Kaiser Auditorium Renovation Underway

Emeryville’s Orton Development gets the go-ahead to mastermind the revival of the 101-year-old venue that’s been dormant for a decade.


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The construction of Oakland Civic Auditorium.

Photo courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room

It’s not every day that a civic monument rises from the dead. But that’s essentially what happened in July when the Oakland City Council approved a bid by Orton Development Inc. to lease and refurbish the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center.

Built between the shore of Lake Merritt and the Alameda Estuary in 1914, the 215,000-square foot Beaux-arts convention center, also known as the Oakland Municipal Auditorium, spent decades as the beating heart of Oakland culture. It has hosted the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, roller derbies, Christmas pageants, and games for the UC Berkeley’s women’s basketball team. It was also the site of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. to mark the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and years later, the site of a controversial Occupy Oakland action.

But the center’s true claim to fame was as a music venue: Musicians of every stripe played in its 45,000-square-foot arena, from Elvis Presley and the Grateful Dead to The Clash and Public Enemy. The smaller theater, ultimately renamed for the late conductor Calvin Simmons, served as home to what was then known as the Oakland Symphony, and popular performers such as The Jam and Sweet Honey in the Rock. As an Oakland institution, the facility is on par with the Tribune Building and City Hall.

“It’s one of our most iconic structures in the city,” said Rachel Flynn, the director of Oakland’s planning department. “When you see it, you know it’s Oakland.”

In 2005 Oakland closed the building due to severe budget cuts, and for nearly a decade it languished as an unprotected vacant venue on its roughly five acre site. Last year burglars broke in and stole copper wire out of the walls, forcing the city to put up a fence and hire 24/7 security service to secure the building.

In September 2014, Oakland decided to assign the renovation of the center to a private contractor and issued a request for proposal on the rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of the center and its management. The RFP also required renovation of the 1,900-seat Calvin Simmons Theater for use as a performance venue.

Two bidders, Emeryville’s Orton Development Inc. and Oakland’s Creative Development Partners, vied for the project.

City officials ultimately concluded that Orton’s proposal made the most sense, granting the company an exclusive one-year agreement to deliver a viable restoration plan for the historic 101-year-old venue. The city will retain ownership of the facility, which Orton will lease and manage.

The company proposed a $52 million renovation that would include a commercial tenant in the arena’s ground floor that could be a manufacturer or brewery and suggested upper floors could be developed for offices to generate revenue for the project. Orton also said it would revamp the theater for active use.

Oakland’s Creative Development Partners proposed renovating the interior of the building and installing a hotel and hospitality training program next door. Jeremy Liu, a managing partner at Creative Development Partners, said his company intended to finance the renovation of the arena through the hotel, which would also provide jobs for locals and partner with nearby Laney College to train hospitality workers.

Orton has partnered with Heller Manus Architects, landscape architect Hood Studio, and the local retailer Oaklandish. Orton must submit detailed plans throughout the year. The proposal hasn’t been finalized and will include public hearings and design review.

The city’s RFP for the project envisioned uses as varied as cultural, institutional, office, commercial, retail, and light industrial with overall rehab consistent with preservation standards and significant seismic and structural improvements. The RFP also required that the upgraded Calvin Simmons Theater be made available for an as yet to be determined number of times to local performing arts groups.

“The Orton team literally has money in the bank,” Flynn said. “So much so that even if that wasn’t enough to complete the entire project, it would be enough to borrow money.”

But not everyone is resting easy with the decision. In June, a petition called Save the Arena was launched to stop Oakland from granting Orton the lease to the Kaiser center, objecting to the addition of commercial and office space within the arena portion of the development.

Eddie Orton, president of Orton Development, said his company will consult with the community on the development.

“We learn an enormous amount from listening to the constituents and the stakeholders of the property,” Orton said. “We do very extensive interviewing because we’re designers and when we learn more about the history, more about the context, the better design we do.”

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