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Oakland Magazine: Re-Occupy Oakland

This article was originally published in the January-February 2014 edition of Oakland Magazine.

By Michael Howerton

When John and Terry Kiskaddon reopened Harper Greer women’s clothier, a San Francisco institution for nearly 30 years, they chose to do so in their hometown of Oakland. They moved into 43 Grand Ave., a few doors east of Broadway, in November 2012.

After a year of running the plus-sized women’s clothing business from home, they wanted a retail shop again, and opting to stay on their side of San Francisco Bay was an easy call. They got rid of their commute, and they set up shop in the East Bay, from where many of their customers had always come. They also got a good deal on the rent, they say, and the city paid for half of the remodeling with redevelopment funds. Furthermore, they knew they were moving into a part of the city, the Broadway corridor, where city planners have been looking to stoke Oakland’s economic activity.

And active Broadway has suddenly become, from the sprawling, high-density Safeway expansion project at 51st Street and the massive hospital construction at MacArthur Boulevard to car dealership revamps at Broadway Auto Row and major mixed-use retail, housing developments, and parking garage near the Broadway-Valdez Triangle.

“It’s been incredible,” John Kiskaddon says. “It has exceeded our expectations. There is a wonderful renaissance happening in the area. We get clients from all over, from downtown, uptown, people come from Kaiser on their lunch breaks.”

Standing in front of the shop on the half block of Grand that opens onto Broadway, the area’s future looks like it might have arrived. New cafes, restaurants, and bars dot the strip next to Harper Greer, and across Broadway sit some of the heavyweights of Oakland’s Uptown revival of the past decade, including Luka’s Taproom, Ozumo, and Picán restaurants. The iconic Paramount and Fox theaters are just around the corner. Looking north, new mixed-use construction is taking place on the corner of 23rd, bringing office, retail, and residential space. A few doors further north, more retail has appeared in recent months. The Sweet Bar Bakery, on the corner of 24th, has become a neighborhood anchor.

In many ways, the Kiskaddons and their new neighbors represent a big part of what the city hopes will be the future of Broadway—an enlivened and growing retail culture. For years, Oakland officials have bemoaned the loss of retail tax revenue to neighboring towns. The city has had the highest rate of retail tax leakage—residents spending retail dollars outside of the city limits—of any city in the country, amounting to $1.4 billion annually, according to city officials. Oakland wants those dollars back.

“The climate is ripe right now for retail in this area,” Kiskaddon says. “There has been a dearth of retail here for many years, and we are seeing a real appetite for higher-end stores. We feel like we fill a nice niche, and people are really digging the fact that we are here.”

After years of dormancy, signs of revitalization are afoot on Broadway, once the grande dame of East Bay business, when the street was home to the I. Magnin, H.C. Capwell Co., and Rhodes Western department stores. Even after the vandalism aimed at Broadway businesses during Occupy Oakland should have scared away those interested in opening shops, it doesn’t seem to have deterred a new wave of retail occupiers and developers. From downtown to Rockridge, projects big and small have given the corridor new life.

“Broadway went from being the center to not being the center to now being the center again,” says Oakland Redevelopment Manager Patrick Lane. “It’s our main street. It’s the busiest transit corridor in the East Bay by far.”

For decades, though, despite all that traffic and bustle, Broadway has been more of a way to get to other places rahter than a destination in itself. Over the last decade, that began to shift, beginning with the housing developments that then-Mayor Jerry Brown made a centerpiece of his 10K program, the emergence of an Uptown entertainment district, and more recently pockets of activity and new commerce all along Broadway’s three-mile urban stretch from Jack London Square at the harbor to a remade Rockridge Shopping Center and residential developments at Broadway’s northern end.

“I think the time is here for it. Broadway is really starting to see itself as a street, and it’s a very exciting thing,” says Morten Jensen, president of JRDV Architects, the Oakland firm designing the new Rockridge Shopping Center. “Cities grow in funny ways, and they evolve over time, in terms of transit, economic activity, culturally.”

There was a time when Broadway in downtown Oakland was the third-busiest commercial area in California with a half-dozen department stores, he says, coming in just behind Broadway in Los Angeles and Union Square in San Francisco. Mid-Broadway was also one of the first urban auto rows in the United States.

