Monday, August 19, 2013

Oakland Heritage: Redevelopment and the Revitalization of Downtown

If you're new to Our Oakland, note that the links below marked with the oak tree logo will take you to the corresponding article on the Oakland Wiki where you can read more about the topic. Just be sure to come back—it's easy to start following trails through Oakland's history on the wiki.

Sunday was another Oakland Heritage Alliance walking tour, focused on different redevelopment projects and the effects on downtown. The tour was led by Jeff Chew, who was the project manager for redevelopment of the Fox Theatre and numerous other projects in Oakland. He was assisted by local historian and columnist Annalee Allen and several other OHA volunteers.

The tour started in the Pacific Renaissance Plaza in Chinatown. One thing that was notable about the area on a Sunday was how active it is. It was noticeably quieter everywhere else we went later. Jeff pointed out several things the average person may not notice. One is the 3rd-floor roof garden that's set aside for residents; from below all you can see is a hedge. Another thing (which contrasted strongly with some other redevelopment projects we saw later) is the presence of retail around the perimeter of the area.

From there we went through one of Chinatown's "scramble" crosswalks and across Broadway into Old Oakland. Although the area is hopping much of the week, it was quiet on Sunday, and it was quiet for many years. From after WWII until the 1970s it became increasingly rundown and desolate. Architects Glenn and Rich Storek saw it in the late 1960s and saw the potential. They were better architects than they were developers, and ended up going bankrupt. As a result, it took almost 15 years for the work to be completed, and even longer for the area to start to pick up again. We walked past Swan's Market and saw a couple of residential developments of varying degrees of success.

We walked past the Oakland Convention Center. From a design standpoint, it's a classic example of what not to do. The perimeter is hard and uninviting. The only ways to interact with much of the building is to avoid getting hit by cars entering or exiting the parking structure. It's also apparently too small for a lot of uses. And it closed off Washington Street which used to go through to the city hall plaza.

Then it was up to City Center. It is part of a larger pedestrian mall along what was 13th Street, which extends from Preservation Park, through the Federal Building, all the way to Broadway. Although it has lots of retail, almost all of it was closed on Sunday, and so it was very quiet.

From there we walked towards uptown, stopping in the Oakland Ice Center to check it out and cool off a bit. Across the street is some successful affordable housing, Fox Courts. Around the corner is one of the best-known redevelopment projects in Oakland, the Fox Theatre.

We headed back towards our start for a special treat—a chance to go up in the Tribune Tower. It's one of my favorite buildings in Oakland, so I was very excited. Led by building owner Tom Henderson, we took the elevator up to the 20th floor. Tom led us through a small conference room to the balcony which is just behind the clocks. As you might expect, there are great views all over Oakland from there. Plus a chance to see lots of downtown from above.

After the tour was over, many of us went to the Tribune Tavern for a late lunch. As if I hadn't had enough Oakland history goodness on the tour, it turned out I was seated next to the grandson of "Borax" Smith, a major figure in Oakland history. I showed Stephen and and his wife the entries we have on the Oakland Wiki for Smith and for the magnificent Smith estate, Arbor Villa. I was so excited I forgot to show them the entries for Smith's first wife, Mary ("Mollie") Thompson or Smith's second wife (i.e., Stephen's grandmother), Evelyn Ellis, never mind the Home for Friendless Girls, the Key System, the Claremont Hotel, or any of the other two dozen "Borax" Smith-related pages.

Next Saturday is an OHA tour of Oakland Airport's North Field, and Sunday is the final OHA tour of the summer, Historic Downtown Churches. Check out the Oakland Heritage Alliance events page for more details.

Lots more pictures from the tour:

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