Last May, the Oakland City Council, in closed session, directed staff to enter into negotiations with Live Nation to reopen and operate the Henry J. Kaiser Center, sometimes known as the Kaiser Center, the Kaiser Auditorium, the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, and so on. I’ve always called it the Kaiser Convention Center (KCC).
The KCC, which opened in 1914, had been used in recent years by the City as a performance venue. I only went to the arena section once (more on the other section below), for a rather oddly booked hippie concert featuring Mickey Hart’s drum circle, Third Eye Blind, and the Coup. The show was great, even if the band I came to see played a rather truncated set, I think because they ran out of biodiesel to keep the lights on or something. But hanging out in the KCC was just awesome – it’s no Fox, but it’s a beautiful building in its own right, and even the hippie soap that leaves a gross film all over your hands and lack of paper towels didn’t dampen my excitement over getting to be there.
Anyway, the City, big surprise, couldn’t profitably operate a concert venue, and after several years of losing between $400,000 and $600,000 annually on the building, the City Council voted to close the KCC (PDF) in 2005.
And now it just sits there, a beautiful monument across the street from Lake Merritt, rotting and empty. A 2006 bond measure would have converted the building into a new main library, but it failed to reach the two-thirds threshold necessary for passage. So one could see how it would be pretty exciting for the Council when they got an unsolicited offer from Live Nation to reopen and operate the KCC last year, and like I said above, they directed staff last May (PDF) to begin negotiations for Live Nation to lease it.
So since then, nothing has happened, or nothing that anybody was aware of anyway, and the Council finally requested an update on the progress of negotiations (PDF), which was presented to the Community and Economic Development Committee last Tuesday. The discussion on this item offered a really clear illustration of the chaos in which the City of Oakland is currently operating.
So, basically, the report on the item says, well, not much, except that the Council had directed staff to negotiate with Live Nation, that Live Nation is a successful venue operator, and that the KCC needs $3.7 million in upgrades to be useable. Faced with finding a way to close a $50 million deficit later this Spring, the Committee members were clearly not happy with this news, and when the item came up for discussion, Ignacio De La Fuente, Jane Brunner, and Pat Kernighan were basically all immediately “No way.” Brunner, it seemed, held out a little more hope than her peers, thinking maybe that redevelopment funds or some other source of non-General Fund money might be available, which led to the following exchange:
Jane Brunner: Is there $3.7 million in any pot that could be used for this building?
Gregory Hunter: There is not.
Okay, discussion over, right? Not quite. First, Jane Brunner asked staff if the Council had directed that the KCC be closed. I was completely confused by this, wondering how it was possible that she couldn’t remember making such a major decision less than four years ago. Turns out, she was actually just leading up to asking why it was that if the Council had directed that the KCC be shuttered, it was still being used, which it apparently is, on occasion, by the Fire Department and Police Department for testing. This led to yet another eminently reasonable question from Brunner: “How is that a shutdown if its being used?,” to which staff responded that the KCC is collateralizing bonds that prohibit the building from being shutdown, and that require the systems stay operable. Which is, of course, good to know, although it probably would have been helpful information to have, say, sometime between the 2005 vote to close the building and now. Brunner thought so too, saying:
It is really critical that when the Council passes something, if it changes, because staff – city staff learns something, it is city staff’s obligation to bring that back to us. Because we assume if we pass a resolution or ordinance, it’s implemented. If it’s not implemented, because there’s a legitimate reason not to implement it, then I think that information has to come back to us.
Um…yeah. That really should go without saying. It’s insane the KCC has been being used by the City for the last several years and nobody ever bothered to inform the Council of that. But it’s also kind of a minor point in this discussion, so let’s move on.
The Committee members mostly talked about how the City can’t afford $3.7 million to fix the building. Then, thirty-four minutes into the discussion, staff announced that the City wouldn’t be on the hook for the repair costs, and that Live Nation would be expected to pay for them. Gee, wouldn’t that have been helpful information to have in, say, the staff report, or maybe at some other point during the half an hour in which everybody sat around talking about how they don’t have any money and we should just forget about the whole thing? Maybe?
