Walking around this outpost of cool off Telegraph Avenue, you may forget that you’re just across the bay from San Francisco and not in, say, an oft-cited borough of New York City where style, shopping and food have become major draws.
If so, you wouldn’t be the only one. Style.com recently published an articleon Temescal Alley and pronounced it “Williamsburg-esque.” Last year, VegNews, a vegan-oriented website, ran a travel article titled “11 Reasons Why Oakland Is the New Brooklyn,” calling it “the new vegan mecca.” And in an interview with National Journal, the mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, citing the city’s thriving arts and food scenes, proclaimed, “We’re a little bit like Brooklyn.” (Even HBO has jumped on the bandwagon, setting “Looking” — the gay man’s answer to “Girls” — partly in Oakland.)
Jonathan Hewitt, a 35-year-old London transplant who works as Standard & Strange’s operations manager, and who was describing that same “Manhattan is to San Francisco as Brooklyn is to Oakland” parallel for a recent visitor, was asked if anyone really believed that Oakland was like Brooklyn.
“Abso-bloody-lutely!” he said. “I hate reverting to a cliché like that, but it’s just so true.”
Many people seem to be hoping that the Oakland-as-Brooklyn narrative — or at the very least, the idea that Oakland is a top-flight creative capital — takes off. In April, Visit Oakland, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing tourism in the city, kicked off an ad campaign, logo and hashtag (#oaklandloveit) in an effort to lure visitors.
For many residents priced out of San Francisco, Oakland has come to be seen as a welcoming oasis, crime and civic challenges notwithstanding. “The starving artist will literally starve in San Francisco,” Mr. Hewitt said. “Whereas they can come to Oakland and they might not live in the nicest part of town necessarily, but you can afford to live here.”
What keeps Oakland from being merely a cheaper option than San Francisco, however, is the way the city’s deep cultural roots entwine working-class African-American and ethnic communities, progressive politics, arts, food and more recently technology entrepreneurship.
“The low burn has gotten hotter in the last year.” said René de Guzman, 50, the Oakland-raised senior curator of art at the Oakland Museum of California. “Oakland is becoming the creative engine of the Bay Area.”
Walking around Oakland, it’s easy to spot unironic displays of civic pride that have nothing to do with defining Oakland in opposition to San Francisco. Many of those signs are found on witty T-shirts and hats from Oaklandish, a local apparel company.
Screen-printed by hand, Oaklandish’s shirts incorporate local iconography like the waterfront cranes and the view from the Bay Bridge, precisely the sort of unpretty nuts-and-bolts infrastructural details some cities may choose not to aestheticize.
The company’s main store, located on Broadway in the heart of downtown, is a celebration of the city, a kind of unofficial gift shop, with a signed poster for the Oakland-set indie film “Fruitvale Station” and double doors leading to its printing facility adorned with a mural that proclaims, “Pride & Roots”; “Local Love.”
Started as a public art project in 2000, Oaklandish now employs 30 people (nearly half again as many during the holiday season) and has added a second line, There There, focused on other cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia. (Manhattan and Brooklyn are conspicuously absent.) It takes its name from Oakland’s own Gertrude Stein, who famously put down her hometown by declaring, “There’s no there there.”
“People have pulled over U-Hauls to get shirts,” said Angela Tsay, 41, Oaklandish’s chief executive and creative director. “They want to be wearing an Oaklandish T-shirt the first time they walk into their new house.”
Outfitted correctly or not, it’s those new homeowners whom some longtime residents are eyeing warily. Gentrification is as ubiquitous a topic in the cafes and bars of Oakland as pour-over coffee and Google buses are in San Francisco. The fear that rising housing costs will push out working-class families and truly turn Oakland into the next Brooklyn — a shabby-chic bedroom community that feeds white-collar workers into the bustling metropolis next door but doesn’t see much of them or their money — is an ever-present one, especially when reporters from the national news media come calling.
“We’re glad to welcome folks who add value to the city,” said Chinaka Hodge, a 29-year-old poet and screenwriter who grew up in several neighborhoods in Oakland and now splits her time between the city and Los Angeles.
