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The Courthouse Athletic Club Building at 2935 Telegraph Ave., an unofficial Oakland landmark, has been reduced to rubble in a matter of days. The main structure fronting Telegraph came down Oct. 2, the conclusion of a rushed, surprise demolition by the developer and owner of the site, Trammell Crow Residential (TCR). Two stands of redwoods—also flagged for removal—still survive, for the moment. Two appeals pertaining to the demolition process and tree removal are pending, and controversy swirls over the flawed process that doomed the building, and what—if anything—will replace it.
Neighbors were startled by the wrecking crews beginning their work early Sept. 29. Even District 3 Councilperson Nancy Nadel, reached at her home, said she had no prior warning. Joann Pavlinec, case planner and secretary to the city’s Landmarks Advisory Board, and Chris Candell, a Community and Economic Development Agency staffer, had repeatedly assured those tracking the project that the demolition could not begin until permits were issueed and TCR had paid all its fees. The period for appeal to the City of Oakland’s Tree Division didn’t even expire until 4 p.m. Sept. 29. Pavlinec’s soothing words were perhaps purposeful—an Aug. 28 memorandum from Gay Luster in the Tree Division quotes Pavlinec that “...the project was a hot one, embroiled in opposition from the neighborhood.”
The endrun around the unissued permits was an unannounced memorandum from Eric Angstadt, deputy director of CEDA, on Sept. 25 allowing the demolition to proceed by “approving,” but not yet “issuing,” a building permit. Another behind-the-scenes green light, in the form of an e-mail from Mitch Thompson in the Tree Division, said the demolition could occur even as the redwoods remained standing, if temporary fencing was thrown up around them.
With the demolition permit then authorized by Ray Derania, the interim building official responsible for issuing demolition permits, TCR crews began the work the following Tuesday, without blocking sidewalks or streets, or alerting neighbors or owners of parked cars.
The back story
The process culminating in the demolition was outlined in an op-ed by this writer entitled: “Will High-End Condo Project Doom Courthouse?” in the July 9-15 edition of the Berkeley Daily Planet. The developer, TCR, with financing provided by Bank of the West, bought the then-functioning Courthouse Athletic Club for $7.7 million in 2005. One of many condo projects planned for Oakland in those heady times, TCR proceeded to spend (as of Nov. 21, 2008) $11.3 million for their project—142 market-rate condos in a high-end, five-story building covering the 1.4-acre site. Because the Courthouse Building was deemed eligible for the National Register, in an area of other important, mostly funerary structures, including the landmarked St. Augustine’s Church directly across the street, TCR was required to complete an environmental impact report (EIR). The Courthouse Building had evolved from a turn-of-the-century dwelling to become the Truman Mortuary in 1916, receiving its final and colonial makeover by Architects Miller & Warnecke in 1945. The project and the EIR were approved by the Jerry Brown-appointed Planning Commission in August 2007—this project was close enough to downtown to be part of Brown’s “10K” mission. Some neighbors supported the condo project which promised an infusion of tax dollars and new residents with a mix of incomes and spending power.
After approval the project went nowhere. TCR completed no building plans or applied for any permits (including tree removal), nor paid the required fees to the city. Shopping the project around, they found a willing buyer in the Oakland Housing Authority, which offered $9 million for the entitled project. OHA, however, required delivery of a cleared site prior to assuming title in order to avoid further federal environmental review and, ultimately, they withdrew.
After phone calls from neighbors to City Hall, Angstadt did a partial about-face, on the advice of the city attorney's office, according to a Nadel aide. He revealed his memorandum recommending demolition proceed prior to issuance of a building permit, along with Thompson’s backup e-mail on the redwoods. An appeal of his “interpretation,” costing a nonrefundable $1,158, was able to be filed within 10 days, to the Planning Commission. No stay was attached to this new concession, and demolition proceeded apace, culminating with the building in splinters by Oct. 2. An appeal was filed anyway, including a pamphlet from the Planning counter, touting the “ReUse Solution: Save money and Waste! Weigh the advantages of deconstruction versus demolition,” part of the City of Oakland’s endorsement of green building practices.
Also pending is the appeal—this one to the City Council and costing a nonrefundable $500—of the redwoods removal. Angstadt’s decision not only preempted neighbors but the City Council—the elected body—from weighing in. The Planning Commission’s 2007 approval had never been heard at the council level. If the council votes to keep the redwoods, the TCR condo project approved at staff level will have to be redesigned, since the redwoods exist within the footprint of the proposed new structure.
Oakland’s bizarre tree removal process allows only property owners who are “confronting or adjacent” to trees marked for removal to protest. In this case, according to mailing lists from the Tree Division, property owners across Telegraph and on 29th Street were noticed and allowed to object, but residents on the north side of 30th Street were not.
Condominium dwellers on this side of 30th Street are the group, along with other neighbors and preservationists, who opposed the possibility of the Housing Authority acquiring the site and many of whom now supported keeping the Courthouse Building. They created a NoOHA30thStreet/Save the Courthouse group, threw up a website, and produced Save the Redwoods posters.
After TCR threatened legal action against the neighbor who signed the first appeal, who then withdrew, another neighbor stepped forward to sign a new appeal.
The antiquated redevelopment scenario of “slum” clearance and the creation of vacant for-sale lots appears to still be the name of the game in less empowered parts of Oakland, in contradiction to policies in place designed to prevent just such occurrences. City staff argued consistently that they didn’t know TCR would build something, but didn’t know that they wouldn’t either, and couldn’t demand proof. Planner Candell noted the developer fees underwrote two staff positions. But the condominium market is saturated (there are five large condominium project on hold in Temescal alone) and existing condo prices are falling. But in Temescal, the buildings slated for replacement by the as-yet-unbuilt condo projects are still standing and, in most cases, in use.
A prominent local developer has said the Courthouse parcel is worth perhaps $3.5 million. TCR/Bank of the West/CBRE Richard Ellis are gambling that, minus the historic building and redwoods, they’ll get some larger portion back of what they’ve squandered.
Robert Brokl is a North Oakland resident. This article is based upon two separate reviews of Oakland Housing Authority files on the Courthouse project, as well as reviews of the planning department and tree division files pertaining to the Courthouse and the redwoods.