We are excited to welcome Ellie Fiore to Toole Design as Oakland Office Director! In her new role, she will work closely with Cindy Zerger and the rest of the Oakland team to support our efforts in the Bay Area and throughout California. Ellie brings nearly two decades of experience as a planner and project manager, most recently as Director of Planning at MIG’s Berkeley headquarters. Read the interview below to learn more about her background and her vision for Toole Design Oakland.
Where were you before joining Toole Design? What has been the focus of your career so far?
I grew up and went to college in Upstate New York. I studied sociology and a lot of public policy, through which I discovered community development and planning. After graduation, I moved to Portland, OR (sight unseen) and stuck around for almost a decade. I earned my graduate degree from Portland State University and started my consulting career in 2005. In Portland, I worked for a large engineering firm with a small planning group and then moved to a small, interdisciplinary firm where I was able to get experience in project management and marketing relatively early in my career. From there, I relocated to the Bay Area and joined MIG’s Berkeley office in 2011 as a Project Manager. I ultimately served as the Director of Planning, managing several projects, pursuits, and a team of urban planners and designers.
I consider myself a policy wonk and a generalist and have done project work in several topical areas and geographies as well as at many different scales (city, neighborhood, etc.). In the last few years, a lot of my work was in downtowns, which I really enjoyed due to the focused geography and interdisciplinary nature of the work. Many of my recent projects focused on equity and how improvements to the built environment can work in conjunction with policies and programs to improve access to resources and opportunity.
What are some of your favorite projects?
Earlier this year, I wrapped up a complex, four-year Specific Plan for the City of Santa Clara. The study area is in the heart of Silicon Valley and, like a lot of that region, is very suburban and car-centric. The Plan will guide the redevelopment from a low-density, auto-centric industrial neighborhood to a high-density, transit-oriented neighborhood that will eventually have up to 12,000 residents. The area currently has 1 roadway serving 75 acres, so a major focus of the Plan was on creating a dynamic and safe ground-floor environment by adding pathways and connections for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as complete and slow streets.
I also really enjoyed working in the City of Burlingame on their General Plan and Parks and Recreation Master Plan. Burlingame is a small town on the San Francisco Peninsula that stretches from the hills to the Bay so there are lots of diverse neighborhoods, open spaces, and connectivity challenges.
What are you excited to pursue or achieve at Toole Design?
I am excited to focus more explicitly on active transportation and public realm projects while bringing my big-picture, cross-sector thinking and experience to project teams to support integrated planning and design efforts. I’m looking forward to learning more about mobility from my colleagues while continuing to think holistically about public spaces and how neighborhoods, cities and towns function. For me, this work is about creating safe, cool places where people want to be, and making sure they can easily travel to access the things they need.
The last few years have really brought a lot of the work we do into the public consciousness. COVID underlined the importance of outdoor space and made people think differently about how we use streets and sidewalks. There is a lot more understanding about how cities and streets were designed in ways that destroyed neighborhoods, made it much less safe to walk and bike, and disadvantaged entire communities and populations. So much of our work is about fixing the mistakes of the past several decades and rebuilding healthy neighborhoods.
I understand that not everyone intends to ride a bike. I was involved in a collision with a car while on my bike when I was in graduate school, and it made me nervous to ride and much more safety conscious as both a cyclist and a pedestrian. It’s not about getting everyone on a bike—it’s about creating safe spaces that improve neighborhoods and lives.
What is your vision for the Toole Design Oakland Office?
I hope we will continue to be known for our high-quality work and our ability to do different types of projects for many clients. I’m so excited about working with Cindy and the rest of the team to re-envision and expand our planning and urban design practices alongside our engineering practice. There’s so much opportunity in California, and we are prepared to be the go-to firm in the Bay Area for active transportation planning and design.
It’s also not really up to me to decide what’s next for the Oakland office—it depends on what the whole team wants. It’s my job to make sure that others in the office are able to do the kinds of projects they want to do and that, as a team, we are moving in the right direction.
What are your favorite things about Oakland? How do you like to get around town?
What I appreciate about the Bay Area—which I love a lot, especially the weather—is that you can access and experience so many different things in relatively close proximity. You get the best of urban living, small towns, and the outdoors. Likewise, Oakland has it all— an incredibly diverse population, amazing food scene, great parks and trails, tons of local businesses, and amazing architecture and neighborhoods. I spend a lot of time walking around my neighborhood for exercise, exploration, and errands. I’m really lucky that in about 12 minutes I can walk to the grocery store, pharmacy, eye doctor, library, post office, coffee shop, bakery, etc. while living in a quiet, green neighborhood with trails, parks, and views of the Bay. It’s also a quick bus trip to the Toole Design office in downtown Oakland, and I’m enjoying getting to know that neighborhood more.