Ms. Hodge and other longtime locals want new residents to understand that while Oakland may be new to them, it’s not new. “We were here,” she said. “We’ve been here. We’ve struggled to survive here, and the moment that it’s cool, not only can we not afford to live here, but our entire history is whitewashed, for lack of a better term.
“I feel in many ways that it’s violent,” continued Ms. Hodge, who is African-American. “We’re being erased from history.”
Ms. Hodge addressed this violence in a tongue-in-cheek music video she made in collaboration with the Bay Area rapper and poet Watsky called “Kill a Hipster.” Set in Oakland (but shot in Los Angeles), it depicts tattooed, badminton-playing newbies as “Walking Dead”-style zombie invaders, their hunger for authentic ethnic foods turning into a grisly feast on authentic ethnic people. Its refrain (taken from the slogan of a T-shirt) says it all: “Kill a hipster; save your hood.”
“I think there are two narratives about Oakland that have existed for my entire life,” Ms. Hodge said.
The first narrative, she’s quick to note, is safety. Driving a reporter by her family’s home, Ms. Hodge was frank as she noted the circumstances of her childhood. “We were easily the richest family in the poor neighborhood,” she said. “When we moved in, this was a crack house, this was a crack house,” she said, pointing across the street from her father’s beautifully restored yellow Victorian with stained-glass windows. “There was police tape across the front of our house. We came home one day, chalk outlines on the front.”
“Now, all white folks live there,” she said.
“The second narrative has been gaining attention over the last few years,” she continued. “It’s the Michelin stars, the cool pop-ups, the Eat Real festival, the uptown story.
“Any exposure can be great, but I want to be able to afford to live here in 20 years. I want to be able to raise my family in the neighborhood that everyone thought was ugly until Jerry Brown encourages 10,000 new people to show up and make Oakland theirs.”
“I’ve seen the downtown utterly changed,” Governor Brown said in a phone interview. “You have a very lively scene. It’s restored vitality to downtown that hasn’t seen excitement in 60 years.”
That excitement is on full display at First Fridays, a once-a-month block party that grew out of Art Murmur, an open galleries event. During a recent evening, crowds filled a five-block stretch of Telegraph Avenue checking out the galleries, vendors and food trucks. Drum circles, rappers and brass bands vied for attention amid lowrider cars, comedians and models strutting down a makeshift runway to James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The scene collapsed boundaries among subcultures: hip-hop,Burning Man and foodie posses mingled promiscuously. At times, the scene seemed to break the constraints of time itself with vendors selling “Free Angela” and “Free Huey” buttons as if the heyday of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense were still in effect.
The same mixing of crowds can be found at Brown Sugar Kitchen, a soul-food-inflected breakfast spot in West Oakland that opened on Martin Luther King’s Birthday in 2008 and now features long lines around the block most weekends. “It’s like the New York City subway here,” said Tanya Holland, the restaurant’s 48-year-old chef-owner. “You can have the steampunk sitting next to the cop sitting next to the millionaire real estate developer. You see every kind of person here.”
Brown Sugar kitchen, along with B-Side BBQ (also owned by Ms. Holland and her husband, Phil Surkis) and Fauna, an Art Deco bar on Telegraph that adjoins Flora, are just a few of the restaurants that lure San Francisco diners to Oakland. Owned by Dona Savitsky, 43, and Thomas Schnetz, 47, Flora has all the details of a major metropolitan restaurant with none of the airs.
“Being over here is great,” Ms. Savitsky said. “I don’t think we’re trying to be San Francisco. Nor will we ever be.”
One area in which many are hoping Oakland can be both cutting edge and truly supportive of the community is technology. Mitchell Kapor, the software mogul behind Lotus 1-2-3, moved to Oakland’s Jack London Square from San Francisco’s upscale Pacific Heights less than two years ago with his wife, Freada Kapor Klein.
“Career-wise, my talent has been seeing around corners,” Mr. Kapor, 63, said. “We had the feeling we were at the beginning of a big moment in Oakland.
“There’s a sense that everything is possible,” continued Mr. Kapor, whose Kapor Center for Social Impact funds various groups in the Bay Area committed to diversifying the face of technology, like Black Girls Code and Hidden Genius Project. “We’re going to see an explosion of tech in Oakland. It’s the next big area.” Pandora, the music streaming service, has its headquarters here, and there are rumors that Google has considered opening an office in the city.
