With New Office Tower Construction, Downtown’s Skyline is Changing

By Jordan Rosenfeld

OAKLAND -- On a sunny day earlier this month, Shorenstein Properties LLC celebrated a “topping out” ceremony of their 24 story luxury office tower, located at 601 Oakland City Center.

The ceremony marked the completion of the building’s structural steel and external infrastructure, leaving only the specific interior “deliverables” to be customized for tenants by early 2019, Shorenstein officials said.

While the completion is undoubtedly a milestone for the developer, which had to put the project on hold for nine years after the economic recession, community members grapple with what this and other similar office tower projects mean for the look, feel and economics of downtown Oakland.

William “Bill” Gilchrist, director of the planning and building department at the City of Oakland, said he not surprised that such tower projects are flourishing. With more money coming into the city due to a booming economy, he said it’s expected that Oakland will be “under consideration for more high rises than it has had traditionally.”

Some of this development benefits the local trade unions, according to Che Timmons, business representative for Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union 342. He said the 601 City Center tower, which is covered under their union project labor agreement (PLA), and another tower breaking ground at 1100 Broadway have brought with them commitments to using local labor, “paying area standard wages and apprenticeship standards.”

This is not always the case, Timmons said. One project he cited, at 1721 Webster Street, is not using local labor and not paying an area standard wage. Timmons pointed out that, of the multitude of projects under construction in Oakland at the level of type-three construction—wood frames—there are probably up to 3,000 units being built, but just 500 of them with “apprenticeships, local requirements and PLAs.”

“A lot of the contractors are coming from Sacramento and out of the area, and bringing workers, because they can pay cheaper wages,” Timmons said.

He has a hard time listening to developers who say these projects don’t earn them enough money, “when we have a multitude of projects that are working that way.”

Office towers like 601 Oakland City Center may reflect a healthy economy, but Gilchrist acknowledges that many within the community have concerns about how these buildings will change not only the physical skyline of Oakland, but its character.

“What helps the city retain its character comes down to the kinds of discussions about what these towers will be,” Gilchrist said.

While the city’s planning commission and design review board exist to oversee some of the more practical details like aesthetics and traffic impact, Gilchrist said, “Every city has its sense of skyline that is unique and special. You want to make sure you conserve those as much as you can.”

Naomi Schiff, a board member on the Oakland Heritage Alliance, knows a thing or two about such conservation, having worked for years to preserve the historic buildings that are a deep part of Oakland’s history. “We have a nationally registered historic district with wonderful architecture, which has been in part preserved by economic adversity,” she said. “We have tried hard to hang onto some of those buildings.”

She has concerns that this move toward high rises might signal a shift to push out beloved historic buildings, and with them, long-term Oakland residents. “If you push them out, you lose the diversity of the city,” she said.

She’s especially dubious, given what she sees as the City’s failed past attempts at redevelopment in the 1970s, which resulted in Oakland City Center. “It was supposed to become a busy commercial hub with foot traffic. That whole concept died, so now what you have is a bunch of chain stores and a few offices. You do not have the feeling of enormous vibrancy that was supposed to occur,” Schiff said.

Schiff also has socioeconomic concerns about whether these towers will contribute to “life on the street and economic diversity” and about who will work there, and whether there will be good jobs available not just to new tenants, but to Oakland residents. “What are the commitments of the companies coming in to a diverse workforce?’”

Gilchrist agreed that concerns about these towers run deeper than their physical attributes. “We have to make sure we understand how these buildings are contributing to life on the street. Do they feel they belong to their neighbors; do they create public spaces at the ground level or bring some new character that lends a sense of character to the venue?”

Micah Weinberg, president of the Economic Institute, a research and policy arm of the Bay Area Council which represents the large businesses of the Bay Area, is optimistic about development taking place in Oakland, though he has concerns about equity.

“Development in and of itself is neither good nor bad. It matters what the impacts are on the broader community,” he said. While the city may not have control over whether or not development takes place, he said, “We can have control over the implications of that.”

An example of that is when a business community is “deeply rooted” in the city and invests money back into the community, he said. He cites Kaiser Permanente, which has engaged in community initiatives, such as its recent $200 million housing and homelessness initiative, which will include funds designated for Oakland.

“With an engaged progressive business community, you can have an important set of partners in a lot of the civic challenges that face the region,” Weinberg said.

He sees the additional resources these new neighbors bring as an opportunity to “continue to invest in our civic infrastructure.” Weinberg gives the example of many lower- and middle- income neighborhoods in the city that have “a perennial challenge” around illegal dumping. “The neighborhood you live in and the socioeconomic class into which you were born should not determine whether you get to live in a neighborhood that has basic waste management services,” he said.

Getting those partners to become engaged, however, may take some work, he said, although there are already many people within the community, on the City Council and in other organizations, who are working to keep these issues front and center.

“I really hope that we can bake into the dialogue a series of expectations of what it means to be a business operating in Oakland, and leverage the proud history of social justice and social equity,” Weinberg said.

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