After I graduated high school in 1997, my father took me and my sister on a photo-tour of Oakland’s most endangered landmarks, as published by the Oakland Heritage Alliance. We photographed the moldering Cox Cadillac Building, the abandoned Floral Depot Building, and, of course, the hulking ruin of the Fox Theater. I expected every one of these structures to be torn down by the time I returned to Oakland from my out-of-state liberal-arts college, assuming the economy remained decent enough to employ a demolition crew in the DTO.
My first job out of college was working for Forest City Residential West. I cold-called every developer on Oakland’s Major Projects List in 2002, and during that economic downtown they were the only one interested in an intern. I spent most of my time compiling evidence of why a ballpark should not be shoe-horned into Uptown, and I mapped the project area. It was the first, and mercifully the last, time I would work in downtown San Francisco. I witnessed my first affordable-housing candlelight vigil, and met the stylish and infamous Lily Hu. Along the way I learned how the project would transform an enormous parking lot into urban transit-accessible housing, a critical need in the Bay Area. The project prospectus that I helped write included the then-fantastic vision of surrounding retail and entertainment venues spurred by this unprecedented investment. Unbelievers attacked everything about the proposal, from its demolition of historic warehouses to its public subsidy.
It’s true that the Forest City Uptown project is subsidized – or, more precisely, may be subsidized. Unlike Oak-To-Ninth, Uptown’s financial deal with Oakland’s Redevelopment Agency pays for more than environmental remediation and affordable housing. Forest City received a payment for executing its development agreement, and may not pay all their property taxes depending on their profit margins. This subsidy, which will disappear if the project is successful over 20 years, was ratified by then-Mayor Jerry Brown and the City Council (unanimously) in order to soak up acres of wasted central space and spur the revitalization of downtown. Many people don’t remember that the entire Uptown project area was surface parking dotted with a few auto-repair businesses. Some people quibble with the architectural style and the site plan, but it is inarguably an enormous improvement over what was there before.
I am happy to defend Uptown because Forest City’s project accomplished Jerry Brown’s stated goal: it revitalized an entire district. The Façade Improvement Program helped restore a handful of Art Deco buildings along Telegraph, and the RDA helped build a parking lot. Without unusual subsidy, businesses like Café Van Kleef, the Uptown nightclub, and EntreZ opened up. I worked for Brog Properties for two years, during which time the company converted the Cathedral Building to mixed-use, created the Marquee Lofts from a trashed commercial mid-rise, and purchased the Latham Square Building. Even though Thomas Berkley Square is going into foreclosure, it is still a completed building in the area. The Fox Theater could not have successfully acquired $70m in grant funds for its full restoration had there not been so much public and private redevelopment in the immediate area.
Jerry Brown announced he was abandoning long-held retail plans for Uptown in favor of a residential project almost immediately after he was elected in 1998. The Forest City Uptown Disposition and Development Agreement was signed in 2003. Leasing began in 2007. By then, investors and foundations had committed over $200m in the surrounding area’s residential and commercial developments and businesses.
Of course, everything is not turning up roses, beyond the economic downtown that is hurting local condo sales (though retail/entertainment is so far unaffected). While private foundations, developers, and businesses have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Uptown, Oakland’s Redevelopment Agency has failed to deliver the streetscape plan it promised investors and the public in 2004. Telegraph Avenue is to be cut off at 16th St, recreating Latham Square, and narrowed to accommodate bike lanes and widened sidewalks. But three years after this plan was finalized, nothing but the Fox’s sidewalk has been completed.
Every one of the endangered buildings I photographed in 1997 is now restored: the Cox Cadillac building is Whole Foods, the Floral Depot is Flora, and the Fox is becoming the Bay Area’s premier music venue.
I often hear Oaklanders complain about developers and their supposed subsidies. I hear Oaklanders complain that historic buildings aren’t respected, and that developers make promises they can’t deliver. But in Uptown, a subsidized development that involved eminent domain has spurred a renaissance of historic proportions, in historic buildings, by encouraging hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment. I am so excited to celebrate the Fox’s grand opening tonight, a direct result of the Uptown strategy I had a small part in aiding, and the only sour note is the city’s failure to deliver decent sidewalks.