Mr. Kapor’s enthusiasm is echoed by some of the young tech founders who share a work space in Jack London Square called the Port. Among the developing companies found there is deliberateLIFE, an app-based lifestyle publication that showcases socially responsible products and travel; Shop Pad, a mobile e-commerce platform; and Clef, an identity verification tool that seeks to replace passwords with users’ phones.
The office buzzes with collaborative energy as they work on different projects. Once a week, the team from Clef makes dinner for everyone. They’ve served falafel, ramen, and chicken potpie along with beer and sympathy to end rough days of fund-raising or to fuel late nights of coding.
“Having creative people around has really made a difference as we’ve grown,” said Fay M. Johnson, 31, chief executive and founder of deliberateLIFE. Ms. Johnson was sitting in a conference room with Clef’s Brennen Byrne, 23, and Shop Pad’s Aaron Wadler, 30, near the terminus for a slide that was being installed between floors. “This is a much more collaborative version of what I’d get at an incubator in the city.”
Across the hall is Ms. Johnson’s office, where there’s a blackboard with the outline of the state of California. Written across it in a confident hand is the phrase, “Where Awesome Lives.” An arrow points directly at Oakland.
Oakland’s central city gains traction in retail and residential projects.
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE ‘Q’ - THE REGISTRY’S PRINT PUBLICATION - IN APRIL 2014
By Joe Gose
Oakland’s growing reputation as a hip and affordable alternative to San Francisco is fueling waterfront and downtown development, furthering a resurgence that began taking hold a few years ago.
From Ellis Partners’ $400 million Jack London Square mixed-use redevelopment on the Oakland Estuary, to Signature Development’s $50 million renovation of six 90-year-old industrial buildings into a mixed-use project known as The Hive in Uptown, the urban environment now provides a younger crowd with more reasons to live and work in central Oakland, say boosters.
“We really have all the components that are appealing to the young urbanite today,” said Deborah Boyer, a senior vice president with The Swig Co. and president of the Lake Merritt-Uptown Association community benefit district. “And the housing situation in San Francisco is so untenable that were are just getting more and more attention.”
The most dramatic changes have occurred uptown around 17th Street and Telegraph Avenue near the historic Fox Theater, said John Dolby, a senior vice president with brokerage Cassidy Turley in Oakland. For workers like him at City Center, it’s a short walk.
“This whole area is changing; there’s more bars, more restaurants and more nightlife—and there’s more coming online,” he said. “There are people restoring older buildings and their façades. So there has been a big transformation.”
Nearly 120 new businesses opened between the beginning of 2009 and June 2013, with more than half of those arriving over the 12-month period ended last June, according to the Lake Merritt-Uptown Association.
Room for improvement still exists, however. Some observers are concerned that more retail shops are needed to balance the onslaught of bars and restaurants. But cafes and bars tend to arrive in revitalizing areas first and retailers follow, Boyer said, and that is playing out in both downtown and uptown Oakland, too. In 2013, for example, 16 retailers opened, up from five in 2011. Still, she would like to see more retailers, noting that empty or underused storefronts continue to dot Broadway.
Among other efforts, the districts have partnered with Oakland Grown, a promoter of local independent businesses, to develop “shop local” campaigns, she said. Additionally, business incubator PopUpHood has helped to establish five permanent stores in the area. The concept provides small businesses free rent for six months.
“That has been really helpful in allowing businesses to get on their feet,” Boyer said. “We’d like to see more of it.”
Jack London Square also is facing retail challenges even though office space is leased well enough that some restaurants are succeeding. So far, chef Daniel Patterson’s 3,500-square-foot Haven restaurant is the sole tenant of the 62,000-square-foot Jack London Market building developed several years ago to cater to entrepreneurial food operations and shops.
James Ellis, managing partner of Ellis Partners, suggests that the tough lending environment coming out of the recession hamstrung the types of businesses that would occupy the Market. Filling the space remains a priority, he said, and Oakland’s improving economy coupled with pro-business political leadership is providing a good foundation. But Ellis refuses to rush the Market.
