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Kaiser Auditorium Redevelopment Proceeds With ‘Permanent Affordability’ for Arts Groups

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

Updated Thursday, 12:30 p.m.

Well past midnight in Oakland City Hall, the revival of a long-dormant landmark came one step closer to reality.

In the 11th hour of a meeting that started Tuesday afternoon, Oakland City Council cleared the way for Orton Development to renovate and run the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center as a vast complex of office and performance space after the developer agreed to a raft of subsidies and benefits for nonprofit and arts groups.

A coalition of arts and neighborhood groups had formally appealed the project on the grounds that it lacked sufficient commitments to affordability and accessibility. On Tuesday night, though, the coalition withdrew its challenge after striking an agreement providing what spokesperson Eric Arnold called “permanent affordability” for organizations struggling to remain in Oakland.

“Our arts and culture scene is under the imminent threat of displacement,” Arnold said. “This agreement doesn’t reverse the tide, but it does offer some mitigation for the foreseeable future.”


The 215,000-square-foot building, which Orton intends to rechristen the “Oakland Civic,” was completed in 1914 and for the rest of the 20th century provided an important gathering space beside Lake Merritt. But it’s been empty since 2006, a conspicuous monument to disinvestment.

Now, four years after Orton first won redevelopment rights, the $64.5 million project is expected to break ground early 2020. Oakland is contributing $3.1 million in grants and as much as $20 million in New Markets Tax Credits, a federal program for spurring investment in poor areas.

“We have found our conversations with the coalition very fruitful,” said Orton project manager David Dial. “We look forward to partnering with them as we develop a cultural equity framework for access and find ways to provide additional community benefits through the life of the project.”

Orton plans to convert the Kaiser’s cavernous arena into offices, restore the Calvin Simmons Theater as a 1,500-seat performance venue, and provide smaller ballrooms for flexible uses. Part of the idea is to centralize administration, rehearsal and performance for arts outfits including the Oakland Symphony and Oakland Ballet, which currently lack consistent facilities.

Graham Lustig, artistic director of the Oakland Ballet, said at the meeting that he’s excited by the potential for collaboration between tenants of the building, which years ago housed the ballet and symphony. He also said the ballet’s rent has increased sixfold in the past four years.

The community-benefits agreement, which Councilmember Nikki Fortunato-Bas attached to Orton’s lease, includes subsidies for struggling organizations, particularly in the nearby Chinatown, Eastlake and downtown neighborhoods; various onetime and ongoing payments; and a community oversight structure that empowers members of the appellant coalition.

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)

Bas, who mediated the appellant coalition’s intense negotiations with Orton in recent weeks, called the deal equitable, accessible and inclusive in a statement. “The Oakland-based artists and people of color living around the project should not have to be afraid of this development, on public land, perpetuating the record rates of displacement happening in Oakland,” she said.

Orton must offer up to 10,000 square feet of office space at between $2.00-$2.80 per square foot to what the agreement calls “equity targets,” broadly meaning small area nonprofits, as well as theater and ballroom usage to the qualifying organizations at the “lowest published” rates. Orton will also maintain an $80,000 endowment, replenished annually with operating revenue, to further offset those groups’ production costs incurred by programming.

Because these terms are for the duration of a lease of up to 99 years, Arnold described the agreement as a form of commercial rent control that reflects cultural stabilization strategies recommended by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s Artist Housing and Workspace Task Force.

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)

To ensure community access to the programmatic space, the agreement also establishes an elaborate oversight structure: Orton will create a nonprofit to manage the Calvin Simmons Theater and administer the endowment in collaboration with a community advisory board. The coalition will create a separate entity, Friends of the Calvin Simmons Theatre, to develop a community access program for educational institutions and recommend on-site artwork.

Orton is also required to give $100,000 to Friends of the Calvin Simmons Theatre and $75,000 to the coalition’s anti-displacement fund, which is administered by the East Bay Community Fund. The coalition will soon announce a grant application process for the anti-displacement fund, which was created to mitigate gentrification pressures on local businesses.

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)

The Community Coalition for Equitable Development includes neighborhood stakeholders such as the Black Arts Movement and Business District, Eastside Arts Alliance, Eastlake United for Justice, Asian Pacific Environmental Network and the Malonga Arts Residents Association.

Orton is also required by the agreement to make a donation to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, which works to return Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone land to indigenous stewardship, and acknowledge the location of the building on Ohlone land through a plaque or announcement.

As KQED previously reported, the project has attracted criticism for the underlying public-private partnership model, which outsources a civic treasure to a for-profit entity, and from people who’d rather see the arena space restored for performances or more public-facing uses. The offices will serve hundreds of people in a space that for decades served thousands.

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