The Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, a historic Oakland landmark that has been shuttered and vacant for a decade, will undergo a transformation as the City Council is expected to vote next week on which of two developers will restore the building.
The convention center previously housed large-scale events, concerts, and prominent speakers – such as Dr. Martin Luther King who spoke there in 1962, Stokely Carmichael in 1968, the Grateful Dead, James Brown, and the Oakland school district’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratorical Fest.
The building includes a 45,000 square foot arena that seats up to 6,000 people and the Calvin Simmons Theater that seats 1,900, two banquet rooms and a ballroom.
City staff is recommending that the city enter into a contract and long-term lease with developer Orton Development, Inc., which is based in Emeryville, to rehabilitate the convention center and its historical architecture.
Under the city plan, the developer would foot the bill for the entire project and would recoup its investment by using at least part of the building for profit-generating purposes.
The city’s RFP requires restoration of the Calvin Simmons Theater as a performance space and for the entire project to include “as many community benefits as possible,” including “local and small business participation, commitment to living and prevailing wages, commitment to labor peace and opportunities for job training and mentoring, a high number of jobs created for a range of training and education levels, and provision of high quality public facilities and amenities,” according to the city report.
The Orton’s proposal, which is in accord with the city RFP, includes restoration of the Calvin Simmons Theater as an event space, and use of the arena as a “multi-floor rehab combining office, flex, public access, and food uses.”
The plan also proposes to use the surrounding outdoor space for community gardens, barbeque areas, public art and entertainment.
A coalition of community members and arts enthusiasts is opposed to the Orton proposal and the RFP on which it is based, saying the project would transform the arena – which is the majority of the interior of the building – into offices for private businesses.
The city’s RFP has suggested that the building could be used for offices, technology, design and private commercial use as well as entertainment, conference and event space, retail uses, performance space, and light industrial uses such as a brewery, maker spaces, and artist studios.
The alternative proposal came from Creative Development Partners (CDP), based in Oakland. It includes restoration of the Calvin Simmons Theater as a world-class performing arts center and use of the arena for sporting and other large events, and paying for the project by building a 15-story hotel adjacent to the Convention Center.
The hotel would be nestled in between the Oakland Museum and the convention center on park land that is presently a parking lot, incorporating a green design.
The CDP proposal is based on community benefits, including: creating more than 1,700 jobs and a career training program in partnership with Laney and Merritt Colleges for jobs in hospitality, culinary arts, creative arts, and landscaping, as well as a partnership with the Oakland Unified School District’s Linked Learning program.
The CDP proposal, called “One Lake Merritt,” envisions the building as a hub for local music, cultural and performing arts companies to use as rehearsal and performance space.
The proposal has garnered significant support from the local arts community. But while city staff found the CDP proposal “compelling,” they are recommending that the city go with the Orton plan and look for other potential sites for a hotel.
City Council is expected to vote on the issue on Tuesday, July 7.