On a recent Wednesday morning, about 45 Castlemont High School students fanned out across the parking lot of the Oakland Coliseum Complex, taking pictures, writing notes, and making observations about what they saw. 

The students are part of Castlemont’s sustainable urban design academy, where they learn elements of architecture, engineering, urban planning, and ecology and collaborate on projects to improve their neighborhoods in deep East Oakland. A few years ago, students from the academy worked with the Black Cultural Zone when the group was planning Liberation Park, an outdoor community space near Foothill Boulevard and 73rd Avenue that offers a skating rink and farmers market. Now, students in Lillian Jacobson’s 11th-grade urban ecology class are partnering with the African American Sports and Entertainment Group (AASEG) to reimagine how the grounds can better serve the surrounding communities.

“I try to do projects that are real and will actually have an impact,” Jacobson said. “What could we design that would actually improve the community without displacing people?”

Castlemont High students wait for instruction during an environmental tour at the Oakland Coliseum on March 8, 2023. African American Sports & Entertainment Group (AASEG), the site’s developer, invited the school’s sustainable urban design academy to contribute ideas for their plan. Credit: Amir Aziz

Members of AASEG met with Jacobson’s class at the Coliseum after the students conducted a client interview with the development group to learn more about its goals. AASEG, which was founded by Oakland native Ray Bobbitt and is composed of Black Oakland entrepreneurs, business people, and community leaders, recently came to an agreement with Oakland to redevelop the city’s half of the site. The other half of the property is owned by the Oakland A’s, who purchased Alameda County’s share in 2019.

Specific details about the redevelopment plans haven’t been released, but AASEG is considering affordable and market-rate housing, culture and arts offerings, hotels, sports and entertainment venues, and other businesses. AASEG members hope to revitalize the area by creating thousands of jobs.

“We want to make sure that the people who live in this community can actually benefit from this growth,” said Bobbitt, who added that he grew up four blocks from the Coliseum. “The most effective crime prevention tool is employment. So for us to be able to create employment for people who live in this community, where they can get here very easily, is phenomenal.”

Ray Bobbit of AASEG at the Oakland Coliseum on March 8, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

While the process is still in the early stages, AASEG is committed to getting community input about what they want to see at the site, especially from young people, said Samantha Wise, another member of the group. AASEG is working to create a site plan, which will incorporate ideas from students and others. 

“It’s important that they feel vested in the process. That way when we build it, they’ll respect it,” she said. 

District 6 Councilmember Kevin Jenkins speaks to students from Castlemont High during the AASEG environmental tour on March 8, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

The field trip to the Coliseum also included stops at Leona Canyon Creek and Arroyo Viejo Creek where students collected water samples for testing. They did the same at the Coliseum, with plans to compare the water quality from those sites with other parts of Oakland.

Next, students will conduct a community survey to gauge what kinds of outdoor spaces residents would like to see at the Coliseum Complex, and they’ll work in groups to create 2D and 3D models of their plans. In May, they’ll have a showcase to present their ideas. 

Luis Huertas, a science teacher at Castlemont High School, passes out water containers to students who then collect samples from a creek next to the Oakalnd Coliseum site on March 8, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

The sustainable urban design academy at Castlemont is one of the college and career education “pathways” in Oakland high schools. Supported by a parcel tax, the pathways expose students to various career fields and offer them opportunities to apply what they learn in class to the real world.

Zaki Crane, one of Jacobson’s students, was responsible for photographing sections of the Coliseum grounds, including the parking lot, the pedestrian bridge, and nearby creek. He noted the lack of recreational activities for young people in the area and said he wants to see a go-kart track or an arcade. Other students suggested job-training centers, affordable housing, and restaurants. 

Akirah Thomas wants to see the creek area cleaned up and the water purified. 

“People already make assumptions about Oakland, and it’s getting worse because of our water looking like this. One thing we can do is pick up all the trash around the water to make sure it doesn’t get as bad as it is now,” she said. “We don’t have any shopping, and we could use more grocery stores.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.