.A Wasted Opportunity

The city of Oakland botched a chance to save a historic garden near Lake Merritt, where a 42-story condominium is now proposed.

If approved by the city of Oakland, the 42-story Emerald Views luxury condominium will peer down upon Lake Merritt from atop what is now a historic site. It would occupy the site of the Schilling Gardens, which the city’s Register of Historical Resources considers to be a landmark “of highest importance.” Yet the garden would not be endangered today if city officials had accepted a prior owner’s offer to donate it to the city in 2005.

The verdant 32,000-square-foot garden is the only remaining vestige of the estate of the late spice magnate August Schilling, who lived there in the late 1890s. The estate itself was torn down and replaced by apartment buildings in the 1920s. Though immaculately landscaped, the garden has mostly been closed to the public since the early 1900s.

“It’s important as a remnant of 19th-century history in Oakland,” said Naomi Schiff, a board member of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, one of several community groups that is opposing the condominium project. Schiff said the garden is considered “horticulturally rich” and contains many different blooming flowers and plants. According to Schiff, one of the unique features of the garden is a concrete arbor, made to look like tree branches, on which wisteria — now more than a hundred years old — drapes and flowers.

Project architect Ian Birchall conceded that “the entire site has to be dug up” to construct the new tower. However, Birchall said the developers intend to replant some of the existing shrubs, plants, and ferns in a new garden area that will abut the sides and back of their proposed building. The developer’s plans call for an open area with a patio and cafe on the 19th Street side of the property, which is adjacent to the city-owned Snow Park. “Our intention is to open the site to the public and recreate the essence of the garden,” Birchall said. The developers also plan to rebuild and restore the arbor, he said.

The city missed an opportunity to take possession of Schilling Gardens due to a lack of leadership in various city agencies. “If we had known then that it would be a high-rise, we would have looked at it differently … we would have pushed harder to find the money,” Audree Jones-Taylor, head of the city’s Office of Parks and Recreation, conceded in hindsight. “We did not make a good decision on this. I certainly acknowledge that.”

The city’s missed opportunity began when previous garden owner Roy Guinnane proposed to save the garden under a one-time tax write-off that expired at the end of 2005. So in July of that year, he contacted the city’s Real Estate Division about the possible donation.

Various city officials came out to visit the garden and decided that the Office of Parks and Recreation would be the agency in charge of the garden if the city accepted Guinnane’s donation. The Office of Parks and Recreation had proposed using the park as an “enterprise facility” that would be rented out for events such as weddings to help pay for the costs of maintaining it. However, that amount of revenue was unlikely to cover the facility’s projected costs, and money ultimately became the breaking issue.

The Parks and Public Works agencies jointly prepared a study of possible uses for the garden and came up with a budget for the work deemed necessary to open it for public use. That amount was a whopping $750,000 for capital repairs, plus annual maintenance costs of another $178,000.

After the capital improvement budget was prepared, the city’s Real Estate office informed Guinnane that it couldn’t accept his donation unless he came up with this extra money. “I just laughed when I got this letter from the city saying, ‘We can’t take it unless you give us $750,000 in cash,'” said Guinnane. “There was no breakdown for how they come up with that figure.”

The capital repairs mainly had to do with making the garden wheelchair accessible and installing a bathroom. Jones-Taylor said the city was further constrained by Guinnane’s requirement that the garden be maintained to its existing standards. She said the city also was under time pressure because Guinnane needed the have all the paperwork done by December 31, 2005 to get his tax write-off.

Guinnane said he offered to pay $100,000 a year for five years toward the maintenance costs and that he was open to negotiation on the other costs. But his offer was not enough to satisfy the cash-strapped city agencies, and no further negotiations were held. Guinnane said he was “very disappointed” that city didn’t take the garden.

No members of the city council were contacted about Guinnane’s attempts to donate the garden, which is located in the district of Councilmember Nancy Nadel. In an interview, Nadel said that when she found out that the city had passed on an opportunity to acquire the garden, she was “infuriated.” Nadel was so angered about the blunder that she authored a resolution in the fall of 2006 to change the procedure for donations to the city, so that they would have to be brought before the city council.

Jones-Taylor said she didn’t bring the decision before the city council because she thought that the department dealing with the owner — Real Estate — was doing that. For his part, Real Estate Division head Frank Finelli declined to take any responsibility for the missed opportunity. He said he was presented with “budget restraints”— and that, in any case, his role was limited to providing “real estate-related expertise.”

In any case, Guinnane filed an application to build on the garden shortly after failing to donate the property to the city. In 2006, the current developers, David and Kari O’Keeffe, bought a 45 percent interest in the property.

The proposed development has attracted criticism from residents of a nearby senior center who are concerned that it will increase traffic and reduce available parking. Other local groups oppose the project because they want to preserve open space around the lake and don’t believe tall buildings are appropriate on or near the waterfront.

But it may be too late for Schilling Gardens. The planning commission is currently in the process of preparing a draft environmental report on the project. If approved, the garden will be bulldozed to make way for the development.


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