Arts-Centered Plan for Kaiser Auditorium Draws Both Praise and Doubt in Oakland

A rendering of Orton Development's proposed north facade of the rechristened "Oakland Civic." (Courtesy Orton Development)

The Oakland Ballet has been rehearsing in Alameda, and its upcoming season will take place in Berkeley. The academy’s summer courses, meanwhile, occur in Hayward. And while the ballet company has offices in downtown Oakland, it’s paying more than ten times what it was paying two years ago for a fraction of the space, explained Artistic Director Graham Lustig. “So you can imagine the relief it’d be to bring everything under one roof with an adjacent venue—in Oakland,” he said.

Lustig was referring to the latest plan to reopen the historic Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center; this one would include more than 200,000 square feet of performance, rehearsal, storage and office space for predominantly nonprofits and arts and culture organizations. A civic fixture for most of the 20th century, the large building has been an empty, lakeside monument to disinvestment since shuttering in 2006.

The new proposal, announced by Orton Development with Heller Manus Architects, is less dramatic than Orton's original plan to overhaul the city-owned building’s main auditorium. And whereas nonprofits before seemed like an afterthought, now they’re centered in a vision stressing public access to the rechristened Oakland Civic Auditorium’s rehearsal and event-friendly ballrooms and 1,500-seat Calvin Simmons Theatre.

The 1,900-seat Calvin Simmons theatre at the Oakland Civic Auditorium.
The 1,900-seat Calvin Simmons theatre at the Oakland Civic Auditorium. (Frank Deras Photography/Courtesy Orton Development)

The change is welcomed by groups such as the Oakland Ballet and the similarly scattered Oakland Symphony, as well as smaller nonprofits and performing arts organizations struggling in the city’s intensely competitive commercial real-estate market. But their enthusiasm comes with serious reservations: The project is behind schedule, and Orton has offered few details of rates for office and event rentals.

Lustig has been meeting with Orton for more than three years, and he’s provided the development company—which will also form a nonprofit to manage the building—a picture of the ballet’s finances and spatial needs. But Orton has yet to propose rates for the $52 million project to potential tenants.

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“It’d be terribly useful to have a clearer indication at this point,” Lustig said. “It’d be ridiculous to open an art center no one can afford.”

That was the refrain on Saturday across the street from the Oakland Civic—which sat bounded by chain-link fence and, on one side, city-sanctioned storage sheds for the homeless—at a public meeting hosted by city councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas in Laney College Forum.

“We want this public asset used for the maximum public benefit,” said Bas, who was elected this past November to represent the district including the Oakland Civic, in introductory remarks to roughly 100 attendees. “Not only is there a housing crisis, there’s also a crisis in terms of us being able to preserve culture.”

The Gold Room, one of the ballrooms at the Oakland Civic Auditorium.
The Gold Room, one of the ballrooms at the Oakland Civic Auditorium. (Frank Deras Photography/Courtesy Orton Development)

Orton project manager David Dial, whose background is in arts administration, presented slides showing a co-working-style office space in the arena; performing arts tenants would have access to, say, a basement prop shop and ballroom rehearsal spaces. Outside, meanwhile, a raised terrace would improve visibility of the building’s sculptural niches. Orton originally projected an early 2019 opening, but the redesign has pushed groundbreaking to late this summer.

The idea, Dial explained, is to “remove walls between organizations to lower their costs, to lower their footprint, and to think about how we can really put those organizations in community.”

But many speakers echoed activists who’ve scrutinized officials’ disposal of public land in recent years. “I want us to ask the hard questions, like what affordability means, what community access means,” said Elena Serrano of EastSide Arts Alliance. “The slides reminded me of Lincoln Center—a beautiful space that most of New York is completely alienated from.”

At the event, Dial declined to define what portion of the office space would be reserved for arts organizations or to estimate rental costs, but he provided more details in a statement to KQED.

A proposed mixed commercial space in the Oakland Civic Auditorium's large arena.
A proposed mixed commercial space in the Oakland Civic Auditorium's large arena. (Courtesy Orton Development)

Per a tentative agreement expected to come before Oakland City Council in April, Dial said, at least 20 percent of the office space will be reserved for arts organizations. Between the basement, auditorium and second floor, Orton anticipates 450-550 workstations in addition to conference rooms and amenities accommodating an estimated 10-15 tenant organizations.

Programmatic rentals for the ballrooms and theatre will cost nonprofits roughly half the fee charged to for-profit companies. Dial said Orton expects to publish a detailed rent schedule “in the coming months,” and that the highest rents in the project will be less than downtown Oakland office rents, which currently average $4.66 per square foot. A draft letter-of-intent from Orton to an interested organization, which KQED reviewed, proposed $3.95 per square foot in 2017.

Randolph Belle of RBA Creative, who was part of a team that submitted a competing proposal to redevelop the building in 2014, called the plan a net loss for the public. “Since it’s being marketed for the arts, I’d say 50 percent of would be for arts organizations,” he said. “And $3.95 is just not tenable. That’s the kind of price that’s pushing cultural organizations out of the city.”

What works for relatively established outfits such as the Oakland Symphony, Belle said, generally doesn’t work for grassroots nonprofits that are most at risk of displacement. He added that the proposal serves several hundred people in a building that once served several thousand as an auditorium. “Oakland generally takes what it can get instead of getting what it wants,” he said.

A ballroom staircase and balcony at the Oakland Civic Auditorium.
A ballroom staircase and balcony at the Oakland Civic Auditorium. (Frank Deras Photography/Courtesy Orton Development)

Orton originally proposed a more transformative project, with a glass “building within a building” adding more square footage to the arena. In that plan, most of the space would’ve been marketed to a higher-rent commercial anchor tenant, but the design didn’t meet government standards for historic preservation. The current, lower-cost design, along with new tax credits, enabled the greater emphasis on nonprofits and arts and culture organizations, Dial said.

Still, among arts stakeholders there seems to be little more confidence in the project’s stabilizing potential for cultural organizations now than there was in 2016. “We’ve done a lot of deals where the developer promises various community uses but they’re not written into the agreement in a way that makes them required,” councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said in October 2016, adding that she wanted move beyond promises to “actual requirements."

Financed by voter-approved bonds, the Oakland Civic opened in 1915 and throughout the 20th century hosted a wildly eclectic range of events. A Mel Reid-promoted gospel revue there in late 1950s included a teenage Aretha Franklin, and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there in 1962. Bill Graham first brought the Grateful Dead there in the 1970s, and in the late 1980s it hosted Public Enemy.

The existing upper-level seating in the Oakland Civic Auditorium arena, which would remain intact.
The existing upper-level seating in the Oakland Civic Auditorium arena, which would remain intact. (Frank Deras Photography/Courtesy Orton Development)

Losing money, though, the facility shuttered in 2006. (In 2012, Occupy protesters were arrested en masse as they tried to expropriate the building.) In 2014, the city requested redevelopment proposals, conditioning that the Calvin Simmons Theatre, named for the late Oakland Symphony conductor, remain a performing arts venue. Orton commissioned a report on financially viable uses that ruled out concerts and conventions in the arena.

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Bas said she’s compiling feedback received Saturday at Laney Forum. “We are committed to working with the City and Orton to answer these questions and ensure this project meets the needs of Oakland artists and nonprofits—particularly artists of color and organizations whose contributions are and have been critical to preserving the cultural fabric of Oakland,” she said.

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