Central Station

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Is now time to buy? Redfin says yes!

Redfin's monthly market report for December says that while the housing market is still dragging along, things are looking increasingly good for buyers, and in particular first time home buyers. The sad news is that, inflation adjusted, all gains in home values since 2000 are basically wiped out. But, that depression on the market is dragging it extra low, meaning few people are buying when actually, now is really good time. Here are some of the facts Redfin points out:

Things have pretty well stabilized. In fact, while economists predicted the second half of 2011 would show another 6 or 7% decline, around here it was more like a 0.6% decline for the year. Not great, but not so bad.
For those who are still renters, the rental market is getting pretty cruel. Nationally its at its tightest since 2006 and rents have gone up around 3%. In the Bay Area its at its tightest in a decade. In both Oakland and the Bay Area, rents have gone up nearly 10% this year.

In San Francisco proper the vacancy rate is at a historically low 3.2 percent, and demand has pushed rents up 9 percent in the past year to an average of $2,568 per month (San Francisco Business Times, November, 2011). In Oakland: “Landlords throughout Oakland have seen vacancies in their buildings dwindle to less than 5 percent and have in turn raised rents 5 to 10 percent." (San Francisco Business Times, Friday, November 25, 2011)

And finally, interest rates are now below 4%, which is historically incredibly low.

So for folks looking to trade up from renting to owning, there's a lot of wind at your back. Add that to some really nice, new condo units available out there for incredibly low prices, and you could score an absolute steal right now.

The full report is available at http://blog.redfin.com/blog/2011/12/the_market_spends_another_day_in_its_bathrobe_but_feeling_better.html

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

West Oakland BART Streetscape Improvements

For months Oakland has been rebuilding and tidying things up around the West Oakland BART station. This week the City has been repaving 7th street and putting landscaping in the medians. The new sculptural bent poles ("dancing lights" - ?) along 7th street are a little baffling, but I appreciate how well lit the street is now. Other stuff like better sidewalks, better crossings, new trees, etc is all much easier to appreciate. Walking by there twice a day on my commute between PCL and San Francisco, it certainly makes the walk or bike ride a little nicer with every passing week.

The good news is, this is just phase I, and it looks like its going to keep getting better. The City actually has some pretty big plans for the street, running from a roundabout at Wood Street, down a well lit and landscaped 8 or so blocks to a gateway at Union Street.
(see the whole report and more graphics at http://www2.oaklandnet.com/Government/o/CEDA/o/Redevelopment/o/WestOakland/index.htm).
Here are some of the nice improvements to the neighborhood that are coming our way:
  • slower traffic on 7th street as they narrow the whole corridor by widening sidewalks and putting in a big landscaped median.
  • landscaped medians along a lot of the corridor and a landscaped roundabout at 7th and Wood.
  • sidewalk bulbouts at corners to shorten crossing distances, give more space for waiting, slow traffic.
  • "tabled" (raised) intersections and crosswalks to again slow cars, and also make crossing a little easier and intersections a little better looking.
  • More lighting! Some cool historic lighting, more of the dancing lights (though I think these are a little silly and folks may regret a few years from now), and LED lighting on the BART elevated structure (this could be pretty cool).
  • More trees! little pockets (what they generously call "groves" - we'll see about that), medians, and just regular trees along 7th.
  • And some stuff that might be a little silly, but can't hurt, like a "walk of fame" and a gateway across 7th at Union Street.
  • And finally a bunch of little, nice, convenient stuff that will just make it all better looking and more comfortable, like trash cans, seating, and designey fences and rails around landscaping and along uglier lots fronting on the sidewalk.

Sounds like the commute is going to keep getting a little nicer from one week to the next.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Biking Oakland: How Far do you Ride that Thing to Get Here?

Today on my way into the office I passed a co-worker who asked, “How far do you ride that thing to get here?” The answer is that it’s about a half hour total trip to and home from work: 5 minutes from PCL to West Oakland BART station, about 10 minutes to Embarcadero on BART, and 10-15 minutes in San Francisco, so a range between 25 and 30 minutes. He was impressed – as if it was a long time or distance, despite that his drive takes longer. But I’ve been bike commuting for years, and frankly, I wish the bike ride was longer. It’s hard for someone who sits in a car crossing the bridge to understand that I enjoy those minutes. I get a little exercise and a chance to check out the world, like how new buildings are going up, stores are changing, people’s styles are evolving, etc. I check out other cyclists bikes, gear, clothes, and bags – its their individual a strategy for how to efficiently commute while keeping your work clothes looking nice, or maybe your hair as hip as when you left the bathroom. I bike at a speed that allows me to take in a lot of detail. Its fun and interesting. Rather than hating the drivers around me as I sit in traffic, I feel a sense of community with the cyclists, pedestrians, and life on the street around me.

