Anatomy of a Boom

Development in Dogtown has produced gentrification without hostility.

Dogtown has been down-at-the-heels more or less since the Depression, when its denizens supposedly whiled away the afternoons watching derbies of unchained dogs roam by. It’s a community with a reputation for blue collars and deep roots. Data from the 2000 Census put the neighborhood near the bottom of Alameda County, with a median income of $24,000 and a median housing value of $123,000. Yet this neighborhood south of Emeryville between Peralta Street and Mandela Parkway is changing quickly.

On a recent Saturday afternoon just down Helen Street from a parked taco truck, realtor Steve Sorensen showed off a model loft whose interior could have come out of pages of Dwell magazine. In the space of an hour, ten home hunters walked through, fingering the granite countertops and admiring a jet-black bookshelf stacked with illustrated volumes of the architecture of Alvar Aalto. One had already purchased a neighboring unit and came with eager friends in tow. The loft on offer measured 950 square feet and was selling for $350,000.

And that hardly raised an eyebrow. New residential buildings are sprouting up all over the place. The spurt has its roots in 1998, when local developers Kathryn Porter and Paul Parkman renovated the old Clawson school into 28 live/work lofts. “The Clawson school was the catalyst,” says Oakland Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, who has lived in the neighborhood for 23 years. “It was totally burned out, there had been several fires, several homicides in the building, and it was totally trashed.” Widely praised for their bravery in taking a risk on an iffy area, Porter and Parkman proved that market-rate development was feasible in a section of town most people had written off. They also launched a trend that is fairly unusual in the annals of urban development: an instance of unapologetic gentrification that has thus far created a minimum of hostility.

When other property market players started looking at Dogtown, what they saw was a historic residential neighborhood surrounded by vacant parcels and industrial lots that were prime for recycling. “Think of Dogtown as a doughnut,” says San Francisco developer Bill Lightner. “The doughnut hole are those cute little grid-pattern streets — Hannah, Louise, Eddy Street, et cetera — that have the little Victorians on them. Residential density is pretty low, and it’s pretty historic, and one might say that it’s worth preserving as is. But then, ringing that, on the doughnut itself, are properties like the one we control, which are over an acre in size, or on a busy street or outside the grid pattern, which are appropriate for high-density housing. … So then you have a mixed-density neighborhood, which allows for the protection of the soft underbelly of the center of the doughnut.”

The quest for critical mass in the residential market, which newcomers and longtime residents hope will attract commercial tenants and new jobs, has changed the area’s dynamic. Property values, which bottomed out during the real-estate recession of the early 1990s at between $5 and $8 a square foot, continued their dot-com-era rise to peak in 2001 at around $25 a square foot as speculators coalesced into a pack. “The smaller developers need to kind of stay in groups for things to happen,” explains Brian Farnsworth of Verdigris, Patina & Rust, the firm responsible for the lofts at Helen and 34th streets.

Remarkably for a metropolitan area where property developers draw adversaries as predictably as lightbulbs attract moths, opposition to these changes is hard to find. “There were some folks who were concerned about the density of Magnolia Row while it was under construction, but the comments I’ve gotten since then are that it’s been nothing but positive,” says Nadel about architect David Baker’s colorful line of three-story townhouse lofts on the old Clawson school playground. Before that renovation, it had been decades since any market-rate housing had been built in the neighborhood. “And because of that, we had a very difficult time getting insurance, or getting any kind of entities interested in bringing any kind of retail into the area. We’ve seen in other parts of West Oakland — for example, down in the Acorn area — that when we have the first-time-homebuyer homes built, suddenly we were able to get a grocery store.”

Although the area still has more than its share of poverty, many young professionals are jumping at the chance to buy relatively affordable homes — even if it means being slightly out of their depth. “It’s amusing that the people who are living there now are complaining and pissing and moaning about, you know, the fact that there’s a recycling center next door,” says Dennis Leudeman, a metal sculptor who has worked in Dogtown since the late 1980s. “I don’t think they knew where they were moving to. This is right next to Emeryville, and people think it’s Emeryville. It’s not.”

But neither is it the Dogtown of a decade ago. “We used to kind of be on a dead-end street up here, and now that Mandela Parkway is opened all the way to Home Depot, we have to look both ways,” says local glass artist Dorothy Lenehan, who marvels at the changes. “And we can’t drive the wrong way on Mandela, and can’t park wherever we want to.”

The building activity also seems to have had collateral benefits on area safety. “I remember driving by that Clawson school before it was renovated one night,” David Baker recalls. “There were 55-gallon barrel drums with fires in them, and crack whores stumbling around with their shirts lifted up in the firelight. It was unbelievable. It was like some scene out of Mad Max. An insane scene. And now there’s this rec center there. … When the yuppies move in they can be a pain in the neck — but at the same time, not everybody there is thrilled about the murders that happen down there. We had this community meeting, and there were these two sisters who were about five feet tall, who were living in their parents’ house. They were in their eighties, and they had been born in the house. They went to the church around the corner. They came to this meeting with white gloves on, and little hats. And they were so happy, because they can walk down the street now.”

As Nadel sees it, the main challenge now is to try to protect longtime denizens from the upward pressure on property values. While there’s little reason for existing homeowners to worry — Proposition 13 prevents their property taxes from growing — it won’t be so easy on renters, who constitute about 80 percent of West Oakland’s residents. Even so, Nadel sees further development as part of the solution, as long as it continues to occur on unused lots.

For now, all attention is on the new buildings. Some are more handsome than others, and local residents aren’t timid about singling out the ones they find lacking in charm. “When you’re changing the complexion of a community and the composition of a community, it’s our responsibility to also be conscious of building a new community in its place,” says architect Karin Payson, who is working with Lightner on a project at Hollis and Peralta streets. “And that doesn’t mean displacing the other one.” She aims to create meaningful outdoor community space. “The law says you’ve got to provide outdoor space,” she adds, “but it doesn’t specify private outdoor space. … Instead of giving everybody their little private outdoor space, let’s create secure community space, which is a pair of gardens that the houses look out onto. It’s not really turning its back on the outside world, but it’s also acknowledging that new residents aren’t going to use postage-stamp front yards in that neighborhood.”

Some new projects will win praise. Others will elicit complaints. Whatever the case, the future is coming quickly to Dogtown, at a rare moment when architects, developers, and neighborhood advocates appear to be aligned.

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