Education in Oakland

Oakland’s Ugly Duckling

Posted by novometro on July 12, 2006

On late Tuesday afternoon, a homeless woman sleeps in a shuttered doorway with one of the loveliest urban views in the world. The vista from the 100-year-old neo-classical façade of the Henry J. Kaiser convention center looks northwest across Lake Merritt to the Oakland skyline and the Berkeley Hills. To the southwest, eucalyptus trees mark the path of the creek that connects Lake Merritt to the estuary and the bay. The Mission-style roof of the school district’s decrepit headquarters pokes above the treetops and catches the glow of the setting sun.

While the roughly 20 acres occupied by the school district and the closed convention center is Lake Merritt’s ugliest shore from a pedestrian’s perspective, it boasts beautiful views and even greater potential. That fact has not been lost on developers. The relentless pace of development in downtown Oakland has now reached this sleepy corner of the lake, and the fate of these two properties is up in the air. It’s not cheap boosterism to say that Oakland has a chance to build something extraordinary on this underused land.

That’s why it’s bewildering to watch the City Council regard these two properties as if they were separated by miles and not a single creek bed. At a council committee meeting in City Hall Tuesday evening council members voted to approve forwarding to the full council a library plan that would place a new main library in the convention center. A competing plan revealed by the Bay Area World Trade Center late last month would put a permanent international trade show in the building.

Meantime, the school district will hold a hearing Wednesday evening aimed at crafting support for selling several parcels totaling almost 10 acres to a New York City developer with very grand plans for the property: Four residential high rises, (the highest of which would be 37 stories), 75,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, and, of course, the land reserved for a “park-like setting for neighbors and residents to enjoy.”

The future of the Henry J. Kaiser convention center could be decided in coming weeks. The Bay Area World Trade Center says that if Oakland gives the building to the library, the Trade Center Development Corporation will look outside the city for a suitable site for its West Coast World Trade Showcase Center. The wrangling over the school district’s property will take several months.

And it’s not just the two pieces of land at stake. The Oakland Museum of California’s concrete garden borders the convention center to the west. With a little imagination, Oakland could create a mile-long stretch of urban space that includes skyscrapers, creeks, art, and peerless views.

Fortunately, the City Council will have a lot of time to ponder the possibilities. The full-time council will put both our vacation-loving president and French civil servants to shame later this month when it recesses for its nine-week summer holiday. If they aren’t skipping town, they should take a walk on Lake Merritt’s ugliest side.


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