Oakland is a pretty great town for bike commuting. First, this side of town is pancake flat. The weather tends to be a lot sunnier than in San Francisco. The bike lanes are pretty good and get me north, south, and east (not too far west of here to go) quickly. So if I feel like exploring for lunch, within a few minutes I can get to any kind of food in downtown Oakland or Emeryville. When I need to head to a friend’s house in Berkeley, I can swing by Berkeley Bowl West on my way north. When I head to BART, it’s 5 minutes or less and I can either lock up or bring my bike to San Francisco with me. And PCL is a great home base too. There is a ton of space for bike parking and the bike lounge lets me plug in music and put my bike on a stand to fix my brakes or adjust my derailleur cables quickly before I head out for the day. And yes, we have a car and we use it. I can’t bike to Tahoe or when there are four or five people in the car sometimes its quicker to just jump right on the freeway. When I have driven to and from PCL, it pretty much couldn’t be easier to get on the freeway and plopped right in front of the bridge toll plaza. But honestly, most days I’d rather bike. And I love having that option and getting to make that choice every day.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Bay Bridge turned 75 in November

We hear a lot about the future of the Bay Bridge in the news, but recently it was fun to hear about its past. November 12th, 2011 was the 75th anniversary of the opening of the bridge. 1936 was certainly pre-BART too, so its interesting to look back at what it was like back then when a number of Key system local train lines came from downtown Oakland, through the thriving working class residential neighborhood in West Oakland, and out the Key Route Pier, which spanned roughly 3 miles into the Bay toward Yerba Buena Island and where people transferred to Ferries to the San Francisco Ferry Building. West Oakland today may not have a trains running down every street, but we've got West Oakland BART nearby and between the bridge and the easy trip to the BART station I certainly appreciate the convenience of being right between downtown Oakland and San Francisco. Plus, not to digress in a post about the bridge, I hear rumors that the proposed Oakland light rail currently being studied could connect West Oakland to downtown and Jack London Square.

Back to the bridge, a little construction history:

Talks about building a Bay-spanning bridge began during the Gold Rush, when the transcontinental railroad was completed -- with San Francisco on the wrong side of the Bay… Finally, in 1933, workers broke ground. At points, the bay was 100-feet deep, with thick layers of mud covering the bedrock. Workers thus drove entire old-growth fir trees through the mud to act as pilings. The complete project took three years and five months and cost about $77 million -- $6 million under budget.
Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/11/bay-bridge-anniversary_n_1087376.html

I personally like the comment about San Francisco being on the wrong side of the Bay, but I think they mean it differently. For more reminiscing about the Bridge’s history, you can check out the Bay Bridge’s Facebook page (really) at https://www.facebook.com/SFOBBMemories?sk=wall.

In honor of the big birthday, Governor (and former Oakland mayor) Jerry Brown said "the Bay Bridge has provided the region with the vital transportation link to support the thriving economic vitality that the Bay Area is known for." That critical link is why the region, state, and federal governments are pitching in the $6.3 billion dollars to build the new east span. The east span is supposed to open to traffic in 2013.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jobs, People, Infrastructure, and TIGER on the Other Side of 880


In October, the City of Oakland asked the Feds to chip in $40 million to help create 5,000 jobs and build $438 million in improvements to the old Army Base in West Oakland – just on the other side of the freeway from Pacific Cannery Lofts. Last year Oakland won $2 million dollars in highly-competitive Federal Department of Transportation (DOT) TIGER funding to help plan for the future of the Army Base (on the other side of I-880) and West Oakland. This year, they went back to ask for $40 million to get to work building infrastructure in the area.

TIGER stands for Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery, and West Oakland’s fledgling economic recovery will get a big boost from the Army Base project. The huge Port expansion will bring more jobs, people, and dollars into the neighborhood, as those thousands of new workers spend their dollars at our local businesses (with hopefully more to come!). Our neighborhood stands to benefit from some of the transportation improvements too. The long-rumored 10th street connection across I-880 could get more traffic coming through the area and help turn some vacant lots and scrap yards into residences and businesses that contribute to the vitality of our neighborhood. Speaking of which, some of the industrial uses in the area like recycling and packing for shipping may move into the Army Base, meaning cleaner air in our immediate neighborhood and more sites for artists and small businesses to locate on this side of the freeway.

While the Port and City are committed to the Army Base expansion, $40 million from TIGER could mean more jobs soon. One of the main selection criteria for TIGER is near-term job creation. This is money the government wants to create jobs now. Hopefully that means that this money would catalyze some of those construction jobs rebuilding roads and rail lines would come to our City sooner, and that the long-term good Port jobs come sooner too. Unfortunately, with a lot of worthy projects around the country, and only $527 million available from TIGER to meet the over $14 billion in requests, let’s hope Oakland made a strong pitch and has real plans for creating those good jobs soon.

More detail:
2010 TIGER II Funds for Planning at the Army Base: http://www.bayareamonitor.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=228&Itemid=66
2011 TIGER III Application for $40 million to start work: http://www2.oaklandnet.com/oakca/groups/cityadministrator/documents/pressrelease/oak032115.pdf