Oakland Seeks to Revive Historic Venue

Oakland, Convention Center, Renovation, Lake Merritt

Henry J Kaiser Convention Center Oakland

By Neil Gonzales

A historic city-owned venue in Oakland that once hosted such famous acts as Elvis Presley and the Grateful Dead could again shine in the limelight.

The long-shuttered Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center could return to life as a first-class space combining commercial, entertainment and community uses after the City Council during the summer awarded Emeryville-based Orton Development Inc. an exclusive negotiating agreement to redevelop the property on the southern end of Lake Merritt.

“This is going to be a tremendous responsibility,” Orton partner James Madsen said, “but hopefully, it’s going to be a great building for Oakland. It will be preserved and be absolutely magnificent. It will be a place for people to come down and gather.”

Orton has proposed a $52 million renovation that would include converting the arena part of the 215,000-square-foot center into offices as just one possibility, restoring the building’s 1,900-seat Calvin Simmons Theater, and creating indoor and outdoor public areas.

The negotiating agreement with the city gives Orton a year to come up with a more-comprehensive proposal. “It’s going to be challenging project” that will require seismic, geotechnical and other studies, Madsen said, but Orton could come back to the city with detailed plans in the next six months.

The general vision for now is to lease space in the arena “to find some way for an economic return to pay for all the rehabilitation,” Madsen said. So the arena could see commercial, light-industrial or mixed uses. A city staff report noted that possible uses for a renovated center include offices, a brewery, artist studios, restaurants and shops.

For the Calvin Simmons Theater, Madsen said, Orton envisions a full restoration so it can host the Oakland Symphony and other locally based performing arts again. “It’s important to have the theater as a place where a bunch of great Oakland institutions can come,” he said.

Indoor and outdoor public uses, meanwhile, could mean accommodating community meetings and events within the building and neighborhood block parties out in the lot, he said.

The project would also aim to tie in with the surrounding neighborhood – which is also home to the Oakland Museum of California and Laney College – through landscaping, pedestrian pathways and other elements, he said. “We want to try to find a way so the area feels like a cohesive whole.”

Orton’s partners on the proposal include San Francisco-based Heller Manus Architects, Oakland-based landscape architect Hood Design Studio and local retailer Oaklandish.

Formerly known as the Oakland Municipal Auditorium, the 101-year-old center closed a decade ago because it was setting the city back about $500,000 in annual operating expenses. Besides rock concerts, the venue hosted sports contests, garden shows, school graduations and speeches by such luminaries as civil-rights hero Martin Luther King Jr.

“We want to see the entire building opened with community benefits and uses that allow everybody to enjoy the building while also creating a financially sustainable project,” Oakland Councilman Abel Guillen said in an email. “We need a solution that doesn’t put us in this same place 10 years from now, and I think the Orton proposal gives us a good shot at achieving that goal. Orton Development has a strong track record with similar projects and experience working on historic landmarks and performance venues.”

That track record includes the mixed-use redevelopment of Richmond’s Ford Assembly Building and the office conversion of industrial properties at San Francisco’s Pier 70 – both historic sites.

Oakland-based Creative Development Partners was the other developer that submitted a proposal for the Kaiser Convention Center but lost out to Orton. Creative Development proposed not only rehabilitating the venue but developing a 280-room hotel next to the project site and creating a job-training program in partnership with Peralta Community College and Oakland Unified School districts and others.

In an email to supporters and others, Creative Development spokesman Randolph Belle described the city’s decision to award the negotiating agreement to Orton as “disheartening and disenchanting.”

Creative Development still believes “that we proposed the best and highest use for the building, considering Oakland’s needs, the historic significance of the building, the high economic impacts attainable, the sustainable community benefits embedded, the unprecedented community and institutional partnerships forged, the arts-centric programmatic offerings and the financial commitments secured,” Belle said in his email.

Along with some community members, Creative Development has also called for the venue to remain accessible to the public and become the world-class performance arts center that Oakland lacks.

“Otherwise, it will be another trophy office for some tech company,” Belle told The Registry.

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