Fox Lights Up Uptown
Now that redevelopment is dead in California, we can mourn its passing by celebrating some of its triumphs. Ironically, one of the biggest success stories is the revitalization of Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, which happened under former mayor Jerry Brown—the same Jerry Brown who dismantled redevelopment as governor. True, some agencies came under fire for misappropriation of funds—to build golf courses for the well-off, for example. But without redevelopment funds, the new housing and the renovation of the Fox Oakland theater wouldn’t have happened, and the area would still be blighted.
Instead, Uptown is hopping, with lots of residents and a vibrant nightlife. New restaurants and clubs have opened. On the first Friday night of every month, throngs of culture fans attend Oakland Art Murmur—an art walk centered around Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street. It started in 2006 with eight galleries and has since grown to more than 20, which stay open late, plus craft, art, and food vendors who set up along a portion of Telegraph Avenue that’s closed off to automobiles for the night.
The Uptown renaissance brings the neighborhood back to its roots, in a way. In the first half of the 20th century, it was Oakland’s main place to shop. The Fox opened in 1928 as a movie palace in the grand, exotic style common in that era. Twenty thousand moviegoers came for opening day. But starting with white flight in the 1950s, the area gradually sank into dereliction, its retail stores shuttering one by one. The Fox closed in the mid-1960s, after a humiliating few years as an adult movie theater. It narrowly escaped being demolished to make way for a parking lot.
In 1978, two residents of Piedmont, Erma and Mario DeLucchi, purchased it at an auction for sentimental reasons—they had gone on dates there in high school. They hoped to save it, but then Mario died, and the building languished, although it did get placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
In the mid-1980s, the Rouse Company actually contemplated turning the Fox into a large downtown shopping complex, along the lines of its Grand Avenue Mall in Milwaukee, which linked two separate department stores via a historic arcade and a new arcade. They called on ELS, since we’d designed the Grand Avenue Mall. We recently found some early Fox retail schemes that one of our founding principals, Barry Elbasani, drew for Rouse. But that project never came to fruition either.
In 1995, the city of Oakland created the Arts Enterprise District, bounded by Grand Avenue, Franklin Street, 14th Street, and San Pablo Avenue, a forerunner of Uptown. The city bought the Fox from Erma in 1996 when Elihu Harris was mayor, which kicked off several years of repairs to the leaky roofs. Friends of the Oakland Fox, a spinoff of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, formed and persuaded the city to also repair the theater’s marquee and red blade sign in 2001, which served as a small beacon of hope on the street.
What finally kick-started the whole effort was Mayor Jerry Brown’s plan to bring 10,000 new residents to downtown Oakland over a ten-year period. The redevelopment agency began seriously courting housing developers, who were intrigued, but wary of the neighborhood’s prospects. Then in 2003, local developer Phil Tagami, who had successfully rescued the Rotunda Building, formerly Kahn’s Department Store, and who had been wanting to do something with the Fox for a long time, stepped in with a proposal to revitalize the theater. Tagami’s concept—dubbed the “Ruins” idea—was to undertake a stripped-down project. Rather than engage in a wholesale restoration, he suggested reopening a part of the orchestra level seating area as a 600-seat cabaret and leaving the rest in its existing state.
But there was still a problem—the office building that wrapped the theater. Neither the office market at the time nor the building’s configuration supported renovating it for its original use, yet it was an integral part of the structure—you couldn’t seismically upgrade the theater without also doing the office portion. Luckily, Mayor Brown involved the Oakland School for the Arts, a pet project of his that had opened in 2002 and needed a new space. The Fox’s office building wasn’t large enough for the school, but adding a new three-story building would fix that.
After the Oakland School for the Arts entered the picture, the project started to snowball and attract new sources of money. Once construction on the Fox actually got underway, that seemed to reassure housing developers. In 2005, the city signed the deal with Forest City Enterprises to build a substantial residential development, called, appropriately enough, the Uptown. The first phase, 665 units, opened in 2008, followed by a number of smaller multifamily housing projects by other developers. Local entrepreneurs were then attracted to the area—one of the first was Flora, a restaurant in the historic Oakland Floral Depot directly across Telegraph Avenue from the Fox.
The Fox itself opened in February 2009 as a live performance venue with flexible seating for 1,500 to 2,800, depending on the way the auditorium is configured. Developing the original concept for the venue and acting as historic architect, ELS, in collaboration with Architectural Dimensions, restored the splendor of the historic elements. To qualify for the historic tax credits, the project had to follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation of Historic Properties. That meant nonhistoric alterations to the space had to be reversible. For example, because today’s popular music performance venues rely as much on the revenue from concessions as they do on ticket sales, several bars were added in the main auditorium and mezzanine lobby, but were designed to be easily removed, leaving the original theater intact.
We wanted to put back the original light fixtures, but their owner, who has them in a warehouse, asked too high a price. So Phil had light fixtures made in Morocco instead for a fraction of the cost. They look like they belong. In our preservation projects, we’re always looking to balance usability with the value of the past’s legacy. If you’re going to enable the public to enjoy a building’s restored architectural grandeur and give it an active life in the community, the project has to be financially viable.
Now that redevelopment agencies are gone, financial viability is a trickier proposition. It will be interesting to see what takes its place. Will cities have to rely completely on the private sector? Will the new forms of tax credits help fill the gap? No one knows yet. All we know is, the nightlife is blooming, the Fox’s and other local businesses are doing well, and the whole area feels a lot safer. Uptown was dead, and now it’s alive.