Unbuilt to Last

An Oakland, California, waterfront redevelopment plan hit a few bumps before Einwiller Kuehl took it apart.

By Lydia Lee / Photography by Eric Einwiller

Part of the old warehouse has been repurposed into a super-deep porch.

On a bright Saturday afternoon in mid-October, a party was going on at Township Commons, one of the newest parks in the San Francisco Bay Area. Actually, four events were going on simultaneously across the Oakland, California, park’s four and a half acres, overlooking the glittering waters of the bay: Behind the large hill at the western end, with a view of San Francisco in the distance, a small family gathered around a folding table; at the other end by the café/market, people dressed in sober attire were attending a private catered event; on the main deck, five couples were taking a salsa class; and next to the hill, a handful of roller skaters in bright outfits were practicing some groovy moves. The sheer acreage meant that there was room for everyone. “I knew this space was perfect for something of this scale,” says Mama Celeste, a local drag queen who launched “Rollin’ with the Homos,” a hugely popular monthly skate party and drag show, in February 2021. “It’s got the perfect setup with this amphitheater on the hill, the stage, and the beautiful backdrop of the Oakland Estuary. The designers of Township Commons, Liz Einwiller, ASLA, and Sarah Kuehl of the Oakland-based landscape architecture firm Einwiller Kuehl, worked with the waterfront site’s numerous constraints to create an inviting canvas for all this activity. “Every single thing that we got to do had to count,” Kuehl says. “If you were going to place a light post, that was a move—it wasn’t like, ‘I’m making my design; let’s add some light posts.’ There’s a restraint because of the rules, and [the park] is very spare, but we kind of got into it as a design language.”

Township Commons is part of the latest redevelopment of Oakland’s historic waterfront, formerly off-limits to the public. Like the neighboring city of San Francisco, located directly across the bay, Oakland went through rapid development during the gold rush; it was the western terminus for the first transcontinental railroad. Today, the Port of Oakland, located a few miles west of the park, is one of the largest container ports in the United States. And the one-time shipping channel known as Brooklyn Basin, named by settlers who arrived on the ship Brooklyn in 1846, is bordered by a new 62-acre mixed-use development with 3,700 housing units and 100,000 square feet of retail. The park’s East Coast–sounding name is a reference to Brooklyn Township, the historical term for this part of town, east of downtown Oakland.

A slice of the warehouse was used to define garden rooms.

For more than a decade, the Brooklyn Basin development and its nearly 33 acres of public parks existed only on paper. The locally based Signature Development Group began working on the project in 2001, but an entitlements process, slowed by lawsuits and the Great Recession, delayed the groundbreaking until 2014.

Einwiller Kuehl had the particular challenge—and opportunity—of figuring out how to incorporate a historic structure within the park, which was part of the development’s first phase of construction and opened in November 2020. The site was almost entirely occupied by a 180,000-square-foot municipal shipping terminal. Built in 1930, the 9th Avenue Terminal was a rare emblem of Oakland’s long history as a port town that preservationists had sought to preserve in its entirety. Before modern container shipping took off in the 1970s, smaller cargo ships unloaded goods out of their hulls into storage sheds to protect them from the weather. Reflecting the City Beautiful movement with its Beaux-Arts detailing, this break-bulk terminal was custom-designed to facilitate the easy movement of goods between ship, rail, and truck. Built on a pier supported by about 3,000 pilings, its many loading docks were readily accessible by boat. A railway line ran between the building and the edge of the pier, with a parallel road on the other side.

Einwiller Kuehl was the second firm to take on the challenge. Two decades ago, the developer had worked with ROMA Design Group (now ROMA Collaborative) to create a preliminary development plan for Brooklyn Basin. Aligned with the city’s vision for a large public events venue, the original plan for Township Commons called for restoring a 20,000-square-foot section of the terminal and leaving the rest as open space. In 2006, the city approved the plan, and in 2013, the development kicked into high gear after a major Chinese investor signed on. The developer and ROMA came back to the city in 2015 with an updated plan for Township Commons, featuring a large wooden deck overlooking the waterfront.

