By Meghan Hall
Oakland is one of the region’s largest cultural centers, due, in part, to its dynamic population and traditions of civic, political and arts engagement. However, with an abundance of large scale — and expensive — commercial office, retail developments on the horizon, the City of Oakland Planning & Building Department, among others, is making a consolidated effort to preserve downtown’s cultural assets, particularly in regards to real estate. In a preliminary draft of its Downtown Specific Plan, Oakland officials have listed several suggested mechanisms that could be employed to maintain accessible arts and creative spaces as commercial asking rates continue to climb.
“Oakland’s diverse cultures constitute a colorful mosaic across the city, and a “downtown for all” brings them together to foster, highlight, celebrate and share appreciation for those cultures,” states the Draft Report. “Downtown is filled with rich cultural resources, from the influential Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts to the impromptu political celebration of “BBQing while Black” at Lake Merritt; from a historic working waterfront and Produce Market to African American and Asian cultural centers, entertainment areas, the AAMLO and the Main Library.”
As a city, Oakland has had a long, but often tenuous, history of diversity, with Black and Chinese workers brought to work as Pullman porters and miners, respectively, during the 19th century. Latinxs, too, have been in Oakland for generations and remained in the area even after Spanish land grants were implemented, as were the Shuumi and Ohlone, for whom the area is their ancestral home. Federal housing policies and urban planning maintained segregation of these communities until the 1950s and 1960s, when cultural activism took off with the creation of the Black Panther Party and the Oakland Chinese Community Council. That activism has remained and manifested itself through numerous different organizations in response to various economic and political shifts, from the housing market crash to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Oakland, however, is growing rapidly, and many of the communities and residents who have fought to remain in Oakland are facing the increasing likelihood of displacement. In 2016, there were approximately 65,000 jobs downtown overall, and with a growth rate of 2.41 percent, downtown is expected to add an additional 50,000 jobs by 2040.
As of 2016, downtown Oakland had 19 million square feet of commercial office space, roughly two-thirds of the city’s inventory. Demand, however, is not keeping up with supply, where office rents have increased by 80 percent since 2014 alone and vacancy has fallen below five percent.
Organizations such as youth services, artists and nonprofits, are not only critical to producing a vibrant downtown, but they are also an important local economic driver, and vital to the communities who own and operate them. The report states that accommodation, food service and arts were the fastest growing employment sector between 2011 and 2016, and the third largest employment sector over all as of 2016. However, while 59 percent of Oakland firms were owned by non-white, racial or ethnic groups, these businesses generated less than 10 percent of total revenues in 2016. And, while 44 percent of businesses were owned by women, those businesses generated just 12 percent of revenues, making them particularly vulnerable to rising costs.
Increasing investor, tenant and business interest in downtown Oakland has brought a wave of changes, including rising rental rates and competition for space. Cultural displacement, the Draft Report indicates, is becoming an issue as local artists, makers and minority-owned businesses are disproportionately affected as they compete with other local businesses to remain in Oakland.
“Downtown also has a distinctive cluster of small, locally-owned businesses that give the area a unique cultural identity. New small businesses are adding to long-established clothing shops, barber shops, galleries, beauty parlors, and other businesses,” the report says. “The viability of these small businesses and nonprofit organizations, however, is being challenged by the pressures of rent increases. Maintaining opportunities for small businesses and nonprofit organizations is critical for sustaining downtown’s success as both a retail and dining destination and hub for the provision of critical social services.”
According to the Mayor’s Task Force on Artist Housing and Workspace Citywide Survey, 25 percent of artists that have been displaced or face imminent displacement; about half of those have been displaced from both their workspaces and their housing. 42 percent of displaced artist noted that rent increases were the primary reason for their movement to other municipalities or locations.
In an effort to preserve these organizations, the City is taking steps to preserve the physical assets which they occupy., including establishing and investing in cultural districts, such as the Chinatown Cultural Heritage District, the Jack London Maker District, the Art & Garage District in Koreatown/Northgate and the 14th Street Black Arts Movement and Business District (BAMBD).
The maintenance and investment into these districts will, in part, come through zoning and land use strategies, the Draft Plan notes. Cultural density bonuses or ground floor requirements for arts and culture spaces are two of the ways in which the City hopes to bring more culture-keeping and community-serving real estate to market. The City also hopes to leverage underutilized or vacant spaces, even if temporarily, for artists and makers throughout the city as an alternative to displacement. Master-lease programs and partnerships with those who have expertise in art tenants, like CAST or EBALDC, are also under consideration as a means of helping building owners sublease available space to cultural organizations.
All of these efforts, and more, are ones that officials throughout Oakland are hoping will maintain the city’s rich cultural heritage and allow its vibrant community to remain in the face of challenging market fundamentals.