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Cutting Up The Kaiser Arena For Offices?

June 30, 2015

Is the City of Oakland making plans to cut up the inside of the old Kaiser Convention Center Arena and turn it into a multi-story office building?

That’s the essence of a disturbing charge being made in an online petition entitled “Save The Arena!” currently posted on the website and addressed to the eight members of the Oakland City Council.

Council is currently considering proposals from two developers to renovate and re-open the long-shuttered, iconic Kaiser Building across 12th Street from the western end of Lake Merritt. One of those two companies is Orton Development, which has been favored by a city-developed special selection committee, and then by the City Council’s Committee on Community and Economic Development.

According to the “Save The Arena!” petition, “The City [of Oakland] wants to contract [with] Orton Development, an out of town, for-profit developer, to restore the Kaiser Convention Center. Orton's plan would gut the Arena portion of the building and build a 140,000 ft, multi-story commercial and office space inside it. They plan on leasing it out to private corporations. The building was given to the Citizens of Oakland over 100 years ago as a place to gather for large events. The City's plan is an insult to Oakland's history. Our Arena could be lost forever.”

(A note of clarification: Orton is, indeed, an out-of-town developer, though not so out-of-town as the petition would leave one to believe. They are headquartered in Emeryville.)

(A note of further clarification: people familiar with the Kaiser know that it is divided into two parts, the enormous Arena and the much smaller Calvin Simmons Theater. Under the City’s Request For Proposals, the Simmons Theater must be preserved as a public performing arts space, so there’s no controversy over what either developer is planning for that portion of the Kaiser.)

Anyways, urging the Council not to approve either an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement or a development contract with Orton, the “Save The Kaiser!” petition goes on to say that “Orton's plan would destroy the historic Arena. This is unacceptable. Any plan to restore the Kaiser Convention Center must include a full restoration of the Arena so that it can be used for it's original intended purpose. It was given to Oaklanders as a large, flexible gathering space capable of hosting up to 7000 people, and it should continue to be available to future generations for this use.”

Although I recognize a number of the names of folks who have already signed the petition, the individual or individuals who orginally posted the petition at However, given that there are two developers in the running for the Kaiser contract—Orton and Creative Development Partners (CDP) of Oakland—and the petition trashes one of them—Orton—it’s pretty clear that the intent of the petition originators—whoever they are—is for the city to select the other one, even if most of the people signing the petition may not be aware of that fact.
Still, the petition has a point. One should always be mindful to make sure that Oakland officials—whether it be the City or any of the various other public agencies within the city’s boundaries—aren’t trading (or sometimes even giving) away the people’s land or buildings to private entities.

During the period of the state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District some years ago, for example, there were private negotiations to sell the Kaiser building and land for condominium space between unidentified City officials and the developers who were trying to buy the OUSD Administration Building. That proposed Kaiser deal disappeared only after the plans to purchase the OUSD building fell through under public pressure.

So it’s prudent to ask: how much truth is there to the new allegations that the City of Oakland is on the verge of allowing Orton Developers to cut the Kaiser Arena up into offices?

That allegation was first leveled at a recent Council Community and Economic Development Committee meeting by supporters of Creative Development Partners.

Its origin is in a single line in the Kaiser development proposal submitted to the City by Orton. In it, the company says it plans to reopen the Arena “as an architecturally stunning, historically respectful, multi-floor rehab combining office, flex, public access, and food uses.” That is the sole mention in the 115 page Orton proposal, and would seem to confirm the charge in the petition, at least in spirit.

But some explanation is in order.

The idea of using the restored Arena in part for office space did not orginate with Orton, but was included in the City’s orginal Request For Proposals for the Kaiser renovation. Among the possible uses for the building, the City’s RFP included “entertainment uses such as sports facilities or live music concerts; conference and event space; light industrial uses such as brewery, maker spaces, (or) artist studios; restaurants or retail uses; [and] office, research and development, technology, design and other private commercial uses.”

And in his testimony before the CED Committee, Orton president Eddie Orton said that the concept of a multi-story dividing of the Kaiser Arena actually came from the abortive proposal once put forth to move the Oakland Main Library over to the Arena. Orton said that since submiting their Kaiser proposal, his company no longer feels that idea is feasible, and has now backed away from it.

Instead, Orton says if his company is awarded the one year Exclusive Negotiating Agreement for the Kaiser development, they will send an engineering team into the building to see what is architecturally feasible, and then engage in a dialogue with City officials and residents before settling on a final plan to submit for final City approval. He says he doesn’t want to commit to a more detailed plan until that is done.

Personally, I’m not willing to take anyone simply at their word when it comes to the preservation and reopening of one of Oakland’s community and architectural treasures, the Kaiser Convention Center, whether it be a member of City Council, a City official, or a development company.

But as I said in an earlier column, I like what Orton has done with the rehabilitation and operation of the old Ford auto plant on the Richmond waterfront, now revived as the Craneway Pavillion and the Rosie The Riveter National Park Visitor Center. If they are awarded the rights to negotiate for the development of the Kaiser, I intend to argue that we should hold them to that same high standard.

Meanwhile, while I don’t think it’s a good idea to knock Orton out of the competition over what they say was a borrowed and now discarded idea, I think the online petition does make an important purpose, even if that might not be the actual intent of the petition’s anonymous originators. It demonstrates in some measure what type of development—if not necessarily which developer—Oakland residents want and don’t want for the historic and beloved Kaiser Center.

I do have some thoughts about what Orton’s competitor, Creative Development Partners, has planned for the Kaiser if they win the contract. But that discussion will have to take place at another time as, once more, we’ve run out of space.

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