Oakland’s Example for Berkeley

By Becky O’Malley
Wednesday February 11, 2009 - 07:15:00 PM

The first writing I did for publication after we moved back to California in the early ‘70s was a little article for a four-page pickup paper whose name now escapes me. 

I remember the story as a shameless puff piece extolling the virtues of the Fox Oakland theater, at that time a boarded-up shell, reputed to be burned out on the inside, which had been closed for a decade. I also remember that a good bit of the hard information I had about it turned out to be wrong, including the name of the architect, but I got its place in history right. I had managed to cajole someone to let me look around inside, and when I saw the gilt glory that still remained I knew it needed a press agent to write it up, so I volunteered. I like old buildings. 

The history of the Fox Oakland, outlined now on a website maintained by the Friends of the Oakland Fox, is an object lesson in the potential urban planning has for utter stupidity. The purpose of my piece, probably written in late 1974, had been to head off a foolish plan to tear down the Fox and replace it with a parking lot. At that point in history, city fathers (there were few city mothers then) believed that the decline of downtown Oakland was caused by lack of parking, even though right across from the Fox there was already a huge parking lot.  

According to the web account, in 1975 “There was serious talk of tearing the Fox down to create a parking lot. The City’s Public Works Department and the Off-Street Parking Commission, with support from local retailers, presented a plan for the City to purchase the property, demolish the building, and provide parking for 218 vehicles. Sheldon Milenbach of Milens Jewelry was quoted in the Montclarion saying that the Fox Oakland building is ‘the largest outdoor urinal in the world’ and Planning Commissioner Clyde Gibbs said ‘The City should acquire and demolish this blighted building. It’s been a blight for years.’ Fortunately the proposal foundered, and once again, the theater with nine lives somehow averted disaster.” 

The Oakland Theater was a late-blooming monument to the successes and excesses of the 1920s, a gilded frame for the products of the new and growing motion picture industry. In style, it has been called Hindu-Moorish, but really, it was pure Hollywood, no more authentically “Oriental” as Rudolph Valentino. It opened in October of 1928, just about a year to the day before the stock market silenced the Roaring Twenties. 

It’s ironic, therefore, that last week a gala party celebrated the re-opening of the lavishly refurbished theater, completed just as the latest big boom has come crashing to a halt. During the Great Depression, movies continued to be good business, providing an escape from the travails of dealing with a collapsed economy. The business plan for the new Fox Oakland seems to be mostly pop concerts produced by Another Planet, an offspring of the old Bill Graham Presents, which just might bring enough foot traffic back to downtown Oakland to float it through the current crash. 

It will certainly be more useful than another parking lot would have been, or at least we hope so. Parking lots are so out these days in planning circles. The big lot across the street from the Fox Oakland is being replaced by what looks like another pricey condo city, though condomania has abated and condos are almost as out as giant parking lots. There’s no hard evidence on the actual number of vacant condos in downtown Oakland, but it looks huge. 

I joined the press tour of the theater which preceded the grand opening last Thursday. Jerry Brown, the godfather of the theory that building apartments downtown is the remedy for all urban woes, showed up to take bows at a press conference before the main event, his arrival cannily timed to precede that of his successor as Oakland mayor. In typical Brown fashion, his spiel was a mixture of authentic-sounding factoids and paranoia directed at questioners.  

He asked me what paper I worked for, and when I said the Planet his brow furrowed in a clear attempt to remember why that worried him. He told the few newsies gathered around him that the restoration had cost $75 million, with $9 million of the total supplied by the Oakland School of the Arts, which is paying, he said proudly, “commercial rent." I asked how a public charter school could afford commercial rent when the Oakland Unified School District is still broke, still in receivership, and his brow furrowed some more.  

“I raised that money myself!” he said defensively, and then, finally able to place the Planet, he muttered something about “your Mr. Taylor.” Well, it’s the job of our Mr. Taylor (Planet reporter J. Douglas Allen-Taylor) to sort such things out, so he’ll just have be the one to figure out where the $9 million came from, and exactly how Jerry Brown raised it.  

However it came about, the resplendent new Fox Oakland should be considered a triumph just in terms of what it’s already done for the neighborhood. There’s a chi-chi new restaurant, Flora, across the street in the gorgeous Art Deco Oakland Floral Depot building, as well as a new space crammed full of old books for Bibliomania on the opposite corner. (The mid-century-sullen Milens Jewelry building down the block, however, is now boarded up, offering nothing of interest to would-be restorers.) 

Seeing the Fox Oakland’s renaissance reminds me to ask whatever became of Berkeley’s UC Theater. Once upon a time it was supposed to become a jazz club, but not much has been heard of that project of late. The UC, like the Fox Oakland, had a bulls-eye painted on it in development maps—a big flat space ideal for a high-rise, if you believed the planners.  

Eagle-eyed preservationists landmarked the UC just in time to keep it from being turned into yet another unnecessary and now un-rentable condo scheme. This is probably one of the reasons Mayor Bates and his developer buddies have been trying so hard for so long to gut Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance. 

In the meantime, the urban East Bay still needs a mid-sized auditorium. Zellerbach, the Paramount and now the Fox Oakland are all too big, and too expensive to operate, to meet the needs of our mid-size performing arts groups like the Berkeley Symphony, which could handily sell out a 600-seat house like the UC. And University Avenue in Berkeley, like Telegraph in Oakland, could use some sprucing up. A busy concert venue might just be the right answer to the doldrums it’s fallen into of late. It’s not quite shovel-ready, but reviving the UC would be a good way to stimulate the local economy. Does Berkeley have any visionaries like the Friends of the Oakland Fox to get the ball rolling?