The proposed safety and community-driven aesthetic improvements of the 14th Street Safety Project in Oakland, Calif., include protected bike lanes (roadway level), sidewalk-level bike lanes and wider sidewalks on core commercial blocks, pedestrian, sidewalk, bus stop lighting, slower, calmer 2-lane roadway, shorter pedestrian crossings, expanded sidewalk space, upgraded bus boarding areas, improved wheelchair access, new landscaping, 'rain gardens' and additional street parking on parallel streets. (City of Oakland via Bay City News)

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Black-owned businesses on 14th Street in downtown Oakland have struggled to stay open through years of construction projects and the pandemic. Now, they’re worried the newly approved 14th Street Safety Project will push them out for good.

The Oakland City Council unanimously approved plans for the project on June 21, five years after a state grant of $11 million was first secured for the safety and improvement of 14th Street from Brush Street to Lakeside Drive/Oak Street.

The goal is to make this street — one of the densest concentrations of traffic injuries and deaths in Oakland — a safer place for cyclists and pedestrians. Between 2016 and 2020, 191 people were injured on 14th Street.

Ryan Russo, the director of the Oakland Department of Transportation, said 14th Street is a “high-injury corridor,” and Harrison, Broadway and Webster are the most dangerous intersections.

The victims are primarily Black, Indigenous, people of color or from other high-priority communities. One bicyclist was killed in a hit-and-run just days before the council approved the project.

Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said that there are disproportionate incidents of traffic violence in this area, including two other pedestrian deaths since 2016, both of whom were Asian American and Pacific Islander seniors.

“Part of my district includes Chinatown, situated next to 14th Street, so I am especially looking forward to a safer downtown environment for our Chinatown elders and families, as well as all community members whose primary means of transportation is walking or biking,” Bas said.

This street also falls within a historically Black neighborhood known as the Black Arts Movement Business District. It was the site of civil rights protests, including several led by the Black Panthers, and it was where Vice President Kamala Harris announced her presidential campaign. The street is lined with African American and minority-owned businesses, from hair salons to tattoo shops to juice bars.

Oscar Edwards has been on 14th Street for more than 14 years. He runs 14th Street Market, Trap House Kitchen and Complex Oakland. He said this Black Arts Movement Business District is special because of the community and support it provides, but the pandemic has threatened that.

“For a lot of the people who have been here for a long time, they rely on foot traffic,” Edwards said. “Since the pandemic, we lost a lot of foot traffic. We lost everybody who used to come down here for lunch, all the city workers, all the people next door, all the office buildings — everybody started teleworking and downtown hasn’t been the same since. It’s a ghost town.”

Edwards added that the ongoing construction projects have also hurt business. Over the last few years, an apartment complex was built, and nearby businesses have been doing renovations. He said the large construction vehicles block the road, making it difficult for delivery drivers to reach his restaurant.

One objective of the project is to narrow the roads and make them a slower two-lane roadway. Edwards is worried about emergency vehicle access and double parking by patrons and delivery drivers.

“They double park because they have nowhere to park,” Edwards said. “They’re going to double park in the middle of the street, and people are going to try to go around, which means people are going into the opposite side of traffic. We tried to get rid of double parking, but we’re only so much. You go out there and tell someone to move their car and you’re risking your life. You might get shot.”

City Councilmember Carroll Fife said she recognizes the concerns of the business owners and wants to find solutions so there can be improved safety while maintaining patronage at these businesses.

“I just don’t want this to turn into a Black and white issue because these are businesses in the Black Arts Movement Business District, clearly African American, and then cyclists who are primarily white,” Fife said. “I’ve heard this discussed as an issue of gentrification, and I really want people to see that it’s an issue of public safety and we can ensure public safety with environmental design. That’s what I’m looking for across the city.”

Other objectives to make the street safer include installing string lighting or pedestrian-scale sidewalk lighting to improve nighttime visibility, adding angled parking on 13th Street and improving transit reliability for Alameda-Contra Costa Transit’s Line 14 — one of the busiest bus lines in Oakland. The city is also adding protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks, shorter pedestrian crossings, improved wheelchair access, upgraded bus boarding areas, more street parking and new landscaping.

Fife said the council tried to accommodate the business owners’ parking requests by adding the new parking spaces on 13th Street. Business owners feel that their customers will not feel safe leaving their car and walking to their stores.

Geoffrey Pete has owned Geoffrey’s Inner Circle — an entertainment hall on 14th Street — since 1993. To him, this parking debate represents a larger issue at hand.

“Our community is under attack relative to gentrification,” Pete said. “Not just residentially, but in the businesses as well. This is why we need every parking space we can get. I see it as another attack on the stability of our community, particularly our business community.”

Pete and Edwards fear that 14th Street will turn into Telegraph Avenue. The two said they agree that there needs to be improved safety measures, but they think new streetlights and well-marked bike paths could be solutions. Pete said his optimal parking solution would be to eliminate parking meters, like Jack London Square, so people don’t have to worry about parking. He also noted that the city hasn’t tried to add bike lanes to other highly populated areas like Chinatown, so he doesn’t think these plans are a solution.

“I mean this is amazing, so I have to take it personally,” Pete said. “I have to bring in the race card and say it’s gentrification.”

Bas and Fife said that they have received support from the community at City Council meetings. Business owners said the council meeting times have been inaccessible, and they feel like council members are trying to pacify them. They feel unheard.

Fife said the council plans to continuously check in with the community to ensure all stakeholders are satisfied with the plans. She said she will try to work with all parties so that businesses don’t suffer during construction.

“I need to bring all of the stakeholders together with the [Oakland] Department of Transportation to figure out what we can do to achieve both goals,” Fife said. “We have to balance out the concerns the business community has said to me about this impacting access to the businesses located in the Black Arts Movement Business District. We have to discuss how to encourage people to continue to shop at these businesses and patronize these businesses.”

There are short-term safety measures that will go into place immediately while other projects like protected bike lanes are expected to be completed by next year. Major construction is expected to begin early in 2023.