The intent was to provide a setting for picnics and passive recreation for neighbors to the north and west, an area of single- and multifamily dwellings. Here the grass, shade trees, barbecues, and three metal structures for climbing vines (inspired by rows of bean-vine props in neighborhood gardens) seem appropriate.

Near the northwest corner, a low, metal fence delimits a children’s area containing a bright red play structure and comfortable perimeter benches. Asian-American parents and children who live south of the park use it, as do those who walk from schools or daycare centers in Chinatown, four blocks to the east. These users rarely traverse the park or use the rest of it.

As a rule, men frequent city parks more heavily than women, and Lafayette Square is no exception. Casual observation indicates that usage is virtually 100 percent male at many times of the day. Occasionally one or two women join the unemployed men, but otherwise the few women who visit the park are office workers or mothers with children. The men, who clearly enjoy using this park daily as a kind of outdoor living room, may by their number and visibility throughout the day intimidate many women from using the outdoor spaces.

Lafayette Square remains free of graffiti and other forms of vandalism, but Ricketts-Ferris and Hood have different perspectives on the city’s general level of maintenance. She says the park requires fairly low upkeep compared with others in the city and attributes that to the selection of materials and the way the irrigation system and plantings were designed. Design integrity has not been compromised for lack of maintenance, she says.

Hood, on the other hand, is disappointed with the general level of upkeep. Weeds are growing in the decomposed granite area bordering Jefferson Street, although this was perhaps a dubious choice of material. Oakland park personnel won’t use herbicides, but the city doesn’t have the manpower to pull weeds by hand. Money from a trust fund to employ park regulars in part-time maintenance positions has run out.

“For a designer, a really big issue to address is how long a park will last,” Hood says. “The city spent two million dollars on this redesign, yet it doesn’t care about maintenance! The park in front of city hall, of course, is immaculate.”

A particularly attractive feature is the original ironwork, which includes the play area’s fence, the vine towers, litter containers, and tree guards for the purple-leaf plums in Memory Plaza. Created by a local firm (Creative Iron, Oakland), the ironwork is substantial and sophisticated.

Not working as planned is a runnel traversing a grassy hillock where the observatory stood. Water in the runnel, aligned with summer solstice’s sunrise and lighted at night, was to provide a pleasant background noise, but it malfunctioned soon after that part of the park opened and hasn’t been repaired. Other features are uncompleted, notably a series of bronzed plaques created by artist James Moore, working with local children. The plaques are to be inserted into curvilinear walls along the park’s east side, but only a few are in place.

Lafayette Square regulars, with whom Hood established a friendly relationship during design workshops, greet him when he visits the park today. However, he would like to see more use by middle-income residents of new town house and apartment complexes on the edge of downtown. That vision is not, however, consistent with studies showing that middle-income professionals living near urban open spaces rarely use them. Instead, they barbecue on their balconies and patios, window-shop downtown, eat at sidewalk cafés, and when seeking outdoor recreation, take off for the beach, the mountains, or a scenic state park. The users of downtown parks (New York’s Central Park being a notable exception) tend to be shoppers, tourists, and office workers and not those who live nearby—unless they are poor and unemployed. Lafayette Square is a prime example.

Asked to explain his goals as designer of Lafayette Square, Hood talks about history and preservation. “Our biggest set of ideas came out of trying to understand how the park evolved over time: why it fell into disrepair and the political, social, and economic issues,” he says. “Then, instead of erasing everything, to begin to layer new ideas on the old. The park became a collage of ideas dealing with history, but in a very formal way.”

And what of the social goals for Lafayette Square, that it would be a place where suit wearers would mix with wearers of worn overcoats? My observations indicate that this has not occurred. The unemployed, older men use the park, and the suit wearers (male and female) tend to congregate elsewhere, in a newly refurbished park/ plaza outside city hall or in the plaza spaces at the base of two new federal office towers. But what has succeeded is the effort to design the park edges so that those who do not belong to the dominant, older male hangers-out will feel comfortable.

Clare Cooper Marcus is professor emerita in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and principal in Healing Landscapes in Berkeley.

Project Credits
Walter Hood, Alma Du Solier, and Grace Lee, Hood Design.
Rich Seyfarth, Rich Seyfarth Landscape Architect.
William A. “Willie” Pettus, architect.
Steve Costa, Healthy Cities Fund, money management and project overview.
Kerry Ricketts-Ferris, Life Enrichment Agency, Oakland.
BBI Construction, general contractor.
Creative Iron, ornamental ironwork.

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