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Two Developers With Different Visions Vie to Reopen Oakland's Kaiser Convention Center

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The Golden State Warriors celebrate being NBA champions at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, as part of the team's victory parade on June 19 in Oakland.  (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The Oakland City Council will decide tonight whether to make a deal with a developer to reopen the doors of the shuttered Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center.

Almost anyone who grew up in Oakland has a story about the Beaux Arts building on the southern edge of Lake Merritt. Some saw the Grateful Dead play there, others may have attended the annual Christmas Pageant, and some were even lucky enough to be there in 1962, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke just before the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

For those who remember when the convention center was a bustling space -- the home of events from the Roller Derby to the Oakland Symphony -- it was more than a building. It was a civic gathering ground.

But since 2006, the building has sat dormant -- the seats in the theater empty, the dance floor silent, the hallways left with no sounds to echo. It closed because it couldn't generate the money to sustain itself.

A little near-history has brushed past the building in the last decade: a ballot measure to turn it into a library, and an attempt by Occupy Oakland protesters to take over the space as their de facto headquarters. The ballot measure failed to pass, and the protests resulted in a violent scuffle with police and the arrest of 300 demonstrators.


But now, as Oakland recovers from years of slashed budgets and cost-cutting, the City Council has again turned its attention to reopening the building.

Two developers with two very different visions have brought forth radically different proposals to revamp the 101-year-old building.

City Council staff is recommending the council work with Orton Development to craft a plan to reopen the arena. Based in Emeryville, Orton is a well-known developer in the Bay Area.

Its plan for how to make the convention center financially viable has been fairly vague so far. City Councilman Abel Guillen said that is intentional, because entering into a one-year negotiating deal with Orton would be just the beginning of the process.

"The public and longtime Oaklanders will be able to weigh in on what the future of the arena would look like," Guillen said.

He said there will be many options on the table, and he will make sure at least one of them works to preserve the arena "as a viable gathering spot once again for the entire city."

Guillen said reopening the convention center would not come cheaply. "I know that building is a very expensive building to rehab. While it has good bones, it requires extensive retrofitting," he said, adding that he believes Orton has the track record to make that happen.

One idea that has been floated is to convert parts of the center into high-rent office space.

That proposal has led opponents of Orton's plan to fear that Oakland could be gutting a historic building to make way for tech offices. It wouldn't be the first historic building to undergo a similar conversion. Just take the Sears building downtown. That space is being transformed into high-rent offices for "creative" types with a downstairs gourmet market. It is set to open in fall 2016.

But while the Sears building is replacing a commercial property with another commercial property, the worry is that the convention center is a symbol of shared public space.

Jeremy Liu is the managing partner at Creative Development Partners, the other developer vying to reopen the center. He says that when people talk about tech companies taking over space, they are talking about deeper cultural shifts.

"The specter of tech companies is representative of just the outright privatization of that space," Liu says.

Even though Orton's plan is not yet set in stone, Liu says, it would more likely have to involve some kind of office space in order to make the money needed to get the convention center going again.

"Orton themselves have said in other press and to the public -- high-rent offices are needed to pay for the renovation," Liu said. "I understand the math. I just don’t agree with the underlying assumptions that led the math to having to be that way."

Liu and Creative Development Partners' plan would involve building  a lakeside hotel. They say the hotel would generate the revenue to keep the convention center preserved solely as public space.

Their plan also calls for the hotel to hire employees from Laney and other local community colleges. They want it to serve as a training hotel to help provide jobs for the community, and they've got the backing of several schools.

But historic preservationists balk at the idea of a high-rise hotel on Lake Merritt. Councilman Guillen says that spot is not the right place for a hotel, but he said he would work with Liu and Creative Partners to locate a more appropriate spot.

Tonight the City Council will decide whether to start negotiating with Orton for the convention center's second act.

At the root of this fight -- at the root of all development fights in Oakland -- is a deeper question, not just about who will build and develop the emerging Oakland, but about just who it is being built for.

The City Council will take up the future of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center at 5 p.m. at its meeting in Oakland's City Hall.

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