“Broadway has always had a ‘betweeness’ to it,” Jensen says. “You had the residential hills on one side and downtown on the other, with a street car system for decades connecting to two, and in between there was always a scattering of things but with empty areas. For a long time the area didn’t have strong economic activity. But now the whole street is really coming together.”

Uptown has been a force in Oakland’s economic growth for the past decade, but it’s gotten a burst of new activity in the past year and has more development underway. The corner of 23rd and Broadway is the future home of the Hive, a multi-building, mixed-use project that will consist of 105 new apartments, 50,000 square feet of retail, 50,000 square feet of office space, including the Impact Hub Oakland, a co-working space and entrepreneurial incubator that has been operating in a pop-up space next to the Awaken Cafe in front of City Hall, and Drake’s Brewing Company, all of which should be opening over the coming year.

“The Uptown neighborhood is hot,” says Mike Ghielmetti, head of Signature Development Group, who is developing the Hive. “Are we going to get traditional department stores? Maybe, maybe not; but what we are getting is a lot of ‘downtown retail’—clothing stores, restaurants, bakeries, the kind of experiential retail that you can’t get anywhere else, and you can’t get it online.”

The point of the 10K effort wasn’t just to build housing, Lane says, but to create a vibrant 24-hour urban core with entertainment, restaurants and bars, and then have retail follow. For the most part, the city has accomplished the first phase. The elimination of redevelopment funds and the economic downturn stopped some projects and stalled others, but Lane says activity is starting again. “Now we want real retail, the sale of goods,” he says, “clothes, furniture, household goods, that kind of stuff.”

Target is looking at downtown Oakland, and the city has seen a flood of interest from hotels and office developers about moving into the downtown core along Broadway and Telegraph. “Our job right now is pushing the larger stores,” Lane says. “It’s not because we don’t want the smaller ones, but it’s because we have a lot of space already on Broadway for the 2,000- to 5,000-square-feet businesses, but there is no space for the 10,000- to 100,000-square-feet ones.”

A developer is under contract to build a residential and office tower above a block of renovated retail shops at 19th and Broadway, and at the corner of 20th, the five-story Sears building is up for sale. Whether Sears, the building’s sole tenant in a building with empty floors, remains a tenant would be up to the new owner, says Rachel Flynn, Oakland director of the Planning and Building Department.

“My guess is that they would want to bring in new retail, something that appeals more to Millennials, something more hip,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be one large retailer. It could be several smaller chain stories. We are looking at that project to be a real catalyst for the area.”

Flynn says her priority for Broadway is seeing the Sears building occupied. “If we don’t get that done, it’s always going to look like, ‘What’s wrong with that building? Why don’t they do something?’ It’s as much image-making as it is a sign that we have real retail with office and residential.”

Bringing in national retail chains, if they do indeed choose to come, can be a delicate proposition for local shop owners who worry about competition from the larger stores with bigger resources and inventories. “I’m not too worried,” says Kiskaddon about the prospect of a national clothier moving in. “Not that I want them too close either, but a few blocks away is fine. A little competition is good for all, you know; it keeps you on your game.” Besides, anything that will fill the area’s empty storefronts will help the business climate, he says. “I’d like to see more residential, and I’d like to see some of the boarded up buildings leased out,” he says. “The best way to keep crime away is to make use of these empty places.”

Two Jacks Denim, carrying U.S.-made menswear and artisanal denim, has settled into a small storefront in the middle of Broadway between 23rd and 24th. Owner Tommy Mierzwinski says business has been slow but growing since he opened last summer. His store is the only retail shop on either side of his block.

“People who come in here say how happy they are to see retail coming to downtown and they want to see it grow. I do feel like a pioneer, but that’s OK,” he says. “If larger chains come in, that could put an end to me, but we do need more local independent shops. You need a certain concentration of businesses to make it work.”

Chinwe Okona, community liaison for Oaklandish, which opened its downtown store on Broadway, between 14th and 15th in 2011, says she isn’t too concerned about national chains pushing out local shops. It is important for Oaklandish to have its retail shop in the center of downtown, she says, and it has been encouraging to see so many other local businesses doing well in the district.

