Update (or not) on the Kaiser Convention Center

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.

22 thoughts on “Update (or not) on the Kaiser Convention Center

  1. dbackman

    Wow, I had no idea there was so much politics behind the KCC. I live off of 10th Street just a couple blocks away and would love to see this place reopened. In general, 10th Street deserves a lot more love from the City. It has the potential to be a major civic axis, with major civic institutions like BART, the Oakland Museum, Laney and KCC and multiple parks anchoring it. Instead it is allowed to crumble, with some of the worst road paving in all of central Oakland. The rejuvinaition of KCC along with the renovation of the Oakland Museum already in progress would be a great step in the right direction.

  2. John Imrie

    I went to Laney College for a while and always wondered what that big building across the street was. I finally went inside if when I tested for OPD. Its a really interesting building and I’d love to see it rejuvenated.

  3. dto510

    I was so upset that The Coup were cut off because Julia Butterfly Hill’s concert ran out of biodiesel! And the vegan-only no-plastic setup was kinda annoying. But whatever, I bought a ticket. The KCC, like the Fox, deserves to be enjoyed by more people than just police cadet candidates! You know what use would be compatible with using the Calvin Simmons Theater for performances? A library!

    But dbackman, I disagree that the city is neglecting the area. Though the school district obstinately hangs on to its underutilized property, Measure DD is going to transform the 12th and 10th St Bridges and the Lake Merritt Channel – and it’s going to be done in three years!

  4. dto510

    No, the city has signed a contract for the 12th St Bridge work, and is about to issue an RFP for the 10th St Bridge and Lake Merritt Channel. The RDA expects construction to be completed within three years.

  5. dbackman

    I’m up Measure DD and the plans for this side of the Lake. But it seems like there is plenty of progress on the west side, some progress on the east side and no progress at all on the south side of the lake. Certainly it is the most difficult of the three project segments. But from what I’ve read it is getting scaled back quite a bit. I would like to be more optimistic about it, if they can pull it off it would be a really great improvement of the traffic flow as well as the beauty of the area. And it would be great to see how the renovation of the KCC could address the expanded park space that DD proposes as well. But for now I just want them to repave 10th st.

  6. tagami

    I support the building being used as the new main library and lecture hall- fine arts venue. Sized (in my opinion) perfectly for the symphony and ballet based on attendance and market demand. And across the street from laney and the museum!

    This is not to say I would not also support better neighborhood branches…hey! ultimately the existing main is just too small…we can do it!

    A number of private buyers (I was one) have been turned away over the years becasue it is widely believed that cultural assets should stay in the public domain. And I agree except I was gonna do somethin’ cool.

    I will forward some work I have been involved with on the matter from the early 1990′s. It will be an interesting debate, no?

  7. dbackman

    What would the city do with existing library if the KCC were to become the new central library? Could the building really support both a library and a performance space? That would be a really exciting mix of programs. What sort of improvements would the building need to accomodate these changes?

  8. Joanna/ShopGirl

    Sounds like business as usual for the City. I do think it’s odd that they couldn’t completely shutter it and no one bothered to tell Council that before they voted to shutter it. Not really surprised though considering the staff reports I’ve seen over the last few years. Has it always been that way?

    I was all for having a new library there. Combined with the new Lake Merritt renovations, I thought it would not only provide more space that the library needs, but also an update to the library. The current one is lookin’ pretty tired.

    Three years is ambitious, dto – I’m thinking four is more likely. What construction work ever finishes on time? (or on budget!)

    Also, are any last minute lawsuits going to pop up? Seems like that is what happened when other projects were about to break ground around the lake. I do so wish that was over and that they’d be finished already.

  9. Joanna/ShopGirl

    Oh, and dbackman, re what the City would do with the existing library…

    As I recall there were quite a few things that were being contemplated for the current library space were it to move to the KCC. First, it would take a few years (or more) to rehab and move. I think the County may also have wanted it to go with other county buildings in that area.

  10. dbackman

    Well the one bit of “progress” that has been made on this side of the lake is the cutting of some of those controversial trees. But my understanding was the delays and lawsuits had escalated the cost to the point that they were scaling back their ambitions for the south segment. Anyone have an update on this?

    I would love to see a more visionary plan for this area that integrates the Lake improvements, BART station area redevelopment, KCC, the Oakland Musem and Laney. With so many cultural, educational and recreational resources within this small area, there is a potential to create a really strong and cohesive district that can attract a regional audience and serve as a portal between Downtown and points East.

  11. dto510

    dbackman, I gave you the update. The Measure DD improvements for the South end of the lake are on track to start construction this year and be completed within three years. You’ll see the work starting when the rainy season ends. The only thing “scaled back” is the ability to take a water taxi from the Lake to the Estuary – that can’t work for various reasons that really should have been clear before the measure was put to the voters.

  12. dbackman

    Oh ok…glad to hear it. Thanks for the info DTO. I am glad that whatever I read about the situation a few months back was wrong, because I was definitely starting to feel rather discouraged about the whole thing.

  13. dto510

    Yeah, it is discouraging that there’s no visible progress. My info comes from a presentation to the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee in late December. The 12th St bridge is expected to take 3 years to complete, and construction is set to begin as soon as the rainy season is over. The 10th St Bridge / Lake Merritt Channel project will take less time, and the city has no yet signed a contract, but did put out a bid (so it’s cleared all legal and technical hurdles already). They anticipate construction will also start this year, so both projects will finish about the same time.

