Urban Design Process Projects Events & Charrettes

Opticos in Action: Plan Downtown Oakland

This week, Opticos is in the middle of a 10-day charrette process in Oakland, California as part of a dynamite team led by Dover Kohl.

We kicked off the program on Monday with a hands-on design workshop, and are currently in the midst of the Open Design Studio portion of the charrette through Tuesday. The program includes a walking tour and open house on Saturday, and a presentation of work-in-progress next Wednesday.

The Plan Downtown Oakland project seeks to address a wide variety of needs in the city, from improved transit development to maintaining affordable housing in this increasingly popular area. The charrette process seeks public input and collaboration to make sure that the design and planning team creates solutions that benefit and serve the community.  

Proposed policy changes, under further discussion during the charrette, include an overhaul of parking requirements that force vast amounts of land that could otherwise be used for housing to be taken up by parking lots. The charrette is also exploring potential road diets and new bike lanes to make Oakland more pedestrian-friendly.  

The Charrette Process

At Opticos, we strongly believe that our work should benefit the communities we partner with, and the charrette process is key to that. Charrettes offer the public a chance to share their own comments and concerns regarding design and planning work, and give designers a chance to collaborate with the people their work serves. Charettes are tailored to the needs of specific projects, and use creative tools to delve into the unique characteristics of communities.

The Hands-on Design Workshop

Plan Downtown Oakland
In the Hands-on Design Workshop, groups presented their top three issues following table discussions about the past, present, and future of the Plan Downtown Oakland project area.

In Oakland, the first evening of the charette was dedicated to a public discussion. Opticos and the other teams working in Oakland introduced ourselves to the community members, and then split up to work closely with small groups for the duration of the evening.

One representative of the planning and design team sat at a table with each group of community members, who shared both their hopes and concerns for the project. The Oakland community is diverse and known for being politically active, so many different points of view were represented in the conversation.

After about three hours of discussion, each group shared their top three takeaways with the entire room. Throughout the evening, we heard about the importance of social equity and affordability, which are key issues for many in the area. We also heard often about Oakland’s importance to artists, and the need to ensure that any changes in Oakland will include space for artists to both live and work.

Plan Downtown Oakland
To kickstart group discussions at the Hands-on Design Workshop, groups used green dots to vote for photos showing places and buildings they liked, and red dots for those they didn’t.

For the public, activities in this workshop provide a framework for discussion of what people love about their community, as well as what they aren’t thrilled by. For designers, this process is critical to getting a feel for the community and creating designs that truly reflect the needs and desires of those who live there. For the three hour workshop, each designer is immersed in the hopes and the fears for change from the individuals they work with, and these perspectives create a richness for designs and plans to draw on, allowing them to be rooted in a place’s history, character and culture.

The Charette Open Studio

Plan Downtown Oakland
Arti Harchekar, Opticos’ project manager for the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, sketches observations about the project area on an analysis map.

Following the opening discussion, the Dover Kohl and Opticos teams set up an Open Design Studio, which forms the core of the charrette. It is here that the design team grapples with the challenges and gives form to the aspirations set forth in the Hands-On Workshop.

The Oakland Open Design Studio has been set up in an under-construction storefront. As people walk by and look in the windows, we invite them to come in and talk to us, to share their concerns and their bright ideas. These spontaneous interactions, like the public discussion, are invaluable in the design and planning process.

Unlike designing in an isolated office, the Open Design Studio provides an environment of instant, ongoing feedback. During this time, designers collect as many ideas and points of views as possible. Over the next few days, these ideas will be trimmed down, combined and refined.

Within a couple of weeks of the conclusion of the charrette, Dover Kohl will issue a charrette report encapsulating the work that was done in Oakland over these ten days. Over the following months, these documents will be further refined until a complete plan is available for review.

Plan Downtown Oakland
An analysis map created by Arti Harchekar shows existing street conditions and opportunity sites in a residential neighborhood in downtown Oakland.

As the charrette concludes in the course of the next week, our work with and for Oakland residents is just beginning. We look forward to our continued involvement in the Plan Downtown Oakland project, helping the community continue to grow through urban design and planning in ways that help residents thrive.

Oakland residents, if you can’t make it to the charrette but have ideas and opinions to share, get involved online through “Speak Up, Oakland!

More photos from the charrette:

Plan Downtown Oakland
(Left to right) Alicia Parker (City of Oakland) Rachel Flynn (City of Oakland) Jennifer Garcia (Dover Kohl) Amy Grover (Dover Kohl) Dan Parolek (Opticos) Arti Harchekar (Opticos) review analysis maps during an end-of-day pin-up.
Plan Downtown Oakland
Dan Parolek and Stefan Pellegrini enjoy one of Downtown Oakland’s civic spaces during a break in the Plan Downtown Oakland charrette.
Plan Downtown Oakland
Director of Planning and Building for the City of Oakland Rachel Flynn sketches on a map during an end-of-day pin-up, where the charrette team reviews the work done so far.