Proposed Oakland Museum of Jazz and Art for City-Owned Site Moves Forward

Museum of Jazz and Art concept design for Fire Alarm Building site near Lake Merritt. (David Allen Architectural Engineering / Courtesy Museum of Jazz and Art)

A proposed Museum of Jazz and Art for the current site of a historic, city-owned building near downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt proceeded Tuesday over objections from parklands and public library advocates, indicating more private development of public land around Lake Merritt.

Oakland City Council on Tuesday voted to waive a competitive process generally required for leasing or selling city-owned property and begin negotiating with the Museum of Jazz and Art (MOJA) team to develop the parcel at 1310 Oak Street, currently the site of a parking lot and the Fire Alarm Building completed in 1911. The design proposal calls for building a three-story education and exhibition center in what’s now the parking lot, and preserving the historic structure.

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The proposed 70,000-square-foot facility including a 400-capacity venue—still in its development infancy—is the longtime dream of Oakland architectural engineer David Allen, but he told KQED it’s too early to detail financing for the estimated $90 million project.

The Museum of Jazz and Art previously vied unsuccessfully for sites in downtown Oakland and Jack London Square. The nonprofit organization has reported $170,000 in revenue since 2013, and lists on its board of directors former Pandora Media executive Joe Kennedy. Allen provided letters of support for MOJA from congressperson Barbara Lee and the Tomkat Foundation.

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MOJA has provided little information about the proposed museum’s collection and programming. Its website promises musician grants and low-interest loans, tutoring and mentorship, support for existing Oakland youth jazz programs, and a national jazz hall of fame. “The most important thing is the public benefit component,” Allen said, adding that if the Oak Street site falls through he intends to shop the museum in Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Supporters say MOJA will provide creative and economic benefits that realize the city’s cultural equity goals, plus anchor the Black Arts Movement and Business District (BAMBD), which has sought greater public investment for years. Councilmember Nikki Fortunato-Bas, who introduced the resolution with colleague Lynette Gibson-McElhaney, called it an opportunity to preserve Oakland’s cultural heritage, and noted her experience mediating tense public benefits negotiations for the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center development.

“What we’re moving forward is the very beginning of a process,” said Fortunato-Bas.

BAMBD spokesperson Eric Arnold and several local activists and arts figures including Carroll Fife of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and Leah King of Youth Speaks commented in favor of the project. They said it would redress the injustices of urban renewal, mentioning BART construction destroying West Oakland’s black nightlife corridor.

“This would be a giant step, to paraphrase John Coltrane, in implementing the cultural equity called for in the cultural plan,” Arnold said.

“Where public land cannot be used for housing, it’s important to use it for cultural preservation,” Fife said. “Preserve the property for the public good.”

The Fire Alarm Building at 1310 Oak Street is currently used by city employees.
The Fire Alarm Building at 1310 Oak Street is currently used by city employees.

The property consists of approximately one acre in the shadow of the Alameda County Superior Courthouse and the Oakland Public Library Main Branch, with the single-story, 4,500 square foot Fire Alarm Building surrounded by trees, parking and, lately, tents. The structure is used by city employees in various departments, and Lake Chalet restaurant leases some of the parking.

Members of the Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt (CALM) and supporters of the Oakland Public Library said Tuesday and at an earlier committee hearing that councilmembers are advancing the MOJA proposal prematurely. The Fire Alarm Building has been identified in planning documents as an ideal expansion site for the library’s main branch, and they believe the MOJA negotiations should pause pending the library’s planned feasibility study of the site.

“The library could do more, but its main branch is too small and outdated to meet the needs of Oakland’s population,” said retired Oakland librarian Helen Bloch at an Oct. 22 committee hearing. “I ask that, because this is public land, the site be studied for uses that benefit all Oaklanders.”

The Fire Alarm Building is surrounded by a parking lot, trees and, lately, tents.
The Fire Alarm Building is surrounded by a parking lot, trees and, lately, tents. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

CALM member John Klein said the organization previously opposed development on the Oak Street parcel, and suggested other sites for MOJA. The land around the Fire Alarm Building should remain open space, he said, and be better incorporated into the greenbelt surrounding Lake Merritt. “18 years we’ve been looking out for this property,” Klein said. “Here we are again.”

James Vann of CALM also argued Tuesday that councilmembers are violating California’s Surplus Land Act, which requires government agencies to prioritize affordable housing when leasing or selling public land, and urged them not to repeat the mistake. Underlying the tension is the city’s delay in creating a promised policy for the disposition of public properties that could be used as emergency homeless shelters or affordable housing.

Naomi Schiff of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, a preservationist group, shared concern at the Oct. 22 hearing that the project continues a trend of privatizing historic civic structures, a common criticism of the recent Kaiser Convention Center development deal.

“I like jazz, I like museums,” she said. “I’m also extremely concerned about nibbling away at the public realm.”

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