Oakland’s own Ferry Building in Jack London Square? Maybe not.

Commenter Owen asked for my opinion on Harvest Hall. I haven’t written about it before because, well, I’m not quite sure what to say about it.

I thought about writing something a while back when Robert Gammon had that paranoid article about it in the Express. (The San Francisco Business Times ran a much more sane story about Harvest Hall the same week.)

Anyway, mostly I think the whole concept of Harvest Hall is kind of stupid. Scaling back the food component to two stories makes a lot of sense to me – I was never clear how exactly they expected to fill that space up. Maybe they should think about scaling it down to just one. This is sort of a pet peeve of mine. I’m not that big a fan of the Ferry Building to begin with (not that I’m against it – I just don’t personally like going there), but I understand that it on its own is very successful. What I don’t understand is why people seem to think that just because one gourmet food hall flourishes in the heart of a tourist mecca that means we can just stick replicas all over the damn place and have them be successful. Random people keep telling me about how we should have the Ferry Building in the bottom of Broadway Grand. Ellis Partners wants to put one in JLS. Alex Gronke thinks we should use the Kaiser Convention Center for one. Naomi Schiff wants thinks we can fill up the Ninth Avenue Terminal that way.

It’s like – wake up, people! Oakland is not getting its own Tsar Nicoulai anytime in the forseeable future! And no matter what Renato Sardo says, I expect the end product will look more like Boston’s monumentally lame and depressing Quincy Market than anything else.

Gee, I’m just a bundle of optimism this morning, aren’t I?

Having said all that, I do think that JLS will be very well served by more office space, so that aspect of the project makes me happy. And that building that El Torito was in looks great since they removed that ugly old facade! Oh, and if they could find a way to make a bowling alley or an arcade work somewhere in there, I will take back every mean thing I’ve ever said about it. (That goes for pretty much all projects in Oakland.)

Since I’m talking about it anyway, here are my biggest issues with the Express story:

Some current and former merchants believe Falaschi and Ellis have deliberately run off the businesses in an effort to transform the square from a middle-class, family-oriented destination to a haven for the well-to-do.

Huh? Maybe that’s what JLS was like at some point in the past, but it certainly doesn’t even resemble what the square looked like when I moved here, which was well before Falaschi and Ellis’s purchase. The storefronts in the Jack London look to me now almost exactly as they did then (minus a few chains), mostly retail spaces and a couple of restaurants.

But gentrifying a public waterfront would effectively put it off-limits to a significant number of people who simply can’t afford upscale eateries. And that raises serious questions. For starters, shouldn’t Jack London Square be accessible to all? Where will low- and middle-income families, the very people who packed the square every Friday and Saturday night for years, go to eat or spend an evening?

Bullshit. Okay, TGI Fridays is first and foremost a fern bar. That place is not about being affordable to or good for “low-income” families. Their business model is based on selling massive quantities of sugar saturated frozen drinks for huge mark-ups to people who probably shouldn’t be consuming alcohol in the first place. And it is far from cheap. Entree prices hover between $12 and $24, virtually identical to prices at the type of “upscale eateries” popping up around Oakland that Gammon and Birdsall are so darn afraid of. (TGI Fridays does not attach prices to their online menu – perhaps prices vary in different markets? I don’t even know where one is, so I called my sister in Texas and had her drive to a Fridays and read me the menu, if anyone’s wondering where those figures came from.) And I hardly see how replacing vacant space with retail, whether or not anyone can afford it, could be viewed by a reasonable person as putting the area “off-limits.”

7 thoughts on “Oakland’s own Ferry Building in Jack London Square? Maybe not.

  1. dto510

    Honestly, V, I think you missed some of the point of Gammon’s piece. When I was a kid, JLS was a major regional, and yes, middle-class destination. But since Walnut Creek and everywhere else got their own chain restaurants. It’s been a long, slow slide from destination to what it is now, which is basically a big waste of (pretty) space. Overall, I agree that building office space with a nice food court (like City Center) is the best use of the area. Also, aren’t they moving the ferry terminal to Broadway? That’d be more convenient. Or move it further east, by the condos.

    Nice list of wanna-be Ferry Buildings, BTW. I mean, I like caviar as much as the next guy, but those shops aren’t going to work here.

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    I think what you’re saying is interesting, but I don’t think I’m missing Gammon’s point – what you’re saying isn’t in the article. He claims that until Ellis Partners appeared in 2002 and purposely drove out all the restaurants and retail, that the square continued to be a bustling family destination. Obviously, that is not true.

