Lessons from Oakland's waterfront district

By combining new investment with careful preservation, Oakland has managed to modernize without sacrificing neighborhood character - and characters.
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The regional Produce Market in Oakland's vital Jack London District

By combining new investment with careful preservation, Oakland has managed to modernize without sacrificing neighborhood character - and characters.

Over the past decade I’ve been observing the gradual transformation of a section of downtown Oakland. Known as the Jack London District, it’s a four- by 10-block neighborhood sandwiched between the I-880 Freeway and the waterfront. Most people blow by it on their way to the Oakland airport or the Bay Bridge. At freeway speeds, it's a part of the city that is easily missed.

But if you get off the interstate you find yourself in a fascinating urban mélange of wildly disparate activities, all of which seem to nicely co-exist. Almost shockingly, the main line for Amtrak and BNSF freight runs down the middle of one of the major streets. That’s right; the tracks are within the street; long freight and passenger trains regularly rumble along with trucks, cars, cyclists and people on both sides. Given this placement, the trains are moving slowly, but they are obviously present. Anchoring the middle of the district is a snazzy, modern passenger depot that serves long distance trains running up and down the west coast.

This is not the only anomaly to be found in Oakland. A few blocks from the station you'll find a four-square block area that serves as a regional produce market. Trucks, forklifts, vans and workers scurry about the streets and sidewalks from 4:00 a.m. until late morning. Located there for many decades, with its broad covered sidewalks cum loading docks, the Oakland Produce Market reminds me of London's Covent Garden before it was turned into a tourist attraction. This bustling market hums with the commerce of buying and transporting food to stores and restaurants. It is gritty, noisy and wonderfully chaotic.

Nearby, other businesses are making meat products, distributing metal parts, assembling pipe and repairing big vehicles. The gleaming white cranes of Oakland's massive Port loom in the distance. With the trains and cranes and warehouses and welding, Oakland's Jack London district sounds like lots of other mature industrial “zones” all over the world.

But wait. That’s not all.

Within a stone’s throw of this raw industry and transport are at least a dozen new apartment and condominium buildings. At least one sits hard on the edge of the Produce Market; its residents look down on the swarm of seemingly random activity puncuated by the back-up beeping of delivery trucks and loaders. In other words, people are paying good money not to be in a quiet, verdant neighborhood, but rather right on top of the blue collar workings of American commerce.

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The Oakland waterfront from the Bay Bridge's San Francisco side. Credit: dbaron/Flickr

Yet, Jack London is not a district whose days are numbered by an onslaught of hipsters and high-paid techies. No gentrification here. The City has been careful to keep the industrial sections zoned low rise and has conferred historic designation on many buildings. This is about preserving local jobs and industries, not giving them the boot. For incoming residents, it is essentially buyer beware. If you choose to live in Jack London, you better well know that your life is not going to be filled with quietude.

Even so, more than 1,000 new people have moved in. On the eastern edge of the district, former Port lands will soon be converted to a huge complex of housing, offices, shops and restaurants, as well as a new public park bordering an estuary. When California Governor Jerry Brown was mayor of Oakland, he ensured that at least 15 percent of the dwelling units were reserved for low and moderate income people. Indeed, several “below market” apartment buildings, cheek by jowl with luxury alternatives, already dot the district.

This year, the City was hit hard by the double whammy of the state's withdrawal of urban redevelopment funding and the decline in federal dollars. Even so, says Michele Byrd, Director of the Oakland Department of Housing and Community Development, “we are still firmly committed to providing below-market rate housing, as well as retaining local businesses in our neighborhoods.”

Oakland's rich stew of people and businesses supports a lively mix of restaurants, cafes and night life. Some are clearly new and hip, attracting a smartly dressed younger crowd out for a fancy brunch. But the down and dirty diners are also thriving, filled with Port workers coming off shifts at fabrication shops and nearby medical centers. It's still possible to eat well for under $10 in the Jack London district, and be served by affable waitstaff with names like Rosemarie and Ronnie.

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Interspersed among the old and new buildings are a fine grain of taverns, pubs, live theatres and nightclubs. Some, like the Fat Lady cafe (above), are tucked into diminutive structures that seem too small for their use. A number of these establishments spill outdoors with terraces, tables and plants, making little microplazas along the street.

The City has been nurturing this neighborhood for some time, making sure all this crazy stuff can mash together. It's not about to let the Jack London district flip. Unlike Seattle's Belltown, the neighborhood still retains the stuff of working life. In contrast to South Lake Union, it's not all shiny and new and full of Millennials with security cards dangling from their necks. There is significant new investment in this part of Oakland, along with a careful preservation of older businesses.

Thirty years ago, Seattle architect and community activist Victor Steinbrueck warned us of the impending disappearance of small, funky businesses along First Avenue. Victor was prescient; today they are almost all gone. Somehow we in Smart Seattle have not learned how to keep our real cafes and coffee shops intact as the espresso bars and wine bars move in.

Perhaps most people are content with the new stuff. And there is a lot to like. But, I for one, miss the old stuff. Seems like we could have figured out how to have some of both. Oakland certainly has.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).