“Our goal is to have the businesses that move into Oakland, be them retail or other kinds, be the kind of businesses that put back into the community,” says Okona. “ I don’t consider Oakland to be the kind of place where you would go to find big retail shops, and I think that’s a good thing. We need to trust shoppers to make decisions about what kind of downtown they want, and they will speak with their spending.”

Michael LeBlanc, owner of Picán restaurant on Broadway at 23rd, credits the success of the Uptown district with laying the groundwork for Broadway’s resurgence extending south and north. “It’s created options for people to come and spend a couple hours here, pulling people in from beyond greater Oakland, from beyond the tunnels and bridges,” he says. “The big challenge is retail. It’s now restaurant row, and it’s becoming medical row, but if we get retail, well, that’s the ball game.”

A handful of art galleries have opened along 25th and 26th streets in former and current auto body shops and factories. Kitchener, a community kitchen for micro-food entrepreneurs, recently opened on 24th, just east of Broadway. The area got a huge boost when Whole Foods opened a few block east on 27th and Harrison, in 2007. In this small patch, evenings have become busy times with diners, moviegoers, and art seekers hopping through side streets and live music flowing from converted warehouses. And that’s even without the craziness of Art Murmur and First Fridays, which brings a carnival-like frenzy to the neighborhood once a month.

“We are getting increased foot traffic here. The trajectory is moving in the right direction,” says J Moses Ceasar, general manager of the New Parkway Theater, which opened on 24th a year ago in a former auto windshield factory. “We would love to be seen as an anchor for the neighborhood, and it would be nice if us being here meant more businesses could pop up and make the area even busier.”

Uptown Auto Body on 26th, between Broadway and Telegraph, contributes to that nightlife by renting its space for art events and fundraisers. “It’s just what Oakland needed,” says owner Giovanna Tarzillo. “Now they want more art and no more auto businesses around here, which is fine with us. It’s the beginning of a renaissance for this area. Three years ago, you didn’t see many people out on the street, and now people are walking around everywhere. It’s wonderful.”

It is here that the city has pinned its hopes of establishing a high-density “destination retail” shopping district, as part of the Broadway-Valdez Plan, aiming to bring 1,800 new residential units, 700,000 square feet of office space, 1.1 million square feet of retail, 180 hotel rooms—a total of 3.7 million square feet of mostly mixed-use development—to the area from Grand Avenue to the Interstate 580 overpass along Broadway. The plan consists of two sections: the Valdez Triangle and the North End. The Valdez Triangle, centered on Valdez Street, from Grand Avenue to 27th Street, would be the center of the city’s efforts to create a destination retail district, and the North End, north of 27th, would focus more on mixed-use development.

The plan’s draft environmental impact review has been making its way through city boards in recent months and is scheduled to come before the city council for adoption in March. “We don’t have enough tax base in the city, and we are losing a huge amount of tax revenue we could be using for other purposes,” Oakland planner Laura Kaminski said at the November meeting of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. “Whole Foods is an anchor there, and now we need a new retail district.”

At the meeting, she emphasized some of the plan’s street-level improvements to calm traffic and aid walking and biking, including corner sidewalk bulb-outs, timed traffic lights for pedestrians, bike parking, mid-block crossings, and shuttles. The plan also includes a new structured parking garage off of Broadway to serve the new shops and the dining and entertainment venues of Uptown, which would support the city’s “park once” approach to the district to cut traffic and get people on the streets. “We worry about traffic,” Kaminski told the group, “and it’s only getting worse with [the expansion of] Kaiser.”

Cars are still a prominent feature of Auto Row under the plan, but they must share the road with newer businesses. “An unexpected consequence of the economic downturn of the past few years has been that Auto Row in Oakland not only hung on but is now coming back and rebuilding,” Kaminski said. “So now the plan is looking at mixing auto with destination retail.”

Oakland’s car dealerships provided $3 million in sales tax revenue in 2010. Since then, the row has welcomed new dealerships and others are expanding and renovating. Adrees Sharza, general sales manager at Nissan Oakland at the corner of 27th and Broadway, says sales have been strong since they opened in August. “There is so much potential here. It’s a huge market. Auto Row is definitely coming back,” he says.

