Putting More There There in Oakland

The Registry, April 29, 2014. Story by Joe Gose

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Oakland’s growing reputation as a hip and affordable alternative to San Francisco is fueling waterfront and downtown development, furthering a resurgence that began taking hold a few years ago.

From Ellis Partners’ $400 million Jack London Square mixed-use redevelopment on the Oakland Estuary, to Signature Development’s $50 million renovation of six 90-year-old industrial buildings into a mixed-use project known as The Hive in Uptown, the urban environment now provides a younger crowd with more reasons to live and work in central Oakland, say boosters.

“We really have all the components that are appealing to the young urbanite today,” said Deborah Boyer, a senior vice president with The Swig Co. and president of the Lake Merritt-Uptown Association community benefit district. “And the housing situation in San Francisco is so untenable that were are just getting more and more attention.”

The most dramatic changes have occurred uptown around 17th Street and Telegraph Avenue near the historic Fox Theater, said John Dolby, a senior vice president with brokerage Cassidy Turley in Oakland. For workers like him at City Center, it’s a short walk.

“The housing situation in San Francisco is so untenable that were are just getting more and more attention.” Deborah Boyer, senior vice president, The Swig Co.

“This whole area is changing; there’s more bars, more restaurants and more nightlife—and there’s more coming online,” he said. “There are people restoring older buildings and their façades. So there has been a big transformation.”

Nearly 120 new businesses opened between the beginning of 2009 and June 2013, with more than half of those arriving over the 12-month period ended last June, according to the Lake Merritt-Uptown Association.

Room for improvement still exists, however. Some observers are concerned that more retail shops are needed to balance the onslaught of bars and restaurants. But cafes and bars tend to arrive in revitalizing areas first and retailers follow, Boyer said, and that is playing out in both downtown and uptown Oakland, too. In 2013, for example, 16 retailers opened, up from five in 2011. Still, she would like to see more retailers, noting that empty or underused storefronts continue to dot Broadway.

Among other efforts, the districts have partnered with Oakland Grown, a promoter of local independent businesses, to develop “shop local” campaigns, she said. Additionally, business incubator PopUpHood has helped to establish five permanent stores in the area. The concept provides small businesses free rent for six months.

“That has been really helpful in allowing businesses to get on their feet,” Boyer said. “We’d like to see more of it.”

Jack London Square also is facing retail challenges even though office space is leased well enough that some restaurants are succeeding. So far, chef Daniel Patterson’s 3,500-square-foot Haven restaurant is the sole tenant of the 62,000-square-foot Jack London Market building developed several years ago to cater to entrepreneurial food operations and shops.

James Ellis, managing partner of Ellis Partners, suggests that the tough lending environment coming out of the recession hamstrung the types of businesses that would occupy the Market. Filling the space remains a priority, he said, and Oakland’s improving economy coupled with pro-business political leadership is providing a good foundation. But Ellis refuses to rush the Market.

“We’re not willing to compromise our vision,” he said. “We want it done with the right mix of tenants, and we won’t open it until we have a critical mass of tenants.

Part of the retail challenges in Oakland center on the struggle to generate daytime foot traffic. Although workers coming out of the City Center BART Station can catch the Broadway B shuttle for the roughly 10-block trip to Jack London Square, the large office users get more reluctant to consider buildings as they get farther from a BART stop, Dolby said.

Still, plans to add offices and residences throughout the area could help create more tenant traffic.

Ellis Partners is seeking city approval to build a tower with some 537 residential units in Jack London Square. MBH Architects is on the consulting team, but Ellis has yet to select engineers or contractors. Ellis also is working up plans to convert the Pavilion building—formerly a Barnes & Noble—into a beer garden, restaurant and other entertainment uses, he added.

The Hive will include 104 apartments and 100,000 square feet of incubator space, offices and retail. Signature Development has added Hub Oakland, Numi Organic Tea, Balfour Beatty Construction and others to the tenant roster. Signature hired Flynn Architecture to design it as part of a team that includes Proforma Construction, BKF Engineering and furniture supplier Herman Miller.

San Francisco-based Strada Investment Group has entered into a negotiating agreement with the city to develop city-owned parcels near City Center for a potential mixed-use project that could include residential units. Similarly, The Swig Co. has an entitlement to redevelop the Kaiser Center’s mall into a high-density development that could include a large residential component, Boyer said. The firm has no immediate plans to start the project.

Developers and city officials also are trying to create more inviting spaces. The Downtown Oakland Association and Lake Merritt benefit districts, which are jointly operated, launched a beautification program that restored landscaping and irrigation to medians and added planters along sidewalks, among other efforts, when they formed in 2009.

The groups are also working with the city on the renovation of Latham Square, a pedestrian plaza at the foot of the Uptown district where Telegraph Avenue and Broadway meet. Latham Square will grow by four times its size to 9,500 square feet later this year and will hold events and provide space for popup retailers.

“We knew it was an asset—there are very few places where you can plop down furniture and carve out little nodes and create a fun space for people,” said Andrew Jones, district services manager for the downtown association. “It’s a very valuable space that has the ability to bring out people and hold events.”

In Jack London Square, Ellis Partners has broken up vast concrete spaces to create more intimate gathering places and foster continuity. It has added palm trees, lawns, outdoor patios, fountains, furniture and artwork. It also eliminated a surface parking near the waterfront.

“Visitors were faced with going into these big open areas with nothing there,” Ellis said, “and those types of environments, especially from a retailing mindset, don’t work.”