By Joe Gose
One of the most ambitious developments in West Oakland since the financial crisis struck is nearing completion and could brighten a broader but low voltage neighborhood revitalization.Lampwork Lofts, a $25.2 million conversion of a century-old historic factory into 92 apartments, will open its doors to residents as early as July 1. Oakland-based developer Madison Park Financial Corp. recently began marketing the apartments, and as of late May tenants had signed 11 leases, said Bob Huff, project manager for the firm.
Madison Park acquired the structure at 1614 Campbell St. in 2007, but the recession delayed the project’s start until last year. DCI Construction and Levy Design Partners are also part of the development team, which is receiving historic preservation tax credits to help defray costs.
Redevelopment of the four-story former light bulb factory could go a long way toward sprucing up the community, which has battled decay and blight for decades.
“The building was a magnet for graffiti, and before we started construction, it had been stripped of everything of possible value—copper, wiring all the piping,” said Toby Levy, president of San Francisco-based Levy Design. “So it was really a huge eyesore, and I think just having it developed and populated will greatly help the neighborhood.”
To a certain degree, the building’s turnaround mirrors what’s happening in the surrounding blocks, Huff suggested. Among other signs of progress, a number of small restaurants have sprouted and are making a go of it, including Brown Sugar Kitchen, Pretty Lady, 10th and Wood and FuseBox.
“Non-liquor store businesses are starting to be able to survive in West Oakland, and those are the kind of indications that things are changing,” he said. “I could see West Oakland being very different in the next five or ten years.”
Once referred to as the “Harlem of the West” for the proliferation of rhythm and blues artists that performed and recorded in the area, West Oakland began to decline when transportation projects and a massive post office development sliced up the neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s.
But West Oakland is in early stages of transition, spurred in part by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that destroyed a divisive highway and eventually led to the construction of the more community-friendly Mandela Parkway. More recently, residential developers achieved a foothold near the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s West Oakland station at 7th Street and Mandela and around Oakland Central Station at 17th and Wood streets before the financial crisis halted the efforts.
Now the Bay Area’s resurgence as a tech hub and pricey real estate in San Francisco have put Oakland in the spotlight among people looking for an affordable place to live and do business. Hoping to foster revived interest in West Oakland, city planners early this year released a draft of the West Oakland Specific Plan to establish a long-range vision for the neighborhood and identify infrastructure needs. The plan also recommends strategies for guiding future development in four designated “opportunity areas” that feature vacant or underused properties—Mandela/West Grand, 7th Street, 3rd Street and San Pablo Avenue.
Some skepticism has greeted the blueprint, however. In a late March assessment of the plan, progressive Oakland media outlet Indybay.org vowed to defeat the proposal “in all its forms.” The organization argued that it would act as a “one stop shop for financial and retail capitalists” that would drive up housing costs for the mostly black long-term residents.
A presentation by the plan’s steering committee in early April also highlighted community criticism concerning the plan’s lack of details regarding affordable housing needs and how it would prevent the potential displacement of residents and social services.
Still, local officials are eager to kick start more development, particularly near BART’s West Oakland station where earlier initiatives that included streetscape improvements helped small businesses like Mandela Food Cooperative open. Late last year BART issued a request for developers to determine the feasibility of redeveloping two parking lots totaling roughly 5.5 acres.
Additional parcels near the station that could accommodate more than 300 units include the roughly 1.2-acre Kirkham property and the nearly one-acre Red Star lot, which was the site for a planned 119-unit senior housing project before fire destroyed it during construction two years ago.
Given West Oakland’s transitional state amid the East Bay’s growing reputation as an affordable San Francisco alternative, a spike in development following a successful Lampwork Lofts leasing campaign would hardly surprise Huff, a lifelong Oakland resident.
“I anticipate a pretty quick lease up,” he said, “and I think when developers see that, it’s going to incentivize them to move forward with projects that they’ve been sitting on.”
Photos courtesy of Levy Design Partners