It has been 10 years since former Mayor Jerry Brown sparked a revolution of residential development in an effort to transform downtown Oakland from a deserted dead zone after dark to a vibrant place full of people day and night.
Now, the final and perhaps most difficult pieces of that revitalization are falling into place with the grand opening Thursday of Forest City's 665-unit Uptown Apartments in the fledgling entertainment district on a triangular wedge of downtown north of the Fox Theatre.
Collectively known as the Uptown Apartments, the buildings blanket much of the area around 19th Street, Thomas Berkley Way (formerly 20th Street), and Telegraph and San Pablo avenues.
The project is a public-private partnership between Forest City and MacFarlane Partners, and the city of Oakland Redevelopment Agency. The agency assembled the land and gave Ohio-based Forest City a financial subsidy of $54.4 million, which includes land costs.
Forest City is leasing the land with a 66-year option to buy the property at 2005 prices. The developers have invested about $180 million of private funds into the project.
There were plenty of critics of the expensive deal, the design and the ouster of low-income residents and businesses that stood in the way. But Brown and other city officials considered the project crucial to their efforts to rid the downtown of blight and bring in more people, jobs and retail. City officials and business specialists
"The truth is these are extraordinarily difficult projects that most people wouldn't undertake, and those that do undertake them are making a significant investment in Oakland," Brown said.
"I think (Forest City) did a very good job; I think it was a very wise investment by the city," he added. "(History) will prove it was a major part in the change and revitalization of downtown."
The city paid millions to buy up the businesses and properties that stood in the way, including a surface parking lot and parking garage, the Sears Tire Center and a number of small auto-related businesses, restaurants and commercial shops that closed up at night, leaving the area dark and deserted.
There is already new life. Two of three Uptown apartment buildings are completed, and a third should be ready for tenants by the end of the year. The William, the first to open, last February, is almost full, and leases are being accepted at the Telegraph. The third building is named the Thomas Berkley, after the late Oakland Post publisher. When all are full, the apartments will house more than 1,000 residents.
"I think that we have absolutely met the goals the city set for us," said Susan Smartt, senior vice president with Forest City Residential West. "I'm very pleased with the community that we built there. This is urban infill as you know, and the people who come to live in these projects are urban pioneers. They really love cities and become committed to the neighborhood. I am inspired when I go and talk to people who moved there."
The Paramount Theatre and several new restaurants are nearby. The area can still be a little dicey at night and each building features a concierge and security-controlled access.
Blake Drew, 29, a dentist at City Center Dental, relocated from the East Coast and moved to the William in August. He said the neighborhood does require him to be more aware of his surroundings at night, but that is the only drawback of living downtown. He said he loves the amenities and was sold on the lack of commute.
"The best part is the location. I can jump right on BART if I want to go to San Francisco," he said, while relaxing by the pool Monday afternoon.
Nearly 60 percent of the construction workers on the project are Oakland residents, and 20 percent are apprentices in union trades. More than 20 percent of the subcontractors were small, local businesses, Smartt said. The apartments received a LEED Silver certification by the U.S. Green Building Council for using recycled materials in the landscaping and buildings, for recycling leftover building materials, and energy-efficient appliances and lighting.
The Telegraph building houses centralized amenities for all the Uptown's residents, including a swimming pool, outdoor gas grills, gym, movie and poker rooms and a recreation room with a kitchen and pool table.
Rents for studios, one-, two- and three-bedroom units range from $1,448 to $3,058 and feature upscale finishes and appliances. Forest City rents 20 percent of the apartments to people earning 50 percent of area median income and 5 percent of the units to people earning 125 percent of the area median income.
The proximity to downtown Oakland, BART and several bus lines allows many residents to leave their cars at home. The apartments also have an on-site City Car Share program available for residents.
"I had a car when I got out here, but I went eight weeks without buying gas, so I thought why have one and sold it," said Don Nielsen, a workplace safety engineer for Kaiser Permanente who relocated from Michigan and was the first person to move in.
Slowly but surely the uptown neighborhood is evolving. The Fox Theatre restoration is nearly complete and will have its grand opening Feb. 5. The Oakland School for the Arts is scheduled to move in over Thanksgiving weekend.
Resources for Community Development is building an 80-unit affordable apartment building behind the Fox. And the city is spending $1.2 million on new sidewalks and other pedestrian improvements on Telegraph Avenue between 18th and 20th streets.
Workers are also busy putting the finishing touches on a new, 25,000-square-foot public park between William and 19th streets. A bronze sculpture by Oakland artist Mark Chiodo, "Remember Them: Champions of Humanity," will be installed in fall 2009 in a sculpture garden there.
Forest City also has an exclusive agreement with the city to build 250 condominiums on Telegraph between 19th and William streets, the so-called second phase of the Uptown project. Smartt said Forest City is still committed to the project, but the economy is forcing it to ask the city for an extension until the apartments and a 9,000-square-foot retail space is leased.
Reach Cecily Burt at 510-208-6441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.