Oakland is in the middle of an economic boom and major new developments have reignited old debates about who benefits from the city’s increasing prosperity. The dialogue recalls conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In every chapter, the explorer describes a different, fantastic city, 55 in all. In time, it becomes apparent that Polo is describing different facets of the same city: Venice. Collectively, these individual interpretations come to define the city as a whole.
Developers see Oakland as a cheaper alternative to San Francisco. Last month, local 11WestPartners purchased Old Oakland, a ten-building, 225,000-square-foot office and retail complex between Broadway and 8th Street in the eponymous downtown neighborhood for $45.5 million. The 150-year-old set of buildings spans two city blocks. It’s unclear who the tenants will be.
In 2014, Oakland initiated a (contentious) selection process for a developer to take ownership of the Beaux-Arts landmark Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, a city-owned property that’s been vacant since 2005. Competing interests used the convention center to anchor different visions of the city. Oakland-based Creative Development Partners proposed adding a 7,500-seat arena, theater, job training center, and a 15-story, 280-room hotel to the property. Residents feared that the hotel would block views of adjacent Lake Merritt. Emeryville-based Orton Development proposed converting the formerly public space into a commercial venue.
In July, the Oakland City Council picked Orton Development to spearhead a $52 million redevelopment of the center. Heller Manus Architects and landscape architects Hood Studio will lead the design teams. The upper floors of the 212,000-square-foot building will be converted into offices, while the ground floor tenant may be a manufacturer or brewery.
Meanwhile, apparently not satisfied with its 423,000-square-foot SHoP-designed space in Mission Bay, rideshare company Uber is expanding into Oakland’s old Sears building. For an estimated $40 million, Gensler will renovate the 380,000-square-foot department store off of the 19th Street BART Station, and rebrand the site as Uptown Station. By 2017, between two and three thousand employees will work out of this location. If all goes planned, Uber will be Oakland’s largest employer (aside from the government and area hospitals).
Though 20 percent of the company’s workforce lives in the East Bay, on Twitter, Oaklanders’ reactions to the Uber move were mostly negative. Susie Cagle (@susie_c) wryly tied together convergent social histories. “Oakland’s Uptown was the site of America’s last General Strike in 1946. Now it will host arguably one of America’s worst labor abusers.” User Gabe Wachob (@gwachob) had a suggestion to ease housing demand: “In the two years before Uber lands in Oakland, maybe it should build 1000 housing units within 30 min commute. Just an idea. #TooManyPeople.”
Anecdotal concerns around gentrification and displacement are borne out by neighborhood-level data. Analyzing home values and level of educational attainment as a proxy for gentrification, researchers from policy magazine Governing concluded that, of the 113 census tracts in Oakland, 24 tracts (29 percent of the total) were considered gentrifying between 2000 and 2010. In order to be considered gentrifying, median home values and household income had to fall in the bottom 40 percent within a metro area, and see an increase in the top third percentile for home values and proportion of adults with four year college degrees.
Longtime Oakland residents worry that newcomers are homogenizing what Mayor Libby Schaaf calls Oakland’s “secret sauce.” The secret sauce, Oakland’s Oaklandness, eludes precise description or categorization. Nevertheless, the city has a vision of itself that it will enact with the tools at its disposal: zoning, policy, and land use. In late August, the City of Oakland announced plans to revision its downtown, specifically along the 12th and 19th Street BART stations. The area is bounded by 27th Street to the east, Interstate 980 to the north, and the Oakland estuary to the south and east. A primary objective of this plan is to spur new development in the area.
To many residents’ dismay, the plan skirts the affordable housing issue. In response to critics, Schaaf pointed to a parallel city-backed study on the feasibility of impact fees that would offset the cost of building affordable housing.
Though it’s still in draft, stakeholders have come out in force for, and definitively against, this planned vision of Oakland. Like Marco Polo, Oaklanders define their shared city with contrasting likenesses and convergent possibilities.