Preserving Oakland’s Preservation Park is Essential

Friday July 11, 2003

You folks will forgive me if I have trouble understanding Oakland City Council’s decision to try to sell Preservation Park. Maybe some of those folks with those nice Urban Planning Degrees from UC Berkeley will write me and make it all plain. Right now, it just don’t make sense to me.  

Preservation Park is one of downtown Oakland’s (few) success stories. It’s a bright little 2 1/2 acre enclave on 12th, just southwest of City Center. Twenty years ago, somebody in city government got the idea to make a historic neighborhood out of some run-down 19th century homes—some of them already there, some of them rolled in from other parts on trailers—paint them up like they used to look in the Roaring 20s, and set them aside for non-profits. The only thing “non-profit” about the deal was the organizations who now make their home there. Unlike some of Oakland’s other recent dabblings in downtown real estate (see Oakland, Fox and rink, skating), which have, at times, been a drain on the treasury, Preservation Park brings in something around between $400,000 and $500,000 in profits each year. Profits, children. Not gross rents.  

So why are we making plans to sell it?  

Because, we are told, the city is in desperate need of money to finance Mayor Brown’s uptown development project (brought to you by the folks from Forest City), part of the Mayor’s plan to bring in 10,000 brand new residents to revitalize Oakland’s downtown, a development that will cost the City of Oakland so much money that no one seems to be able to nail down an exact price. Something in the millions.  

On the surface, trading a half a million a year in proven profits for a development idea that may never get either in the ground or off the ground doesn’t sound like a wise investment.  

Actually it’s much worse, because the proposed sale of Preservation Park threatens to break up what really should be the future of Oakland’s downtown development. For that you have to look south of City Center, toward the estuary, rather than north towards uptown.  

Consider the pieces already in place.  

For all its faults, the second most successful piece of dowtown Oakland is Jack London Square. Off the tops of their heads, most people would rank the Square first, but for retail-housing-entertainment mix, that honor should almost certainly go to Chinatown, which booms night and day.  

In between the Jack London Square and Chinatown is one of downtown’s unexploited treasures: the Produce District.  

In recent years there have been all sorts of ideas to develop this area, most of which involve removing the fruit and vegetable vendors, some of which have even (oh, horror!) called for Hong Kong-style high-rise condominiums. Hopefully, the collapse of the dot-coms has collapsed that idea as well, because this is an area that could certainly be put to more creative use. With its open-air warehouse-style architecture, the Produce District potentially has the kind of feel to it that you get in, say, Old Sacramento or Monterey’s Cannery Row or (dare we hope?) the French Quarter. But let’s save that one for another, more imaginative time.  

What cuts off the nighttime Chinatown and Jack London Square crowds from drifting into the lower area of downtown (around Old Oakland and the Convention Center) is, of course, Government Row. That’s the dreary collection of state, county, and city service buildings (the police department, the jail, the coroner’s office, a couple of courthouses, et al.) that huddle around the 880 underpass near 7th Street between Broadway and Washington. Hard to get people to feel comfortable about walking around and spending their money when the only vendors are a couple of guys passing out cards for bail bondsmen.  

Move those services somewhere else, make lower Broadway into a pedestrian mall, and all of downtown opens up like a flood, all the way from the estuary to Jimmie’s Club on 17th and San Pablo Avenue.  

In later years, when we analyze the administration of Mayor Jerry Brown, I think we will understand its greatest mistake was its failure to tackle the Jack London Square/Chinatown/Downtown Connection in its first two years. That’s when money was still good, interest in Oakland was still high, Jerry Brown was still a national star, and he was still on good terms with the governor. Instead, all that political capital got spent on a couple of charter schools. It’s still where the future of downtown lies.  

In this context, as part of the link between Jack London Square/Chinatown and lower downtown, preserving Preservation Park in its present form suddenly takes on more importance. It’s one of the first areas you get to, walking north from the underpass on your way towards downtown. Try to make more money on it— as a private developer almost certainly would —and you might ruin it. Left just as it is though, with its grassy center court and park benches and fountain, or its banquet room or conference center at Nile Hall, the Park is the perfect little complement to an overall lower downtown development plan.  

Somewhere around Preservation Park— if it’s left as it is —we might even find a home for the long-neglected Jack London Museum, once housed at the now-demolished Jack London Village, and now existing only in our memory and in the promises of city officials to revive it “somewhere.” If that “somewhere” ends up being near Preservation Park, then, along with the Pardee Home on 11th and the African-American Museum on 14th near MLK, Oakland has the beginnings of a museum district. Wow! Another way to attract people downtown, making creative use of things already in place!  

Like I said, selling Preservation Park just don’t make no sense to me, especially in the context of downtown development. But then, don’t listen to me. I don’t have one of those degrees. And I don’t work at City Hall.