Children’s Hospital Oakland, while providing good jobs and good care to many children and their families over the years, has also been a mixed blessing for its neighbors. Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley and nearby residents have hammered out a modus vivendi for relatively peaceful coexistence, but CHO has morphed over the years, expanding outward from their 52nd Street campus by acquiring neighboring businesses and homes. Most recently, the hospital intended to build a 180-foot tower north of the campus, clearing an area occupied by single-family homes, but that effort was doomed by the failure of bond measures on the ballot in February 2008. The distinctive “Original Baby Hospital” is nearly swallowed up by later construction, and likely to be toast under plans for CHO’s fallback expansion plans.
In 1998, CHO leapfrogged over the previous CEO’s Maginot line of 53rd Street when they acquired from the City of Oakland the former University High School (Old Merritt College in a later incarnation) on Martin Luther King Jr. Way between Aileen and 58th, encompassing nine prime acres.
CHO Research Institute (CHORI) settled into the new campus, outfitting the old school to fit their needs at costs exceeding $40 million, with classrooms as laboratories. Left untouched, but in remarkably good condition, was the former gymnasium behind the main structure. Of somewhat later construction, the gym met the Field Act seismic requirements for school use and had been used by Peralta Community College and then by Oakland Technical High School students when their campus was being renovated in the early 1980s. When we were last inside the structure around 1999,
the gym was unused but still
in fine condition. (It played a starring role in climactic scenes in the atrocious movie, The Principal, starring the other Belushi.)
But last year a friend came across an article in the May 29–June 4 San Francisco Business Times revealing CHO’s new plan: applying for a $15 million stimulus grant from the National Institutes of Health as seed money for a new facility costing $40 million for the study of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
This plan to demolish the gym came as a surprise, considering the entire site including the gym was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the intact campus with all of its buildings remaining was significant to its designation. (The renovation after such a grim slide into near-ruin had merited a Governor’s Award.) We were spurred to ask to see the gym interior in its current condition—a CHO official had earlier offhandedly mentioned a leaking roof. Overcoming opposition from recalcitrant officials like George Brietigam, vice president in charge of facilities, we saw for ourselves what CHO had allowed to happen to the gym. It was an unmitigated disaster—holes in the roof open to the sky, pigeons flapping about, and the hardwood maple floor ruined and buckling, the reinforced concrete shell belying the ongoing ruin within.
If CHO had allowed neighborhood kids to exercise in the space over those years, rather than keep the space vacant but for storage, childhood diabetes and obesity—First Lady Michelle Obama’s top priority and the subject of the stimulus grant application—might have been combatted locally. Another irony: CHO’s acquisition of the campus, after the city’s expensive taxpayer-funded renovation, was in part spurred by an influential lawsuit over the city’s demolition by neglect. The more things change....
The back story
The CHORI campus was originally a renowned high school, University High School, with a distinguished architect, Charles Dickey, known for his design of the Claremont Hotel and the Temescal and Golden Gate libraries. Alfred Crofts and myself were among the founders of a neighborhood group, North Oakland Voters Alliance (NOVA), which placed the entire site on the Register in 1992. We also located the now well-known preserva-tion/land use attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley, and she took the city to federal court over the issue of “demolition by neglect” as circumvention of environmental review. (As in, no passenger pigeon, no endangered species worries.) The city, perhaps realizing the community was more interested in a reuse future for the campus than the strip mall that had been proposed by a series of underwhelming “developers,” settled the lawsuit and took measures to secure the site and staunch the ongoing deterioration. They secured a $19 million “blight abatement” loan and began core-and-shell renovation.
A citizen panel hand-picked by staff of Mayor Elihu Harris chose a developer proposing mixed-use office, with CHO as the likely anchor tenant. Ultimately, this developer was terminated by the city, and CHO boldly stepped forward in 1998 to say they wanted to buy, not lease, the property. The city was not interested in continuing to own the property itself and appraisals—not surprising considering the place had been vacant for years—came in at around $9 million, which is what CHO offered to pay and what the city reluctantly accepted.
The city also got two 55-year/$1 per year leases on the Senior Center—funded by taxpayer-approved bond measures, not CHO—in the former auditorium, new infill housing along the perimeter, as well as a public park on Dover Street.
A new day at CHO? Meet the CEO!
After the disastrous bond measure defeats, and the ham-fisted approach promoting them, the CEO of Chilrden’s Hospital Oakland, George Tiedemann, was ousted in a doctors-led coup. The longtime (and only) head of the Research Institute at Old Merritt, Dr. Bertram Lubin, was elevated to be the next head of the hospital. His replacement at CHORI, Dr. Alexander Lucas, promised us last fall he would talk to a roofing contactor about fixing the roof, or tarping it at least. That was the last we’ve heard.
Lubin will meet the community at a meeting from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16 at the North Oakland Senior Center, 5714 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The entrance is from the rear parking lot off 58th Street. If you’re concerned about CHO’s expansion plans and the fate of their National Register properties, please attend this meeting.
Robert Brokl is an Oakland resident.