“It’s getting nicer around here,” says Luke Smith, general sales manager at Oakland Mercedes-Benz, which is renovating its façade and showroom at 2915 Broadway, a block south of a future Sprouts Farmers Market grocery store. “Sprouts will definitely help the area. We’re working on making it nicer around here.”

Daniel Schulman, a member of both the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, says he likes much about the Broadway-Valdez plan but questions whether the city’s pro-retail efforts might interfere with the natural evolution of neighborhoods along Broadway. He is worried that the plan will saddle the city with an expensive parking structure it doesn’t need and is weak on historic preservation. “Cultural resources will be lost early on in the plan, while its success is still very much in doubt,” he says. “Even if the plan does prove successful in creating a destination retail area, given the potential budgetary impacts, I am not even sure it is desirable.”

Lane says the city removed 1,500 public parking spaces around Uptown to make way for development and planned to add some back only as the need becomes apparent, which may include the new parking structure envisioned as part of the Valdez area plan. “We want to put back a certain amount that can be used in a way to encourage retail,” he says.

Councilmember Lynette McElhaney, whose district contains the entire expanse of Broadway, says the corridor needs retail any way it can get it. She says she understands the strategy of pursuing national chains, but says she suspects most of the new retail will be local, boutique-type stores.

“It’s no secret that Oakland has retail leakage, and that means often chasing the larger retail chains,” she says. “It’s unconscionable that we leave Oaklanders underserved and leave them to travel many miles out of our city to satisfy their retail needs. I am happy this council and the city administrators are aligned in fostering retail in this city.”

One anchor tenant making a new home at the corner of 30th and Broadway is Sprouts Farmers Market grocery store, set to open early 2015. “This is a hugely underserved area,” says Ken Lowney, whose firm, Lowney Architecture, designed the Spouts project and also did the Whole Foods on 27th. “This will be a real community asset, with outdoor patio and rooftop garden. It will be a community meeting place. It will be a catalyst project. It’s the first major retail project going in there so that others can follow.”

And while McElhaney says she is encouraged by the growth along mid-Broadway—“It brings tears to my eyes when I think about a Sprouts on that corner,” she says—she cautions that the city must be careful that the area doesn’t outgrow the communities, which includes many lower-income families and seniors who live and work there.

“I am concerned about the area not accelerating too quickly and about protecting the diversity of the community,” she says. “I want to make sure it doesn’t become a place where artists and workers can’t afford to live. I worry about the displacement of residents and longtime merchants. There is a tension. I’m concerned that the economic growth doesn’t do harm to the diversity.”

Joel Devalcourt of Greenbelt Alliance, part of the Better Broadway Coalition, a collection of community groups advocating for smart growth along the corridor, says he is glad to see the emphasis on creating a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly district. “The city really wants to make retail work in Oakland, and we support that,” he says. “We want to make sure it’s the kind of retail that serves the people who live in the area, supports the mom and pop shops that are already here and the entrepreneurs, as well as the national retailers.”

The character of Broadway changes quickly north of I-580. Kaiser’s just completed 12-story hospital at the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and Broadway is the centerpiece of Kaiser’s $1 billon expansion and seismic projects, featuring 1.8 million square feet of new hospital and medical offices and two giant new parking structures on 21 acres along Broadway. Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, nearby on Pill Hill, is also completing a $350 million new hospital construction.

“There’s over a billion dollars in investment right there,” says Flynn, Oakland’s planning director. “That’s a huge investment, and then when you think of the jobs that come with that and the buying power of people who are right there—that’s why we have to maximize retail in the area.”

Beyond the institutional stretch of Broadway dominated by Kaiser, a mini-commercial district has popped up along 40th Street between Telegraph and Broadway, with new condos and cafes, Manifesto Bicycles, Elder & Pine clothing store, Hog’s Apothecary, Homeroom restaurant, 1-2-3-4Go! Records, Marquee Salon, and office space. The commercial outpost has the advantage of being on a high-traffic artery between two major North Oakland streets, but it’s hard to say if either of the streets is doing much to fuel the others.

