Public Comment

Development Kudos and Woes in North Oakland

By Bob Brokl
Wednesday February 04, 2009 - 06:19:00 PM

The Oakland Planning Commission recently unanimously green-lighted the 100-plus unit condo high-rise known as “Creekside” (dubbed “Creekover” by some) at the corner of Telegraph and Claremont, the site of the building that formerly housed Global Video. Given the state of the economy, there is no certainty when, if ever, that project will be built. But the building was emptied out of tenants, with jobs and retail tax dollars lost, plus the built-in security provided by people using the structure.  

Hauser Architects, the San Francisco-based firm behind Creekside, announced at the Planning Commission that the building had been stripped by vandals of salvageable metals and mechanical systems. There are posted “for lease” signs, but the neighboring Christmas tree lot flocked trees in the former video store. The building is now doubly trashed. While dog-walking from Frog Park, we spotted a head poking over the roof of the building. The person saw us, retreated, and then reappeared. Glass doors have been smashed but held by a bicycle lock. People are obviously getting in. The neighboring apartment building and tenants are at risk from crime and fire spreading from the “vacant” building. 

Developers promoting expensive condo projects (wrapped in “smart growth” rhetoric though they may be) may find that reality, in the form of a recession or depression, intrudes. The Global Video building—trashed and less rentable by the day—is an eyesore that could still be put back into use—with enough community pressure—as a contributor to the happening Temescal scene, as it was when the video store was a tenant. Overeager developers and a Planning Commission and City Council that played the enabling game for developers during the housing bubble—no matter how unrealistic or speculative their plans—are to blame. A more modest project might actually have been built before the crash.  

The good, if overlooked news, is that more realistic developers have already adjusted to the economic downturn. The following are just a few examples of developers downsizing expectations, rehabbing buildings that in the overheated past were toast with condos to follow. All of us benefit from blight removal and the creation of jobs, housing, and commercial space. Sometimes thinking smaller (adaptive reuse) is smart: 


The Exemplary  

4629 MLK Jr. Way (opposite Children’s Hospital Oakland’s main campus). The owner reconsidered condos, and beautifully rehabbed an unreinforced masonry, “A” rated, former Grove Street cable car barn into office/commercial use. 

4701 Shattuck. The developer, who’d said that nothing short of a high-rise condo project “pencilled-out,” kept the 1908 former ground floor saloon/apartments above the building and is rehabbing it into commercial space.  

Directly north, at 49th and Shattuck, Artesia Townhouses is a low-rise three-story condo project nearing completion. The proposed building was within zoning, requiring no variances, but fine-tuned for design at the planning staff level. No EIRs, no drawn-out fights with neighbors, no blight. 


The Pragmatic Realists 

5666 Telegraph. Developer/realtor Tom Anthony put on hold plans to demolish an old veterinary building and cottage for a five-story condo project looming over the neighboring apartment court and Clar’s Auction Gallery. He’s rehabbing and renting the existing buildings. 

780 54th at MLK Jr. Way. Developers Cotter & Coyle proposed to demolish the former Mutual Store/church to build a five-story condo project shadowing the venerable Ace Ellis Hardware. Now they’ve refurbished the existing building as part of a lease/option deal with another church.  


Holding Pattern Developers 

4700 Telegraph. Apartments and ground floor businesses remain, for the most part, rented out while the property with its approval for a five-story condo project stays for sale.  

4801 Shattuck and the neighboring houses all still occupied with the condo project on hold.  

Same for the Kingfish/co-housing project—the Victorian cottages are still rented out, but the bar is shuttered. 


In the short run, Hauser would be smart (and the neighborhood better-served) to put the Global Video building back into rentable shape and generate some income, providing onsite security if necessary to stop the thieves and vandals now. In the long term, as someone coming to appreciate if not yet love mid-century buildings, I can see that building fixed up. It’s got a cousin in Lincoln, Nebraska—a pretty-fine Philip Johnson-designed university art museum. 

Hauser needs to get with the program and drink the bitter brew of depression-era lowered expectations. We’d all be better off. 


Robert Brokl is a North Oakland resident.