Downtown Oakland’s Latham Square reopens

A grand reopening of historic Latham Square in downtown Oakland, which has been transformed by a $7 million, three-year construction effort, was held Thursday night.

Speaking at a news conference this afternoon at the public gathering space where Broadway and Telegraph Avenue intersect, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said she’s “excited” about the project, which she said is bringing the square “back alive.”

Schaaf said, “I want every Oaklander to be here to celebrate” at the reopening, which runs from 5 p.m. through 8 p.m. and features live music, free food provided by several local restaurants, arts and crafts activities and retail vendors from the immediate neighborhood.

A special retail passport will encourage revelers to explore the merchants surrounding Latham Square, who hope to see an increase in business from increased foot traffic in the area.

The centerpiece of the square is the Latham Memorial Fountain, which was unveiled on April 12, 1913, and was a gift from Edith and Milton Latham, who wished to honor their parents, James and Henrietta Latham, as pioneers of Oakland and animal rights activists. James Latham was a stockbroker and philanthropist.

However, the fountain hasn’t had running water since 1941 — until now.

Oakland Public Works spokeswoman Kristine Shaff said Latham Square “was a center of transportation and commerce 100 years ago, when it was the horse-and-buggy era.” Shaff said the fountain initially was meant to be more functional than artistic, as it had a horse trough to provide water for horses and had an overflow running to small basins at its base to provide water for dogs.

Mayor Schaaf said, “It’s appropriate that the fountain was created for animals because Oakland loves animals and is a compassionate city.” City officials said the transformation project has quadrupled the size of the public space at Latham Square and improved pedestrian safety and the flow of traffic in the area.

Schaaf said the project was funded from various sources, including several voter-approved measures, such as $1.4 million from a Proposition 1C grant for streetscape improvements in Oakland’s downtown and Uptown areas and $3.8 million from Measure B, the half-cent transportation sales tax approved by Alameda County voters.

Schaaf said the public investment complements significant private investment in the area, such as the renovations of the nearby Latham Square building and the former Roos Brothers department store at 1500 Broadway.

The Oakland City Council approved construction of the project in April 2013.

City staff evaluated the project through community feedback, traffic data collection, field observations, staff and community stakeholder steering committee meetings, community meetings and an online survey.

City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney said there was a lot of controversy about the best way to do the project, including protests, emails and name-calling.

But she said the process was important, saying, “That’s how we got down with the town.” Gibson Mcelhaney said the enlarged public space “connects art and commerce and the art of public speaking and protests” that will take place at the square.