A Shadow Falls Over the Square

Downtown Oakland's sudden momentum as a housing and entertainment venue may be stymied by a pair of proposed skyscrapers at Jack London Square.

Will Harris can get folksy. As the owner of a squat hotel at the edge of the estuary in Oakland’s Jack London Square, he makes a point of mentioning that his mother helps out in the kitchen and cooks up a mean waffle. So it may seem odd that Harris recently drafted plans to tear down the four-story Jack London Inn and build a condominium tower that rises at least twenty stories in the air, dominating the waterfront skyline and looming over the patrons of the city’s marquee entertainment district. “It’s always good to explore all your options,” he said. “If we were to go that high, one of the great things is we have some spectacular views here.”

Harris is part of an anomalous spurt of overdevelopment that threatens the fragile momentum of Jack London Square, if not the entire Oakland waterfront. In addition to Harris’ project, the Las Vegas developer Molasky Pacific Properties has received approval to build an eighteen-story, 135-unit condo tower on Broadway between Second and Third streets, right in the center of the nightlife zone. If these two towers plant their roots here, the neighborhood’s entertainment venues could be crippled by noise complaints from the new residents, to say nothing of the overwhelming architecture. The waterfront is a quirky mix of clubs and restaurants, warehouses, and five-story loft apartments, and is just beginning to come into its own. While Jerry Brown felt compelled to offer $60 million bribes to kick-start development in the city’s scraggly Uptown district, Jack London Square’s magic formula of low-lying buildings, waterfront access, and edgy, post-industrial atmosphere is finally offering the promise of a vibrant downtown neighborhood. But just when Oakland gets a good thing going, someone threatens to screw it up.

Nightlife has always been a little tenuous in Jack London Square. Tensions between revelers and the cops burden restaurateurs, and TGI Friday’s, El Torito, and The Old Spaghetti Factory all closed their doors in the last year. Last month, a gang-related shooting sent patrons of the Jack London Cinema running for their lives. But in the last few years, loft condos along Second Street have proven wildly successful, attracting hundreds of middle-class professionals wooed by the neighborhood’s funky charm. The developer Ellis Partners is building a $300 million hotel, retail, and cinema complex east of Broadway, which may erode the neighborhood’s edgy quality but is an undeniable testament to its potential.

But the partners at Molasky Pacific Properties have taken too big a bite. While the current lofts rise only five or six stories and hover on the outskirts of the entertainment district, Molasky has secured the rights to drive an eighteen-story stake right into the neighborhood’s heart. Everett & Jones Barbeque is located across the street from the project, and co-owner John Jernegan worries that his business could suffer a mortal blow. “We don’t like it at all,” he said. “It’s going to be a direct contradiction with our kind of business, where you’re going to have an entertainment district, people are out on the streets at night coming and going to entertainment venues. And then you’re going to have our barbecue food smell wafting down the street next to $400,000 condominiums. And I’m sure we’re going to hear some complaints.”

Gary Knect has lived near Jack London Square since 1982 and thinks this could destroy the intimacy and human scale of the district. “You can’t really have late-night club activity coexisting with residential activity,” he said. “It’s always been a marginal success, but this removes the chances of the clubs that are there, or that hope to be there. … Big buildings ought to be with other big buildings on the other side of the freeway. When we worked on the estuary policy plan, we thought we were going to have five-story buildings along Broadway. And I thought that was going to be tall.”

Others see the Broadway tower as a refreshing change from the uniformly squat buildings. “Having an area that is short and tall and medium and wide and thin makes it more interesting,” said City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. “We don’t want to be a cookie-cutter copy of anyone, and sometimes the diversity of buildings is more attractive than the normal development you see, either all skyscrapers or all short. … I don’t think we’re gonna have a line of twenty-story buildings along Embarcadero or Broadway. But I think with a few parcels, it will make it look different.”

Mark Seiler is a managing partner with the brokerage firm that brought in Yoshi’s and Barnes & Noble, and he thinks the Molasky tower is a remarkable leap in imagination. “If you start to fill the street in with those kinds of uses, it could create a very dynamic kind of community,” he said. “One of the things about that neighborhood is it’s still quiet at night. And by having greater densities, you could attract more retail.” But even Seiler thinks Harris’ plan for a twenty-story condo building at Jack London Inn may be going too far: “I’d be a little bit concerned about that one.”

Seiler is not the only local entrepreneur worried about Harris’ plans. “I think he’s on crack,” exclaimed Joanna Adler, who runs the business Jack London Mail and has lived along the waterfront for a decade, when she heard about the Jack London Inn project. “I don’t know how he’s ever going to have enough parking there.”

The problem is, once you say yes to one high-rise, it’s hard to say no to another, particularly if the land values rise so high that building multistory towers is the only way to recoup the cost of acquisition. Molasky Pacific Properties has one last hurdle before it can begin construction: It needs to buy an adjacent restaurant to finalize its plans, and so far, it hasn’t been able to close the deal. According to City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel — Molasky officials did not return phone calls seeking comment — company representatives have floated the idea of the city using eminent domain to force the deal through. Although De La Fuente promises that the city would do that only as a last resort, Nadel is worried about the reflexively pro-development mood on the council. “There doesn’t seem to be any limit that the council majority and our mayor are interested in,” she said.

Opponents of Oakland development are often small-minded, doctrinaire naysayers. People who complain about the lack of affordable housing in the mayor’s 10K plan either hope to get a piece of the pie for themselves or are too ideologically rigid to see how desperately downtown needs any kind of housing. Building market-rate condos at the West Oakland BART station is a wonderful idea, but activists with the nonprofit Just Cause are determined to kill it out of a fanatical antipathy to the middle class. The new Wal-Mart is the best thing to happen to East Oakland in years. But Oakland’s greatest strength is its rough-hewn authenticity, and the city’s waterfront district is where we all rub shoulders. Two towers rising out of the heart of Jack London Square will deform the city’s only functioning cabaret district. When Jerry Brown ran for mayor, he promised to deliver an “elegant density” of residents, shops, and nightlife bustling throughout downtown. Down by the water, his vision has spontaneously emerged amid the lofts and hip-hop joints. But two developers have big dreams of inelegant density, and that may ruin the whole thing.


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