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'No Public Benefit': Arts Groups Challenge Kaiser Auditorium Redevelopment Plan

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The Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, for decades the center of civic life in Oakland, has been empty since 2006.  (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Updated Tuesday, 3:45 p.m.

A coalition of Oakland arts and culture groups have appealed Orton Development’s plan to renovate and manage the city-owned Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, showing intensified scrutiny of the derelict civic landmark’s expected return as office and performance space.

The coalition, which includes organizations such as the Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corporation, East Side Arts Alliance, Asian Pacific-Islander Environmental Network and the Malonga Arts Residents Association, wants the City of Oakland to halt Orton’s $50 million plan until ensuring stronger commitments to affordability and accessibility, or else solicit new redevelopment proposals altogether.

It’s a proposal to serve several hundred in a space that, critics point out, for decades served several thousand. Some stakeholders would still prefer to see the main arena space restored as an arena or for more public-facing uses, making the thought of private offices doubly offensive.

The appeal, which aims to reverse a planning commission approval from April, says Orton has neglected its public access obligations and failed to offer enough office and performance space at rates affordable to the Oakland arts and nonprofit organizations the developer says it wants to attract. In other words, it’s a challenge from the very groups the project purports to serve.


At issue for the activists and arts and neighborhood groups represented by the appellant coalition is whether or not Orton is offering sufficient community benefits in light of the building’s cultural significance and the pending terms of its claim on the former convention center. If approved, Orton would have a 99-year lease with the City of Oakland.

The appellants also argue that officials have disregarded the city’s equity goals—in particular, a mandate to redress historic injustices by ensuring people of color share in the benefits of the city’s economic upswing. These goals are articulated in deeply-researched city documents such as the Cultural Plan and Strategies for Protecting Arts & Culture Space in Oakland.

“Having these policies and not enacting them is called benign neglect,” said coalition member Ayodele Nzinga, founding director of Lower Bottom Playaz and a key part of the Black Arts Movement Business District. “From what we know of this deal, there’s no public benefit.”

A sculptural niche on the north side of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center.
A sculptural niche on the north side of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Underlying the conflict is a deeper anxiety about outsourcing the revival of a public asset to a private entity. Mitchell Schwarzer, an architecture and urbanism historian who teaches at California College of the Arts, believes it reflects the city favoring professionals at the expense of the commons, a trend he described recently in an article for Places Journal.

“To take what was the most important civic gathering space and turn it into privatized offices, even for nonprofits, that’s terribly symptomatic of where Oakland is going,” he said, calling the 1914 building the centerpiece of Oakland’s “City Beautiful” push for regal public amenities.

The 215,000-square-foot Beaux Arts building hosted presidents, sports and performers for most of the 20th century, but it’s stood empty since 2006—a conspicuous monument to disinvestment beside Laney College and Oakland Museum of California on the southern edge of Lake Merritt. A city-sanctioned “Tuff Shed” homeless encampment occupies part of the parking lot.

A city-sanctioned "Tuff Shed" homeless encampment occupies part of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center parking lot in Oakland.
A city-sanctioned “Tuff Shed” homeless encampment occupies part of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center parking lot in Oakland. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Orton won redevelopment rights in 2015, and now intends to turn the main arena into offices, with workspace reserved for nonprofits and arts groups struggling to afford commercial rent in Oakland. Their plan also includes restoring the smaller Calvin Simmons Theater as a 1,500-seat performance space. Part of the idea is to centralize administration, storage, rehearsal and programmatic facilities for performing arts outfits such as the Oakland Ballet and the Oakland Symphony.

(The Calvin Simmons Theater hosted the Oakland Symphony, whose former leader it’s named after, until the 1970s, and current music director Michael Morgan has lauded its acoustics.)

Orton expects the rechristened “Oakland Civic” project to cost $64.5 million. Financing, pending council approval, involves a large subsidy from the city: $3.1 million in grants and up to $20 million in New Markets Tax Credits, a federal program for spurring investment in poor areas, with the developer covering the remainder.

Orton project manager David Dial didn’t respond to an interview request, but this week the developer provided the appellant coalition its first discussion draft of a community benefits agreement. The document proposes 17 percent of office space for nonprofit arts and education groups, much of it at $2-$2.80 per square foot for “small organizations led by people of color.” Orton plans to offer long-term leases, and create an endowment to subsidize theater rentals.

Orton Development plans to restore the Calvin Simmons Theater as a 1,500-seat performance space.
Orton Development plans to restore the Calvin Simmons Theater as a 1,500-seat performance space. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Appellant coalition member Eric Arnold, a former City of Oakland equity consultant who’s helped negotiate several community benefits agreements, said the proposal shows good faith from Orton. “But it does not reflect a thorough community engagement process—it’s taken four years to get to this point,” he said.

Arnold wants firmer commitments to Calvin Simmons Theater accessibility, lest it become as cost-prohibitive to use as the Paramount and Fox theaters. “They’re exclusionary—exactly the model we don’t want to repeat,” he said, adding that the Kaiser redevelopment overall is a key opportunity for the City of Oakland to implement its own strategies for cultural preservation.

Without the terms of Orton’s own lease with the City of Oakland, though, Nzinga said it’s difficult for stakeholders to actually assess the agreement. “This project is not only typical of the city’s failure to develop a public lands use policy, it’s indicative of how their public engagement strategy fails,” Nzinga said. “It doesn’t allow for community input until after the ship has sailed.”

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

Nzinga similarly believes the city is avoiding giving the appeal a public airing. Oakland councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, whose district includes the Kaiser Convention Center, said at a May committee hearing that she hadn’t received the appeal until days prior, prompting her colleagues to criticize city administration for poor communication with elected officials.

(Bas did not provide a statement for this article.)

Mark Sawicki, Oakland’s director of economic and workforce development, said at the meeting that the council’s vote on the appeal, assuming it’s denied, needs to be fast-tracked in order for the city to help Orton take advantage of the tax credits—which expire at the end of the year.

City council is scheduled to vote on the appeal Tuesday, and a report from the department of building and planning recommends denial, saying the challenge is addressed to the wrong entity. “The Planning Commission does not have authority to legislate the terms of disposition or use of public land—only the City Council does,” it reads.


Arnold called the Kaiser redevelopment the “perfect storm,” a high-stakes test of officials’ ability to strike a good deal for their constituents. “This is one of the city’s last big public assets,” he said. “So it’s imperative to derive maximum public benefits.”

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