From unclean to green, downtown Oakland project protects Bay from polluted runoff

By Mark Prado
Green spine

A gritty section of downtown Oakland is being transformed into a green oasis by a San Francisco Estuary Partnership project aimed at reducing the amount of polluted water draining into San Francisco Bay.

The work is the newest link in the Estuary Partnership’s “Green Stormwater Spine” along the busy San Pablo Avenue corridor in Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley and El Cerrito.

As rain falls on hard surfaces, runoff picks up particulates that can contain oil from cars, pesticides, herbicides, metals and synthetic and volatile organic chemicals that ends up draining into creeks and the Bay.

The Green Stormwater Spine uses rain gardens, planted curb extensions, special soil mixes and other green street improvements to limit damage to water quality and sensitive ecosystems. Thousands of gallons of water drain into soils where toxics are trapped and broken down by natural processes before making their way to the bay.

The downtown Oakland project includes a new rain garden running the full length of the block of San Pablo Avenue between 16th and 17th streets; three boardwalk overcrossings to connect the main sidewalk with a step-out area for parked cars; and the planting of four 15-gallon trees and 1,000 shrubs and grasses, consisting of hardy, drought-tolerant native species.

Ornamental grates will cover the curb cuts that allow storm water to enter the rain garden from the gutter. Other streetscape improvements include re-striped parking areas to enhance safety, painted bike lanes, and a new sidewalk with ADA-compliant curb ramps. Oakland’s Downtown Business Improvement District will maintain the new site, enabling a broader planting palette and a larger footprint for the rain garden.

“These projects are designed not just to limit damage to water quality and sensitive ecosystems but also to improve the pedestrian experience with thoughtful landscape designs and plantings,” said Josh Bradt, San Francisco Estuary Partnership project manager. “As more of these types of projects are constructed within a particular watershed and around the Bay Area, other green infrastructure benefits accrue, such as reductions in local flooding.”

Each of the Green Stormwater Spine sites is individually designed to showcase innovative infrastructure techniques and to illustrate the sustainability of Bay-friendly landscapes for the public and local government. The year-long, four-city construction program will treat a total of six acres of impervious surfaces.

The $4 million Green Stormwater Spine program is sponsored by the Association of Bay Area Governments’ San Francisco Estuary Partnership. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) provided about half the construction funding, with grants from Caltrans and the California Strategic Growth Council providing the balance.

The Estuary Partnership is an ABAG program staffed by MTC working to increase the health and resiliency of the San Francisco Estuary.