  14. dbackman

    Let’s hope so. Keeping traffic flowing smoothly through the area while making large infrastructure improvements can be pretty tricky. Is there any information out there on the phasing of the project?

  15. John Klein

    I’m trying to get the City of Oakland to put up a couple of webcams at the south end of the Lake for when the Measure DD work starts there. The cams could be placed on the courthouse and on KCC so people could watch the progress of the demolition, excavation, and realignment and improvements. I think it would be a great way to publicize it and show the progress as it happens.

  16. dto510

    John – That’s a great idea!

    dbackman – Maybe an enterprising city employee will chime in with the latest and most detailed information.

  17. Ralph

    dbackman, you know who also deserves more love from the City, the City. When I am running around LM or hanging out at Laney, I can’t help but think that it is a crying shame that this bldg lies in waste. This city has so much to offer if only the people who managed its resources could pull their heads out of the sand. V, thanks for bringing this up.

  18. Navigator

    The Kaiser Convention Center is an iconic building for Oakland. With the beautification of the 12th Street Dam area, and the building of a new 4 acre park on the south end of the Lake, the Kaiser Convention Center needs to be reused.

    I would leave it to Phil Tagami to come up with something which would make this wonderful building into a unique asset for Oakland. If anyone doubts that Mr. Tagami can do it, take a look at the beautiful Rotunda Building and the glorious Fox Oakland Theater.

  19. Max Allstadt

    I’ll second Tagami’s take on what to do with this building. Although I think that we could somewhat expand his definition of what fits in the performance space. It could be as simple as reserving it for performances that do not fit into the nightlife/party oriented category. I’ve seen some pretty amazing and pretty unclassifiable stuff performed at Mills College that would seem perfect for a venue like this. Lectures and forums too.

    And I’ll third DTO and John Klein about setting up webcams and timelapse photo studies. It’s a good idea in this case, and in many others. The Lake Merrit Boathouse renovation should have had one. Phil, did you do one for the Fox?

  20. Judson Owens

    Come on folks. All it really takes is a vision and the “where with all” to make anything happen. That is how the building got there to begin with.

    I managed the Berkeley Community Theater (a 3500 seat professional theater owned and operated by the Berkeley Unified School District) for approximately 30 years (The theater has a rich history, Ballet, Rock and Roll, Jazz, Lectures, Movies, Plays, Musicals All major performers). In addition I was The General Services Manager for the same bureaucracy. The General Services department generated approximately $500,000.00 annually from the rental of school district property and the Community Theater. Additionally I was involved with the design and project management of a new building at Berkeley High (a $40,000,000 project) It seems to me that most Cities and Governmental agencies (bureaucracy’s) are NOT risk takers. I am a risk taker and as such created and negotiated contracts, which started just as an idea. The edible school yard located @ Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley is a good example. Alice Waters asked if she could use a portion of the school yard which was covered with asphalt. I responded with the question, “what do you have in mind?” her response was “I want to start a garden for the students”. I supported her concept, approved the contract and said ” dig it up, it’s only asphalt “. The eatable school yard is a world renowned program successful because of one persons “vision/dream” and the “risk” of another. The outcome speaks for itself.

    Bureaucracy’s have outlived their usefulness. Antiquated and nonproductive. They (bureaucracy’s) support, encourage and foster corruption which the bureaucracy is supposed to prevent. No one is held accountable and the right hand knows nothing of what the left hand is doing. My point is this. If any of you have a vision of what to do with the KCC (Oakland Municipal Auditorium) then run with it. The notion that KCC and Calvin Simmons cannot be used at the same time is not true. During a recent renovation, changes to the facility were made, (not well thought out in my opinion) which made it possible to use both facilities at the same time. In fact the use of the Ballrooms (which have not been mentioned to date), Arena and Theater could all be used for separate events at the same time with out conflict. (If one investigates previous use of the KCC many events took place at the same time on a routine basis. Wedding receptions and a rock show). Creative thinking with creative solutions.

    I and the General Services Department were casualties of a bureaucrat (Superintendent) who didn’t understand the operation of the department and were led by “staff” to believe the department was loosing money. Quite a similar story as with KCC. Since the demise of the General Services department, income has decreased dramatically (staff cannot provide accurate numbers) the Berkeley Community Theater which housed as many as 168 events annually now is lucky to host 12 (a tremendous loss of income). I could elaborate on many political decisions during my 30 year tenure with BUSD which were detrimental to both BUSD and the public but what’s the use. Cannot change history, hopefully just not repeating the stupid decisions.

    Visions can become reality. Ask Phil Tagami. I do not know Mr. Tagami but his developments/projects seem to be a success. The right people at the right time to make a good decision with the outcome being in the BEST interest for the citizens. What a concept. Was that not the concept of the building (KCC) originally? It is a beautiful building with great potential. The key to it’s success, in my opinion, is proper management with out many restrictions. Common sense should be the rule and by which one is guided. Take a few risks. The rewards can be Phenomenal.

    It is a shame that some elected representatives and some city staffers are incompetent, vindictive and just plain ignorant. Lets hope for the best.

    Recently Dan Lindheim who is presently the Director of Community and Economic Development Agency for the City of Oakland has provided information to the City council regarding the KCC. I had the pleasure of serving on various Committees prior to my departure from BUSD with Mr Lindheim who is in my opinion, knowledgeable, competent and creative. The ball should be rolling, albeit not far, but it’s rolling. Give it a kick. It’s your tax money is it not?