The response was not good. According to Mike Ghielmetti, the president of Signature Development Group, the city’s design review committee agreed with members of the public that “it was boring, that it was just a big deck.” After failing to get approval after two meetings with the design review committee, the developer decided to switch design firms rather than risk further delay. Ghielmetti thought of Kuehl; he knew her firm was based in Oakland and had been impressed by its previous designs for a nonprofit that he was also involved with.

“Timing is everything, and there was a little bit of very good luck,” Kuehl says. “Based on our portfolio, they wouldn’t have known that we knew how to do this. This is an incredibly technically complicated project that’s all built on structure. The seismic and structural parts of this are a big deal.” Before teaming up, Einwiller and Kuehl had worked for more than a decade at PWP Landscape Architecture on large projects that included Newport Beach Civic Center’s public park and a University of Texas at Austin campus redesign. Einwiller had also been part of the team that designed San Francisco’s Salesforce Park, a landscape notably elevated over a transit station. At the time they were hired in October 2015, Einwiller Kuehl was a four-person firm. The firm currently consists of a dozen people and is working on construction documents for the second park at Brooklyn Basin.

Image by Einwiller Kuehl.

When they walked through the enormous empty terminal, the two were struck by the building’s elegant structure. “We were just enamored with the steel construction and how fine and beautiful [the steelwork] was—they don’t do steel like this anymore,” Einwiller says. They talked to the developer, who had won a lengthy legal battle with preservationists to proceed with demolition, about saving more pieces. The two hoped to reference the past without devolving into nostalgia. They also knew that building new elements on structure would have been very costly and that reuse was a more sustainable approach.

Within three weeks, Einwiller Kuehl had a general concept to show the city’s design review committee, and a month later presented it to the planning commission. From the developer’s point of view, the essential program was the same. “It wasn’t a wholesale change; it was an evolution,” Ghielmetti says. “ROMA did a great job and came up with a great plan. [Einwiller Kuehl] took it and sculpted it in a way that really befitted Oakland.”

But critically, the redesign managed to embody the spirit of the entire terminal, if not its intact form. The new plan still included the restored eastern end, but also included the western end and a hefty slice of the middle, preserving in total about a third of the terminal’s skeleton. Useful for defining smaller environments within the large open space, the latter two pieces would be carefully designed ruins. While there are plenty of precedents for parks that incorporate pre-existing ruins, Einwiller Kuehl may be the first to create ruins to make a park. The design called for removing the roof, cutting some new openings into the concrete walls, and reinforcing them with additional steel. The terminal’s loading docks would also live on, transmogrifying into entrance ramps to the park on the street side.

The hill acts as a magnet to pull people through the park.

The Oakland planning commission gave the Einwiller Kuehl plan a unanimous nod. During the meeting, the planning commissioner Chris Pattillo, FASLA, who is also a principal emeritus of the landscape architecture firm PGAdesign in Oakland, said, “I know very well that what [Einwiller Kuehl] has produced here is nothing short of astounding, given the time frame that [the firm] had to do it, and I am grateful—and I think the whole city will be grateful—when they see it.” Added Pattillo: “A lot of us talked about wanting it to be gritty, to be urban, to be edgy. You totally got that.”

The designers also came up with creative solutions to deal with the constraints of the site. Their options were limited not only by weight but by regulatory restrictions. In many places around the world, the public trust doctrine preserves public rights to boating and fishing along waterways. But in California, the courts have extended the common-law doctrine further, interpreting it to mean that any development on public tidelands must have a statewide benefit. Thus, Township Commons couldn’t have a playground, tot lot, basketball court, skatepark, or other “local-use” facilities. (A California State Lands Commission spokesperson confirmed that such features were not considered to provide a regional or statewide benefit, and therefore not “traditional trust-consistent uses.”)

Instead, the design team tried to encourage play through landscape elements, putting in wide concrete ramps up to the big wooden deck and installing an eight-and-a-half-foot-high artificial hill under the western end of the warehouse. During a site visit in early September, a child could be seen riding a miniature mountain bike down the hill, made of polystyrene foam covered in grass. “The hill is hanging on for dear life right now because it is overused—it’s being loved to death,” notes Kuehl. The hillside also provides informal amphitheater seating for events like “Rollin’ with the Homos.” It overlooks a 110-by-45-foot paved space that serves as an informal stage. Originally, the design team had proposed steps that terraced down to the water’s edge, but when that proved too expensive to implement in this particular spot, they came up with the hill as an alternative perch to take in the views, which include the distant skyscrapers of San Francisco.