Of course, it isn’t clear that Live Nation is going to be willing to pay the $3.7 million, especially since it also turns out that $3.7 million won’t be the total cost for making the KCC operational, and that figure doesn’t actually include the costs of any cosmetic issues, seismic safety code compliance issues, sound systems, or lighting. After the list of what it didn’t cover, I was left a little in the dark as to what the $3.7 million would pay for. (A new boiler was the only concrete example provided. I have no idea what boilers cost, but it seems like there’s got to be more to it than that – the staff report referenced electrical and plumbing work.)
Anyway, so that leaves us with Live Nation maybe or maybe not being willing to pay $3.7 million plus who knows what other additional costs (staff suggested the total figure could be double) to lease the KCC and start having concerts there. The Peralta Community Colleges are apparently also interested in using the KCC as a performing arts center for their students, and have been talking to Live Nation about that for a while, apparently city staff has become involved in those conversations only in the last few weeks.
Meanwhile, the Mayor’s Office of Public Private Partnerships has been talking separately with a number of local arts organizations about possible use of the Calvin Simmons Theater. The Calvin Simmons Theater is part of the KCC building, but a separate venue from the arena. It’s a rather beautiful concert hall with excellent acoustics and an appropriate amount of seating for cultural arts performances like a symphony or ballet. I’ve seen both in the Calvin Simmons and it’s such a treat, especially compared to the Paramount, where both organization currently perform, which, while visually lovely, is just not the right venue at all for those sorts of performances.
Anyway, the way the KCC is structured, you can’t have performances in the Calvin Simmons and the arena portion at the same time, which obviously would present some scheduling difficulties, since Live Nation will probably want to book shows at times like, say, Friday evening, when cultural arts organizations generally schedule their performances. Having the Mayor’s office talk independently to the arts groups while CEDA is talking to Live Nation and not the arts groups and everybody at the same time trying to find a way to have everyone use the KCC seems like a poor strategy to say the least.
Adding to the confusion, whatever the arts organizations the Mayor’s office is talking to are, our premier local cultural arts organization, the Oakland East Bay Symphony, is apparently not one of them. Music Director Michael Morgan, Board President Paul Garrison, and Executive Director Jennifer Duston all came to the Committee meeting to say how much they wanted to be able to use the Calvin Simmons Theater, and none of them made any mention of having been contacted about it by the Mayor’s office. In fact, Duston noted that after hearing rumors the building was in fact being used (which it was), she made multiple inquires to the City about the possibility of the Symphony being able to use the Calvin Simmons Theater for their free concerts for Oakland youth, only to be told that no, the KCC was definitely and completely shuttered (which it wasn’t).
And let’s not leave out the Chamber of Commerce, who are upset there was no competitive bidding before the City began negotiating with Live Nation and want a more transparent process, or Another Planet, who might not be thrilled at the idea of the City of Oakland trying to open another concert venue that would compete with the newly-opened Fox Theater.
So, to sum up. You have here a Council that decided to start negotiations to lease a City owned facility without telling anyone else who might be impacted by the venue reopening or who might want to bid on the venue themselves about it, you have city staff that have been using a facility the Council voted to close without telling the Council about it, you have a report and public discussion that neglected to inform anyone that they weren’t actually asking for the $3.7 million they listed as a cost for reopening, which it turns out isn’t actually anywhere close to the total cost, and you have the Mayor and CEDA working separately with separate entities on reopening the KCC for likely incompatible uses, Live Nation working separately with another interested party, and nobody bothering to talk to the primary interested party for the Calvin Simmons Theater. Chaos.
Anyway, the Committee directed staff to keep talking to Live Nation and also talk to the Symphony and try to work out if and how the KCC could be used for both functions and to come back with more information in two months, oh, and to come back and talk to them in more detail in closed session sooner than that.