OAKLAND -- It would be the forbidden garden. Nearly one acre of prime Oakland real estate landscaped with plants and trees, open to nobody except the gardeners who would tend it.

That is Kaiser Permanente's plan for its land fronting Piedmont Avenue and West MacArthur Boulevard, much to the dismay of nearby residents who want the garden accessible to the public.

"I think it is offensive to landscape a beautiful garden and then put a fence around it," said Lucia Hwang, who lives near the Kaiser campus.

Kaiser spokesman Jessie Mangaliman said allowing public access would present safety and liability issues for the health care giant. "We are not prepared to properly secure a public park on our property," he said.

Kaiser won the first round when the city's zoning manager approved the garden proposal. Opponents have appealed, sending the issue to the city's Planning Commission on Wednesday. The commission's ruling can only be appealed through the courts.

The site, which is only one block away from a large public park, straddles the affluent Piedmont Avenue shopping district and a less-vibrant commercial strip of Broadway. Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney said a public garden would be an asset as the city seeks to revitalize the entire corridor. "We don't want that space to be dead," she said. "This is a wonderful opportunity to create an open space and integrate the neighborhood."

Kaiser's plan would establish a small public gathering space around the intersection of Piedmont and West MacArthur, but the rest of the garden would sit behind a metal fence.

Residents say they are fine with the fence but want daytime access to the garden. Kaiser doesn't want any public access, including patients and workers at the adjacent hospital.

The dispute stems from Kaiser's city-approved plans to rebuild its Oakland hospital campus. Kaiser demolished the existing medical building at Piedmont and West MacArthur and has built a new hospital and power plant.

The garden site was slated to be a medical office building, but Kaiser has decided to indefinitely delay construction.

Under its agreement with the city, Kaiser was required to provide plans "for the landscaping, lighting and security" of the area if it didn't construct the office building. Although Kaiser's private garden proposal isn't popular, city planners determined that it did meet the requirement.

Neighbors are appealing, citing clauses in Kaiser's development plan specifying that it activate pedestrian activity, provide street character and activity, and ensure that the medical center be "integrated and compatible with the existing neighborhood."

Oakland Planning Director Rachel Flynn said that in retrospect the city should have specified exactly what was required of Kaiser if it didn't build the office building. "I don't think it was spelled out as clearly as it should have been," she said.

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.