Nick St. Mary opened Elder & Pine, a vintage and second-hand menswear shop, next to Manifesto Bicycles and Subrosa Coffee, last summer. He says the gathering of businesses there feel like a self-contained island with little connection to Broadway. If anything, he says, he feels more tied to Telegraph Avenue to the west, with Temescal’s lively commerce and MacArthur BART, in the midst of constructing of a transit village promising to bring more shops and residential.

“There’s nothing on Broadway; just a few shops,” says St. Mary, who has lived in the neighborhood for 11 years. “We’re really between Telegraph and Piedmont Avenue. Even with Kaiser growing, I feel that Broadway is like the step-sibling to Telegraph. Around here; Broadway just isn’t business-oriented.”

Other than Mama’s Royal Café, he says nothing along Broadway brings foot traffic to his area. But that might be changing. The Café Underwood, which plans to cater to the area’s work-from-home population—by renting desks and conference rooms—is under construction at 41st and Broadway, next door to Crossfit Oakland’s Uptown location. At 42nd and Broadway, Blue Bottle Coffee is renovating the historic 1905 W.C. Morse building to open its largest café in the 2,000-square-foot space, which is slated to open early in the 2014. As Blue Bottle founder James Freeman said, “The people of Oakland have been good to us, and we want to invest in Oakland.”

He admitted that the spot is an unlikely location for a cafe, but he fell in love with the building, and while the lack of retail in the area does worry him, he decided it was worth the risk. “There’s not a lot of foot traffic there and people usually build cafes around other stores, but sometimes architecture trumps everything, and how wonderful it would be to do a café there,” he says. “It’s a gorgeous building.”

Bay Appliance is an old timer on the corridor, residing at 4207 Broadway, across from the W.C. Morse building, since 1982. Owner Mark Kaldunski says he has been waiting for a change in Upper Broadway’s fortunes for a long while. “You see all the cars going by and people are not stopping,” he says in his quiet showroom full of stoves and refrigerators. Service orders make up a majority of the business nowadays, he says, adding there is no way he could survive on retail sales alone.

The redeveloped Rockridge Shopping Center could be the game-changer for the area Kaldunski has been waiting for. “I think everyone is just banking on the development of the shopping center,” he says. “We are all waiting for that to happen.”

The new shopping center would almost double in size to around 330,000 square feet, with an expanded Safeway, terraced restaurants, parking garage, and building heights of 80 feet. Two residential projects are slated for the empty corners on the west side of Broadway on each side of 51st Street. The hope is to capture and continue some of the retail magic from neighboring College and Piedmont avenues and make the center feel less like a suburban mall and more like an extension of the city, says Jensen, head of JRDV Architects, which is designing the project. Construction is due to begin late 2014. “The center is the biggest and most important project in Oakland in many generations,” Jensen says. “I believe the city is turning a corner and this project will validate the retail market in Oakland and open the area to other retailers coming in. People don’t want a stupid mall; they want a real city.”

When the Oakland Planning Commission approved the project in September, Jensen told the commissioners that the redesigned center was the city’s best hope for reclaiming its lost $1.4 billion in retail leakage.

“There is no other city in the United States that has that kind of leakage,” he said at the meeting. “We concluded that this site, in the short to medium term, offered the biggest change to reduce that leakage, so it’s an extremely important project for that sake.”

The design of the new center plans to echo the scale, colors, and architectural styles of nearby neighborhoods. “In spite of the retail leakage in Oakland, Oakland has two of the greatest neighborhood retail streets in the state of California—College Avenue and Piedmont Avenue,” Jensen told the commission. “We really thought this project was an opportunity to connect two very wonderful neighborhood commercial streets.”

From the harbor to the hills, Broadway is the street of great expectations. Whether it can deliver all that is being asked of it is an open question.

“Broadway was ‘The Street’ in Oakland for many years, but it has also been many years since it has been that,” says Greenbelt Alliance’s Devalcourt. “Satisfying the city’s need for sales tax revenue is a huge challenge. We want to make sure it is done in a way that still creates a thriving community with smart investments for Oakland. We need to find ways to bring people in and provide places for them to live, and that will stimulate retail. You can’t do retail without people.”

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