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Will Bus Rapid Transit Ruin Temescal?

Business and property owners say AC Transit has ignored their concern that dedicated bus lanes and the loss of parking will hurt their neighborhood.

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Randy Reed is not a NIMBY. The co-owner of Reed Brothers Security in North Oakland supports high-density housing, smart growth, and mass transit. In fact, Reed and many other businesses and property owners in the city's up and coming Temescal District should be strong allies of Bus Rapid Transit on Telegraph Avenue. But they say that AC Transit, sponsor of the $250 million project that would create a sort of light-rail line for buses, has ignored their concerns for years about what BRT will do to the Temescal area — one of the city's neighborhood success stories in the past decade.

Reed and other leaders of the Temescal Telegraph Business Improvement District said AC Transit officials refused to meet with them until they called Oakland City Councilwomen Jane Brunner and Rebecca Kaplan. (Brunner represents the Temescal area and Kaplan, the at-large councilmember, is a former AC Transit board member.) And then once they had a meeting, Reed said, AC Transit officials still didn't appear to take them seriously.

One of the biggest concerns among business owners is that BRT would eliminate 70 percent of the on-street parking spaces on Telegraph between 40th and 51st streets, according to business improvement district calculations based on what AC Transit presented to them earlier this year. The parking problem would be even worse between 40th and 45th streets. BRT would eliminate 78 percent of the on-street parking spots on that strip of the avenue.

BRT takes away parking because it needs more space than just the two center lanes of traffic. The normally four-lane Telegraph would turn into two-plus lanes for buses, two lanes for regular traffic, and a bike lane in each direction — with much of the parking eliminated. For most of Telegraph between downtown Oakland and the UC Berkeley campus, the loss of on-street parking is not expected to create many hardships. But in the busy Temescal, shop owners say it could put them out of business. "Taking 70 percent of the parking is ludicrous," Reed said.

Reed moved his business to Temescal in 1990, and he says many of his customers need to use their cars because of some of the products he sells. "People aren't riding the bus to buy a 600-pound safe and then take it home on the bus," he explained.

Reed and Roy Alper, a developer who is vice president of the business improvement district, also are concerned about BRT's impact on the already crowded intersection of Telegraph and 51st Street. Eliminating two lanes of traffic could render that intersection impassable, and they said both AC Transit officials and Oakland city staffers seemed not to care. "We believe that there are some very practical solutions to the concerns we have and that they appear determined to ignore them," Alper said.

Alper also is no NIMBY. His proposals for high-density development in the Temescal transit corridor have been strongly opposed in the past by neighborhood anti-growth activists. In fact, AC Transit's apparent disinterest in what BRT will do to the Temescal has forged an unusual alliance of North Oakland groups. For example, both the anti-growth group STAND (Standing Together for Development) and the pro-density group ULTRA (Urbanists for a Livable Temescal Rockridge Area) are now aligned with the businesses in their serious reservations about BRT. "They've succeeded in getting everybody united," Alper said.

In an interview, Kaplan said AC Transit had "a breakdown in communication" concerning Temescal and BRT. "It was unfortunate," she said. "I don't fault the Temescal folks for being concerned."

But she said that she believes that after the Oakland City Council's decision last week to move forward with BRT, AC Transit will thoroughly study the project's impacts on the Temescal area, and come up with suitable fixes for parking and overcrowded intersections. In the end, the city may choose to not approve the installation of dedicated bus lanes in the Temescal area. "I'm cautiously optimistic that all of the issues can be resolved," Kaplan said.

AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson said the agency "intends to mitigate any parking issue that comes up," including the possibility of building parking lots. "The intent from this point on is to work with people who are concerned and mitigate the issues," he said. He also said that if the City Council decides that dedicated bus lanes are unworkable in Temescal, then they won't happen. "Some section of cities may not be able to handle dedicated lanes in the middle of the street and others can — we realize that," he said. "Ultimately, we will not build anything that doesn't have the endorsement of the City of Oakland."

But Reed and other Temescal business and property owners say they'll believe it when they see it. AC Transit's actions to date have not exactly inspired confidence. And it's not as if Reed and his colleagues are against BRT. They understand the need for better mass transit. They get that an improved transit system could attract developers, density, and eventually more customers. But that will take time, and they say that building a system that doesn't account for the needs of their current customers who drive and require parking could be devastating. "I would love to see high density — I would love to see seven- to ten-story buildings on Telegraph," Reed said. "But in the meantime, you've put me out of business."

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