The 40th Street BART Streetscape project underscores the difference between promise and fulfillment--and what happens when heightened expectations meet funding realities.
The 40th Street underpass improvements were planned to bolster community support for the MacArthur BART transit village. It promised obvious, immediate benefit to existing community residents and business owners, while the transit village itself offered more nebulous, long-term effects such as increased neighborhood serving retail at the expense of parking and congestion. To gain buy-in from the community, a series of community workshops were held in late 2003 and early 2004. At these workshops, the design team refined concepts based upon input from community members. To foster support, no suggestion was disparaged, regardless of how improbable it might be. There was even renewed talk of drilling a tunnel from 39th and MLK to the BART station, an absurdly expensive non-starter. Meanwhile, a Technical Advisory Committee, made up of transit agency and city staff, was meeting to discuss technical, jurisdictional and implementation timing issues, including details of street changes, regulatory requirements and engineering limitations.
On January 21, 2004, community members voted on the priority of 17 individually implementable projects. The final design plan was presented to the community on February 18 of that year. It tantalized neighbors with visions of tiled walls, beacons shining into the sky, trees and plantings, colored lights extending across the ceiling of the underpass and washing its walls. CEDA staff managed to secure grant funding to realize some of the ideas. Five years later, what has actually been delivered?
Construction has been ongoing for months, and a preliminary walkthrough with the contractor was held on February 6th. The reality is some improvement to the underpass, but—when compared to the promises of what could be—the result seems disappointing. Here is a list of the projects that were talked about, and what we actually got:
Bike Lanes– Don’t see them yet, but they are supposed to be forthcoming. Bike lanes one block long remind one of Alaska’s famous “bridge to nowhere.” But, extension of the bike lanes along 40th Street is a possibility still being discussed.
Bulb-outs at Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and Telegraph Avenue -- These are in place on the Telegraph side. MLK did not get any bulb-outs.
Sidewalk Widening and Overall Improvements – The median strip was narrowed and ADA-compliant ramps were cut. But, if there was widening, it was so modest as to be unnoticed, and the proposed replacement of fencing apparently devolved into fresh painting of existing fencing.
Intersection at BART Frontage Rd. – New traffic lights and a crosswalk here have improved pedestrian safety and were long overdue.
Pedestrian Lights – New, decorative streetlamps were installed but have remained dark throughout the winter, causing pedestrians to resort to flashlights to illuminate evening walks to BART.
Color Wall-Wash Lighting in Underpass Area – New lights have been installed on a strip that seems designed to provide nesting areas for pigeons. They have not yet been turned on.
Paint in Underpass Area – This is the most controversial improvement, because the light gray, monochrome solution provides a tempting canvas for graffiti artists. It appeared to initially be covered with a high-gloss, graffiti resistant coating. Immediately before the walk-through, someone remediated graffiti on the wall by painting over it instead of scrubbing the graffiti off. What point was there in paying for a graffiti-resistant coating if the responsible agency simply paints over it?
Street Trees and Median Planting – Didn’t happen.
Street Furniture – Didn’t happen.
Neighborhood Monuments – Didn’t happen.
Beacon-Lights – Didn’t happen.
Ceiling Light Tubes in Underpass Area – Didn’t happen.
Area Lighting in Underpass Area – Didn’t happen.
BART Vent Light Fixtures – Didn’t happen.
Planting at Slots – Didn’t happen.
Tiles in Underpass Area – Didn’t happen.
In addition, black steel arches were added to the walls as an “artistic wall treatment” that was not documented as a suggestion from any of the community meetings.
Well, the community got something – attention to what has been a dreary, sometimes frightening link between two neighborhoods divided by a massive freeway system. But it is not enough to entice BART patrons to cross into the neighborhoods west of the freeway and revitalize the business community on MLK that was devastated when the freeway was constructed. Nor will the eventual transit village nourish businesses on the western side. Soon, BART plans to wall up most of the median in the name of earthquake retrofitting, which will increase the "tunnel" effect, with fewer avenues of escape if one is mugged. It will take a critical mass of new construction on the west side – “spillover” from Emeryville, perhaps – to reach the tipping point where neighborhood-serving businesses can thrive on MLK.