Page One

Commercial Growth Lags Behind Oakland’s Downtown Housing Boom By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday October 25, 2005

Seven years after Jerry Brown was elected mayor of Oakland in part on a promise that his “10K Initiative” would lead to a retail revival in the city’s downtown, the area where the housing component has been most successful has yet to see the promised commercial development. 

The City of Oakland’s 10K Housing webpage says that in Brown’s inaugural address, he “proposed a four-year goal of attracting 10,000 new residents to downtown Oakland as a way to revitalize the physical, economic, and cultural environment of the area.” It adds that “the 10K Housing Initiative is not just about housing—it is also about creating an environment that is conducive to residential development, through the transformation of the downtown into a more livable space that incorporates streetscapes, parks, commercial, retail, and other amenities.” 

Earlier this year, ABC news reported that 5,800 of the 6,000 residential units needed to meet Brown’s 10K goal have either been completed or were under way. Of these, more than 1,100 are contained in seven separate loft developments in the area east of Broadway between Jack London Square and the 880 freeway. Another two hundred units in the same area have either been given city approval for construction or are in the design review phase. Last spring, the San Francisco Chronicle said Brown was making “dramatic progress in his ambitious (10K) plan.” 

But along the commercial corridor of Lower Broadway, where Brown’s promised retail revitalization would presumably follow the residential successes, progress has not been so dramatic. In some instances, it appears to have gone backwards. 

Of 26 commercial addresses between Jack London Square and Fourth Street on Broadway, four appear to be long-term vacancies, with windows papered or boarded over and one of them, the old On Broadway club near the the corner of Fourth, sporting a message on the marquee that reads “Thank You. Bye.” Three other commercial addresses in the same stretch are closed and undergoing renovations, with one of them, the old Bluesville club at Second, sporting a For Lease sign. Two of the office complexes in the area have had vacancies for several weeks. 

A number of office complexes along Fourth Street between Broadway and Franklin also sport “for lease” signs, monuments to the collapse of the dotcom boom. 

In addition, two of the operating establishments in Lower Broadway—Carpenters Union Local 2236 and the Secrets Adult Superstore porn shop—would not appear to fit the mayor’s commercial revival vision. 

Third District Councilmember Nancy Nadel, whose district includes the western portion of Lower Broadway and who is running for mayor in next year’s election, said that several commercial projects are “in the pipeline” for that area, but most of them are in Jack London Square itself. 

Nadel said that developers have proposed a project next to the historic Last Chance Saloon in the square “that will look a lot like the Ferry Building in San Francisco,” with a large first floor store and “smaller concessions” on the upper floors. East of Jack London Square, she said, another development is planned for the old train station, with a parking structure and a grocery store. 

But Nadel added that proposals do not always translate into finished projects. 

“You can promise a lot of things,” she said, “but it’s hard to attract retail into these areas, particularly department stores,” which economic observers have said is one of downtown Oakland’s critical needs. Nadel said it is her understanding that “no department store in the country is expanding at this point.” 

The only major development currently in the works for Lower Broadway itself between Fifth and the Embarcadero, according to Nadel, was a controversial high-rise housing and commercial complex on the 2nd and Broadway property currently occupied by the Jack London Inn. The proposed project has received criticism both for the fact that it would violate the height limits in the city’s Estuary Plan as well as not including room for low-income residents. 

“It’s not a mixed-income proposal,” Nadel said. “Inclusionary zoning hasn’t been a priority of Mayor Brown.” 

The Lower Broadway corridor is considered an important part of Oakland’s downtown development because it connects Jack London Square—considered Oakland’s commercial gateway—with the Old Oakland development area, Chinatown, and Oakland’s downtown proper. But Oakland officials have long been faced with two problems in trying to complete that connection. The first is the Alameda County Probation Center and the Alameda County Social Services Agency, two dirty, dreary block buildings sitting across Broadway from each other between Fourth and Fifth streets. The second is the Highway 880 freeway overpass, a gloomy, uninviting, dangerous-looking tunnel under which pedestrians must walk to get between Lower Broadway and the rest of downtown. 

To West Oakland Commerce Association Vice President Steve Lowe, the problem of the area beneath the overpass, at least, would not be hard to overcome. 

“They had a similar problem in Sacramento with the Old Sacramento development separated from downtown by the freeway overpass,” Lowe said. “They solved it creatively by building walkways and other amenities.” 

Lowe, who has spent several years trying to goad city officials into developing Lower Broadway and the adjacent produce district, where he lives, said the real problem is that the area is not high on the city’s priority list. 

“For years, the emphasis has been on development of Jack London Square itself,” Lowe said. “For a long time, that was under the authority of the Port of Oakland, and the Port was under pressure to fill up the retail spaces on the square. There wasn’t much interest in walking across Embarcadero and looking at the rest of the area.” 

Lowe said that attitude appears to have continued under private developers Jack London Partners, which bought the retail core of Jack London Square from the Port of Oakland several years ago. 

“They appear to still see Jack London Square as separate from Lower Broadway,” Lowe said. “But when you talk to visitors to Oakland, they consider the ‘Jack London area’ as both areas, and because of the problems with Lower Broadway, they don’t think the area is doing well. The city has a responsibility to help develop the square, but also Lower Broadway. They don’t see it as yet.” 

Lowe, who has long advocated that the Lower Broadway development should center around restoring and preserving the area’s historic properties, says that one of the reasons the success of Brown’s 10K has not yet translated into commercial success is because the mayor does not have enough people on his staff with retail experience. 

“Most of Jerry’s economic advisors believe in official and residential development,” he said. “They just don’t have a good feel for retail and the specific requirements needed to put together a successful retail district. That’s one of the major areas the new mayor will need to address.”ö