“We’re not willing to compromise our vision,” he said. “We want it done with the right mix of tenants, and we won’t open it until we have a critical mass of tenants.
Part of the retail challenges in Oakland center on the struggle to generate daytime foot traffic. Although workers coming out of the City Center BART Station can catch the Broadway B shuttle for the roughly 10-block trip to Jack London Square, the large office users get more reluctant to consider buildings as they get farther from a BART stop, Dolby said.
Still, plans to add offices and residences throughout the area could help create more tenant traffic.
Ellis Partners is seeking city approval to build a tower with some 537 residential units in Jack London Square. MBH Architects is on the consulting team, but Ellis has yet to select engineers or contractors. Ellis also is working up plans to convert the Pavilion building—formerly a Barnes & Noble—into a beer garden, restaurant and other entertainment uses, he added.
The Hive will include 104 apartments and 100,000 square feet of incubator space, offices and retail. Signature Development has added Hub Oakland, Numi Organic Tea, Balfour Beatty Construction and others to the tenant roster. Signature hired Flynn Architecture to design it as part of a team that includes Proforma Construction, BKF Engineering and furniture supplier Herman Miller.
San Francisco-based Strada Investment Group has entered into a negotiating agreement with the city to develop city-owned parcels near City Center for a potential mixed-use project that could include residential units. Similarly, The Swig Co. has an entitlement to redevelop the Kaiser Center’s mall into a high-density development that could include a large residential component, Boyer said. The firm has no immediate plans to start the project.
Developers and city officials also are trying to create more inviting spaces. The Downtown Oakland Association and Lake Merritt benefit districts, which are jointly operated, launched a beautification program that restored landscaping and irrigation to medians and added planters along sidewalks, among other efforts, when they formed in 2009.
The groups are also working with the city on the renovation of Latham Square, a pedestrian plaza at the foot of the Uptown district where Telegraph Avenue and Broadway meet. Latham Square will grow by four times its size to 9,500 square feet later this year and will hold events and provide space for popup retailers.
“We knew it was an asset—there are very few places where you can plop down furniture and carve out little nodes and create a fun space for people,” said Andrew Jones, district services manager for the downtown association. “It’s a very valuable space that has the ability to bring out people and hold events.”
In Jack London Square, Ellis Partners has broken up vast concrete spaces to create more intimate gathering places and foster continuity. It has added palm trees, lawns, outdoor patios, fountains, furniture and artwork. It also eliminated a surface parking near the waterfront.
“Visitors were faced with going into these big open areas with nothing there,” Ellis said, “and those types of environments, especially from a retailing mindset, don’t work.”
Photography by Laura Kudritzki
Mortgages might be easier to get as Wells Fargo lowers credit requirements
San Francisco Business Times
Wells Fargo is making it a bit easier to qualify for a mortgage.
The nation’s largest residential mortgage lender lowered its minimum credit score for loans to be sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to 620 from 660, Bloomberg News reported.
Wells Fargo’s move casts a wider net for borrowers as rising rates shut off the refinancing tap last year. That also resulted in thousands of layoffs at Wells Fargo and other lenders.
It also marks a shift in direction from last year when Chairman and CEO John Stumpf told investors on an earnings conference call that his bank was getting mixed messages from Washington on whether the bank should make it easier for Americans to qualify for mortgages.
Wells and other lenders significantly tightened credit standards after the 2008 financial crisis. Of course, such standards had only one way to move after an era when having a pulse was essentially all it took to get a home loan.
Bloomberg also reported that Wells Fargo’s (NSYE: WFC) smaller rivals also lowered their requirements to get a mortgage. The U.S. division of Toronto-Dominion Bank, for instance, reduced its down payment requirement to 3 percent without requiring costly mortgage insurance on qualifying loans.
Some may worry that banks are returning to a time of easy lending. But the industry has a long way to return to the days of the housing bubble’s loose lending, when former Wells CEO Dick Kovacevich said it would have been easier for some lenders to simply open their vaults and tell people to help themselves.
We expect the year-on-year increase in prices to subside to under 5% in the near future, but a slowdown has not shown up in the numbers yet. Please note that this is a Corelogic report of national prices, not specific to the Bay Area. Increase in inventory and sales volumes are the numbers to watch in the short term.