    I’d love to know more about the long, slow slide of JLS. What did the square look like when you were a kid? What kind of shops and restaurants were there at that time? Do you really think its decline has to do with the growth of suburban retail? Did Walnut Creek really not have chain restaurants in the 1980s? What about Jack London Village?

  3. Moschops

    Great blog – just discovered it thanks to a Google search on Jack London Square.

    I live near the square and was quite closely involved in all the hearings about the redevelopment project. Appart from traffic impacts and the walling off of the Estuary with big buildings (see Alameda’s waterfront proposal for how it should be done) our neighborhoods biggest fear was that Ellis Partners just doesn’t have the expertise to pull it off and we’d be left with even more empty retail spots. All along we warned of the Jack London “Office Park” alternative that was lurking in the development agreement and now recent reconfigurations have shown that indeed we will get way more office space than the glossy drawings at the planning commission and city council showed.

    Having lived next to JLS for 14 years I can say it has alway been a low key place – but back then it did have much more retail spaces, more restaurants and fewer vacant windows. Ellis Partners came in and drove up rents to the $5 a sf mark that even the most successful restaurants find expensive, they extracted revenue percentages and fixed monthly marketing fees – within a few years business start leaving. Then they demolished the Village and after that the only new business that has stuck it out there for any significant period has been the ribs BBQ place (can’t recall the name). And all the while they keep claiming there is nothing they can do to revitalize the square except add more retail…

    Ellis Partners biggest problem was any entertainment business successful enough to draw a big crowd at the Square was usually too successful for them – they just didn’t want to devote resources (ie. money) to dealing with that many people. Security and people management costs money so be it festivals, 4th of July or the regular weekend crowds for TGIF – they were a problem and have been eliminated to the maximum extent possible. Combined with the sky-high rents and lack of incentives we now have a ghost town at the Square – even compared to 14 years ago. The best thing you can do there is enjoy the view of the Estuary, or buy a book at Barnes and Noble (who probably also wish they were somewhere else).

    What they should do there is offer new retail businesses long rent free periods to get established, and lower rents overall to fill up all the vacant spaces. The port makes hundreds of millions in profit – it can afford to subsidise making the Square a destination again. Then they will find it easier to fill all the new places as foot traffic will be higher and there will already be an established destination. As best we can tell they are not going to do anything like that or promote the Square until all construction is finished – which will be another couple of years. In the mean time all new retail will probably be rushing up town where the City devoted all its redevelopment dollars – leaving the Square to flounder for another 20 years or so. I would be happy to be proved wrong, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for it!

  4. Aldous Huxley

    Maybe you have not been to the Emeryville Market place in a while. Lots and lots and lots of small Mom and Pop food vendors and the price is cheap. A dedicated marketplace is possible in my humble opinion if the city offers cheap rents. If they see this as a Food Incubator then the dream could easily become a reality. Portland its is happening due to affordable property where passionate chefs can open unique food and charge reasonable prices.

    To me the articles show the developers are out of touch on trying to gouge the rents at $5 a square foot. I also don’t buy the need for more offices. I also don’t see why they have four empty buildings. Spaghetti warehouse and the El Torito are fine tenets that would probably come back.

  5. V Smoothe Post author

    Aldous -

    I’m afraid that I can’t follow most of your argument here, but thanks for bringing up the Emeryville Martketplace. That’s exactly the type of place I was thinking of when I referenced Quincy Market. Clearly a good choice if you’re a fast food fan, but not really like the Ferry Building at all.

  6. Owen

    I shudder to think about Emeryville Marketplace. Unappealing on so many levels (not enough seating, essentially fast food, lacking in any sort of character, etc.) A much better model with much better quality food, in my opinion, is the Epicurious Garden in North Berkeley. It’s much smaller scale than Emeryville Marketplace but far more appealing (high-quality, if somewhat pricey, food; outdoor seating; a few blocks’ walk from BART; locally owned vendors). For more, there’s http://www.epicuriousgarden.com/

  7. dto510

    Oh, the Emeryville Public Market is fine, but it’s certainly more along the lines of City Center than the Ferry Building (and more likely to succeed). Since office towers are restricted by the General Plan to downtown and the airport, Oakland should look at building a new office center so that we can continue growing after City Center is built-out (which is in the foreseeable future). Hopefully, JLS residents will see the benefits of more daytime activity in their neighborhood.