San Pablo Avenue Condos Are Works of Art
Local artists add charisma to an infill housing project, Wardenclyffe, a condominium complex from Flatlands Development Holdings.
Unlike some of its neighboring developments, Wardenclyffe is a condominium project with real artistic style.
Photos by Susan Kuchinskas
An oddity is rising on San Pablo Avenue, just north of Stanford Avenue: a five-story concrete building lavishly decorated with incised or painted concrete panels, window frames and balconies of rusted metal, and window bars crafted from plumbing pipe, complete with gauges. Two dragons and two eagles, fabricated from rusted metal, lurk at the rooftop.
This is Wardenclyffe, a condominium complex from Flatlands Development Holdings. In a landscape of stucco apartment blocks, wooden bungalows, and small businesses, the building stands out like a punk rocker at a church barbecue.
The project’s namesake, Wardenclyffe Tower, was the final, failed project of Nicola Tesla, inventor of alternating current. That 187-foot structure, completed in 1902, was supposed to transmit wireless telegraphic messages across the world. The Oakland version reflects Tesla’s brand of Victorian futurism with a steampunk esthetic: brutalist masses with luxurious details.
“The name Wardenclyffe alludes to the past and the future. The building is done with a nod to the Old World, with an infusion of modern technology throughout,” said Dwight Linden, Flatlands co-founder.
Playing against all that raw concrete and metal are ultra smart-home elements, some standard, some upgrades, including thermostats, locks, and light switches that can be controlled wirelessly or via a hub. In Linden’s unit, waving your hand at a sensor opens closet doors, which close again automatically after a set period of time.
Design aficionados may notice a resemblance to a baroque, top-heavy complex at the corner of West Grand Avenue and Curtis Street. That building, Grand Gables, is a curious mix of Bavarian chalet and art nouveau. Grand Gables was the first in a series of Flatlands projects bringing some pizzazz to the Oakland skyline.
Linden and Flatlands co-founder Dennis White took over construction of Grand Gables when the original developer folded during the financial crisis in 2008, staying true to its quirky design. Taking derelict properties and creating infill housing became a sideline for Linden, a software entrepreneur, and White, a former IT executive.
Wardenclyffe extends the Grand Gables theme of hiring artists and artisans to contribute custom elements. Misha S. Naiman fabricated the dragon and eagle gargoyles. The murals were done by Tom Franco, Colin Hurley, David Mintim, and Justin Iredale, all members of the Firehouse Art Collective — one of whose locations happened to be next door. Linden became friendly with the Firehouse folks as construction got underway.
While Franco had done other public art commissions, this was his first architectural installation. “It’s super important for the success of a new building to get to know the neighborhood and neighbors, and a great way to do that is through the art,” Franco says. He acknowledged that, “You’re introducing a whole other social element to that neighborhood. It could be good or bad.”
One recent passerby’s critical reaction: “I just don’t get it.”
But others do.
Kim Cole, broker/owner of Kim Cole Real Estate and the listing agent for the condos, admits the project was not an easy sell, but that was partly because of the mixed neighborhood and partly because the building wasn’t far along when sales started. She estimates that the quirky, handcrafted design is a good 50 percent of the appeal, with smart features contributing another 40 percent.
“The artistic quality of the building either appeals to people or not. It’s not the property for everyone, but people who are touched by it are really touched by it,” Cole said.
Linden and White both will live there, and it’s clearly a passion project for Linden.
“We see little pieces of land that, in the past, might have been undeveloped, and we could do something with them to bring housing to the Oakland area while providing something not so cookie-cutter,” he said.
When completed, Wardenclyffe will hold 17 one-, two- and three-bedroom condos at prices ranging from $619,000 to $995,000. The three-bedroom model includes an office and three bathrooms. (At this writing, Redfin listed 73 condos for sale in Oakland at a median listing price of $625,000.)
In other words, high-design embellished with fine art from local artists does not need to come at a premium.
Linden calculated that all these intriguing details add only 5 to 10 percent to the cost of a project. “If you manage right and plan ahead, it adds to the cost but not dramatically. The key is to do enough to add character without blowing out the budget.”
Not everyone understands that fine balance. The initial contractor on Wardenclyffe splurged on items like hand-wrought iron truss brackets that most people wouldn’t be able to distinguish from factory-made brackets.
It’s also crucial to separate the art from the structural requirements. An iron staircase had to be ripped out after art welders failed to work to industry standards. On the other hand, one of the professional welders on the project, Tulio Ixcoy Perez, turned out to have an artist’s eye and ended up doing some of the creative ironwork.
The lavishly embellished façade is practical, as well: It discourages tagging. “Having anything that’s a large open canvas is something we try to avoid,” Linden says.
And sell they did. Twelve of the 17 units are in contract.
Much-needed housing is popping up all along the San Pablo corridor, but so much of it looks generic. Wardenclyffe shows there could have something better: Design that works and wows.