Oakland Community and Artists Eager for Rebirth of Historic Civic Center

Oakland Henry J Kaiser

By Jacob Bourne

After sitting vacant for a decade, Oakland’s Henry J. Kaiser Center is poised for redevelopment and transformation under a public-private partnership between the City and Orton Development. With Oakland’s arts community grappling to retain its vitality amidst climbing rents and the pervasive threat of displacement, one of the major goals of the project is to create affordable spaces for local artists and groups to perform, practice and provide youth with arts education.

Originally built in 1914 as the Oakland Civic Auditorium, the building was renamed the Henry J. Kaiser Center in 1984. After falling into disuse and facing an uncertain future, the property now has a three-fold vision involving building improvements to facilitate both arts and commercial uses, beautification of outdoor public spaces on the five-acre lot, and greater connectivity to transit and community destinations.

[contextly_sidebar id=”gxXb0dcmHuxVuhF8UnLbi0jExHIloFqv”]“We want this project to be something that Oakland is proud of,” said Nick Orton, partner at Orton Development. “To be successful it needs to be something that serves the community. We want this to work for us as well as the City of Oakland financially, with the structure we have in place.”

“The goal is to re-open a historic landmark building and revitalize the southend of Lake Merritt,” explained Kelley Kahn, special projects director, Economic and Workforce Development Department, Oakland. “We’re incrementally improving Lake Merritt open space with more walk and bike pathways. We’re doing this as a public-private partnership as it costs beyond what the City can do on its own. It’ll cost $50 million at least. Orton developers are experts in working on City-owned historic properties.”

The approximately 200,000 square foot building houses the Calvin Simmons Theatre, which hosted frequent performers including the Oakland Symphony and Ballet and events in its 1,900 seats throughout the years. The project aims to restore the theatre as a performing arts venue and reduce the seating to 1,500 seats to make it more feasible for regular use by local artists. Given the challenges for arts groups to find adequate and reliable practice spaces, the theatre is also planned for that dual-purpose.

The Arena, used in the past for conventions, sporting events and concerts, is geared to make the project profitable by being refigured for commercial tenants with up to 70,000 square feet of leasable space. Orton anticipates that the high ceilings and historic nature of the space will prove attractive to a variety of businesses. The building’s 80,000 square foot basement will have mixed-uses as offices and spaces for local artists and makers.

The Center looks out onto Lake Merritt and is strategically situated across from the Oakland Museum of California, and is also nearby Laney College and few blocks from Downtown. Given the plethora of parking in the area and being about a six-minute walk from the Lake Merritt BART Station, the building’s existing 221 parking spaces are deemed adequate, especially with the planned pedestrian and bike pathway improvements. The connections are aimed to create a clear path of travel from Lake Merritt to the Center and onward to the Museum and surrounding neighborhood.

Walter Hood of Hood Design Studio, whose landscape design portfolio includes the de Young Museum gardens, will be leading the open space improvements and beautification of the grounds. Heller Manus Architects has also been involved in the conceptual planning process.

“It’s a complicated and significant project for Oakland. People are getting impatient to see it finished, but it’s moving more quickly than similar projects I’ve worked on,” said Kahn. “This building is loved by the whole city. The community meetings Orton has held have been very positive in terms of community feedback.”

The entitlement process for the project is underway alongside term-sheet negotiations. After CEQA is completed City Council will vote in spring of 2017 whether to give final approval for the building lease to Orton. If approved, construction is estimated to take between 18 months to two years.

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