At the eastern end, the restored terminal is now a popular gathering space with plentiful outdoor seating. Einwiller Kuehl convinced the developers to extend the roof overhang from two building bays to three—encompassing 72 feet—to create an even deeper “porch” that faces the rest of the park, “captur[ing] that connection between architecture and landscape,” Einwiller says. The terminal is currently home to a gourmet market and café, public restrooms, and a kayak rental, with space for a future restaurant and additional retail. The retail activity also provides eyes on the street for public safety.

The designers wanted to encourage wheeled activities at the park by including a wide, joint-free asphalt track around its perimeter. “It was a happy marriage of a technical constraint—limited weight and dimension for paving sections—the budget, and a connection to the industrial history that led us toward asphalt,” Kuehl says. The waterfront section of the trail was also required by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which mandates public access in new shoreline developments. Along the trail, the designers marked the loading docks with their original numbers, which people have been using to designate meeting points. “They are pedestrian loading docks now,” Kuehl says. “We’ve seen invitations that say, ‘We’re having a birthday party at Brooklyn Basin at #47,’ which is adorable.”

The plantings on the dock, which include a mix of native and drought-tolerant species, needed to meet a weight budget.

Although the pier was designed to support a heavy load, it needed a several-million-dollar seismic retrofit, including a new eight-inch-thick concrete lid done by the engineering firm Simpson Gumpertz & Heger. Any added elements had to fit within both the financial budget and the weight budget. “We had massive weight restrictions because we were sitting on piles,” Einwiller says. “It was very hard to get even the light poles in or the plants.” Substantial plantings were out of the question. But because the designers came into the project early on, they were able to negotiate with the structural engineers to get planters close to where the pier transitions to land. The plantings are a mix of native and drought-tolerant plants, with plenty of Sesleria grasses (a “tough-as-hell” urban plant, says Kuehl), Agave ‘Blue Flame’ for color and sculptural qualities, and Arbutus ‘Marina’ trees that will eventually grow into small groves along the park edge.

The “boring” deck in the original proposal also became a key part of the Einwiller Kuehl design. They wanted to provide some variation in texture within such a large space without adding weight, and the raised deck also gave people a view of more water (the park faces a landmass just a few hundred yards across the historical shipping channel). They also took special care to reduce its scale, laying the Forest Stewardship Council–certified machiche planks in a modified herringbone pattern—rather than as endless parallel planks—and furnishing it with bright yellow loungers. They knew that people were worried that the unprogrammed deck would be a vast, desolate space—“like those scenes in movies by Antonioni where you just hear the wind,” laughs Kuehl. Clearly, those fears were unwarranted. On that October afternoon, in addition to all the other goings-on, someone had opted for a more leisurely day, draping a beach towel over one of the loungers. The cruise deck was there for anyone who wanted to escape, without the need to purchase a ticket.

The hardscaping is softened by drought-tolerant plantings including Sesleria grasses.

Project Credits

Prime/Landscape Architect Einwiller Kuehl Inc., Oakland, California (Sarah Kuehl, founder and principal; Liz Einwiller, ASLA, founder and principal; Whitney Stewart, ASLA, senior associate; Gisela Steber, Affiliate ASLA, associate; Chelsea DeWitt, ASLA, associate; Lauren McClure, designer). Client Signature Development Group and ZOHP, Oakland, California. Structural and Shoreline Protection Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Oakland, California. Civil Engineering BKF Engineers, Redwood City, California. Environmental Graphics Volume Inc., San Francisco. Irrigation Arthur Landscape Irrigation Consulting, Livermore, California. Architecture Consultant MWA Architects, Oakland, California. Environmental Consultant WRA Inc., Emeryville, California. Contractor Hawk Development, Livermore, California.

Lydia Lee is a regular LAM contributor who writes about landscape design from the Bay Area.

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