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A Sermon On The Kaiser

Creative Development Partners' proposed Kaiser Center Hotel

July 6, 2015

Today’s sermon on the proposed renovation and reopening of the old Kaiser Convention Center will have to, of necessity, have to be done quickly, as the Oakland City Council is scheduled to make a decision this Tuesday (July 7) on which of two developers—Orton Development of Emeryville or Creative Development Partners (CDP) of Oakland—to negotiate with to carry through the project.

Our sermon deals with one large misapprehension, some misplaced blame, and one particularly bad idea.

First, the misapprehension.

In recent days, there has been a lot of nostalgic talk about events and experiences at the old Kaiser Center, and unflattering comparisons to how at least one developer plans to operate the reopened Kaiser if they are awarded the contract.

Like everyone who spent any time in Oakland before the Kaiser’s closing in 2005, I have my own fond recollections of the building, from attending the circus as a kid to receiving my high school diploma on the arena floor to sitting through annual holiday school concerts at which my children—and many other of the city’s schoolchildren—performed and Dancing Santa always closed the show. In addition, my mother often told me stories of attending dances at the Kaiser that attracted African-American teens from around the East Bay, and how she and my father later went to the boxing matches held every Friday night on the site. The memories of a hundred years of Oakland residents are wrapped up in the old Kaiser.

The problem is, Oakland does not have the finances in its current budget to operate the Kaiser as it did during the last century, and to recreate new and similar municipal-wide memories. The cost of rehabilitating the building itself is beyond our financial reach, which is why Oakland is now looking for a private developer to take on the job.

If anyone thinks Oakland should rehab and then operate the Kaiser as of old, they either have to come up with a list of budget expenditures to cut to pay for both extensive building renovations and the cost of operation, or else put together a new bond measure asking citizens to put out extra tax revenue to pay for the job.

If we’re going to stick to handling the task to a private developer, that leads us directly into the case of the misplaced blame.

A number of city residents have criticized the developers—particularly Orton Development—for not coming up with a proposal that recreates the use of the Kaiser Center Arena as it was used in the days that the City of Oakland operated the facility.

The truth is, in issuing the original 2014 Request For Proposals for the rehabilitation, reopening, and operation of the Kaiser, city officials recognized that no developer would ever operate the facility as a civic-owned auditorium. Unlike the city, a private developer doesn’t have the luxury of pulling out “extra” tax money in order to finance Kaiser events that are popular, or considered civic necessities, but are not necessarily profitable.

That’s why city officials wrote into the RFP that “the City anticipates some combination of public and private uses will be necessary to address the City’s goal of maintaining regular public access to the building while ensuring a financially feasible project.”

In other words, the idea of a public-private partnership in the use of portions of the Kaiser Center—as appears in both developer proposals—did not originate with the developers themselves, but with the City of Oakland. While it is certainly within both the right and responsibility of citizens to examine and criticize the proposals put forward by the two developers vying for the Kaiser project, neither developer should be criticized for the concept of turning the Kaiser into a money-generating project, rather than simply and solely a civic benefit operation.

But along the lines of examination and criticism of the particular proposals—not of the developers themselves—we now come to the one particularly bad idea being proposed for the Kaiser Center redevelopment. That’s the idea being put forward by CDP to make back their money on the project by putting up a 15 story hotel on the Kaiser grounds.

Whatever one thinks of CDP’s proposed innovative use of the proposed hotel as a training ground for Laney College students in the culinary arts, the CDP hotel is flat-out wrong as it is currently configured because it would completely overshadow—and ruin—what is now the iconic view of the Kaiser Convention Center across 12th Street from the shores of Lake Merritt.
Anticipating possible criticisms of placing a hotel so close to the Kaiser, CDP assured us in its development proposal that the proposed hotel “is sited so as to not cast a shadow on the (Kaiser) Center. It will also not block the view of the northern façade from any point around Lake Merritt.”

All this may be true. What the proposal doesn’t say is that while CDP’s proposed hotel certainly does not block the view of the Kaiser Center from the lake, it absolutely destroys the aesthetics of that view. As it currently stands, the Kaiser is a singularity that completes the lake. Standing on Merritt’s shores or viewing it from a photo, your eyes are drawn along the water, east to west, towards a structure whose elegant low length, from a distance, both mimics and complements the flat water’s surface. Putting a 15-story hotel next to both disrupts and destroys that view.

You don’t have to be an architect to recognize this. Look at a photo of the Kaiser Center and the proposed CDP hotel together, and judge for yourself. Either building by itself would work in that space. Placed together, they combine to become a jumbled mess that assaults the eyes and sensibilities. Think of the Las Vegas landscape, where each casino fights the one next to it for attention, rather than work together for a common visual goal.

But there is a second reason why placing a hotel on the Kaiser Center grounds is a bad idea.
Many developers—and here I’m not accusing CDP, so don’t get it twisted—have long maneuvered to try to put high-end residential buildings directly on the shores of Lake Merritt itself. In one of the great success stories of our city, Oakland has long resisted those maneuvers, maintaining the lake as a sanctuary for wildlife, open waters, flora, and people.

When the Measure DD improvements extended and improved the western end of Lake Merritt and opened up the Lake Merritt Channel that runs from the end of the lake past the Kaiser, for all intents and purposes, it made the Kaiser Center an extension of the lake itself. While a hotel on the Kaiser grounds might not necessarily set a legal precedent, since the lake proper and the Kaiser grounds are separate entities, such an occurrence would increase developer pressure—exponentially—to begin building residences, even hotels, on the Lake Merritt shores. For those interested in maintaining living legacies rather than recreating lost ones, making sure that the Lake Merritt shores remain residence-free is the cause to work for, and that is best accomplished, in this instance, by blocking the building of a Kaiser grounds hotel.

Because the hotel idea is necessary for the financing of the CDP proposal, rejecting the hotel—which we must do—means rejecting CDP’s entire project. The City Council should respond with a loud and clear "Ho-Tell, no!"

That, however, does not mean rejecting—and vilifying—CDP itself or doing the same for Orton, for those who oppose the Orton project.

Oakland has long been the prey of greedy developers coming in and taking advantage of what belongs to all of Oakland and turning it into access for a few and profits for themselves. It is my strong belief that this is not the case here. Both Orton and CDP have done good development projects in Oakland in the past. Whichever company wins the Kaiser competition, we should conduct the remainder of the process in such a way that it encourages the loser—and other similar companies—to propose further projects for the benefit of Oakland.

That means, as I said before, a free and open and vigorous examination and criticism of the proposed projects, while keeping away from unnecessary and unhelpful hating on the companies that have proposed them.

Thus endeth the lesson, for now.

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