The Hive Is Buzzing

Signature’s new development in Uptown has re-envisioned urban living, marrying indie businesses, apartment living, and public hangouts. Is it a sign of things to come?


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The Hive’s combination of cool architecture and indie businesses has clearly resonated with the public.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

The Hive, the hip, new cluster of retail, offices, and apartments in Uptown, has brought vibrancy and community to a long dilapidated block of buildings on Oakland’s historic Broadway Auto Row.

Lines are out the door for the project’s two restaurants, and a third is on the way. Apartments are getting leased rapidly, families are gathering in the central plaza to hear live bands, men are getting sheared at the retro People’s Barber Shop, and entrepreneurs are chasing their dreams at the Impact Hub co-working center. City officials are ecstatic, and real estate insiders are touring admiringly.

What sort of honey did the Signature Development Group pour into The Hive to get so much buzz, and does it portent similar developments on Oakland’s horizon as the city braces for an onslaught of growth?

Some of the magic at The Hive comes from the unique mix of old and new architecture and its provision of communal space. But Signature Development President Mike Ghielmetti said the secret sauce was recruiting local entrepreneurs to be tenants. He believes that they are largely responsible for creating something as cool as Oakland itself.

“In real estate circles, people talk a lot about placemaking,” Ghielmetti said. “I think people make places. The entrepreneurs, the customers, the residents make the flavor. We don’t think that we did it. We think that we were a part of it.”

At The Hive, 104 apartments—the first 33 of which were mostly snapped up after a Sept. 8 grand opening—will provide the financial buffer that Ghielmetti said allows Signature to be forgiving on rents to local small businesses. Monthly rents range from $2,129 per month to $4,500 for a three-bedroom.

Tenants include Drake’s Dealership, a new beer and pizza garden; Calavera, a Oaxacan-inspired Mexican restaurant; the headquarters for East Oakland-born Numi Organic Tea; and Firebrand Artisan Breads, which at press time was scheduled in October to open a bread, pastry, and sandwich shop.

Drake’s, owned by the San Leandro brewery of the same name, built a spectacular brick-walled, open-?air seating area by removing the roof of an old Dodge service building while leaving the old iron trellising in place. With adirondack chairs surrounding magnolia trees, it has indoor and outdoor seating for more than 430 people and has proven extremely popular.

Soon artist and entrepreneur Keba Konte’s Red Bay Coffee roasting company, from East Oakland, will open a retail store in a converted shipping container on the plaza.

One likely customer will be Phuong Doan, a beverage salesman who lives near Lake Merritt and first came to the People’s Barber Shop several months ago after seeing an advertisement on Facebook. He has returned repeatedly for haircuts and to eat at Calavera and Drake’s, including one summery evening when both restaurants were serving customers on the plaza while a band played music.

“I think it’s great for Oakland,” Doan said. “It’s the place to come to.”

Firebrand founder Colleen Orlando said there is already strong sense of community among the business owners, and Ghielmetti has been very supportive of her move from Emeryville.

“I often imagine what it would be like if we were to go this totally alone; it’s a really special environment,” said Orlando, a young woman with tattooed arms who runs Firebrand with co-owner and partner Matt Kreutz, a modern entrepreneur with tattoos of his own, big rings in his ear?lobes, and a half?-hoop in his septum.

Previously, Firebrand was a wholesale-only business that had a strong reputation for its distinctive breads. Now it will have its bakery and a retail outlet a mere four blocks away from the giant former Sears building that Uber Technologies just purchased for a major East Bay outpost.

To get Firebrand, Signature worked closely with Inner City Advisors, an Oakland-based nonprofit that helps small businesses grow and which also became a Hive tenant.

“Mike’s really gone above and beyond; that is probably the untold story here about The Hive,” said Sean Daniel Murphy, interim CEO of Inner City Advisors, which has invested $1.2 million into Firebrand and two other Hive tenants through its venture arm (in addition to providing hundreds of thousands of dollars in pro-bono advisory services). ICA also backed Impact Hub, which supports businesses aiming to create social and environmental change, and Red Bay Coffee.

Oakland Economic and Workforce Development Director Mark Sawicki thinks Signature’s success at The Hive will inspire other developers. “It’s getting a lot of attention. That can only lead to similar types of development,” Sawicki said.

Still, Sawicki said a project like The Hive takes a special breed.

“What was there was actually pretty ugly,” Sawicki said. “A typical developer would have razed it and built something new. They peeled it back and turned it into an awesome space that is timeless. Signature cultivated a really unique set of tenants to bring it alive. That takes vision, patience. Most developers are not that patient.”

Morten Jensen, architect and president of JRDV Urban International, praised The Hive and said it accomplished much of the sort of thing that he is trying to do with the Shops at the Ridge shopping center reconstruction at Broadway and Pleasant Valley Road. That project will replace a set of single-story buildings fronted by huge surface parking lots with a village of buildings of one to four stories and pedestrian-oriented gathering areas. It will include a new Safeway store and other retail, office, and restaurant space, some of which will overlook a long neglected quarry pond that will get walking paths and benches. Much of the parking will be on rooftops and in a three-level garage over retail.

“We are focusing on getting people outside of cars,” Jensen said. “There will be communal places where people will want to dwell, sit, have coffee.”

For his part, Ghielmetti cautioned that The Hive is a special case—the city-block size of the project, the historic structures—but said his firm will incorporate key elements in its massive 3,100-home Brooklyn Basin development on Oakland’s waterfront, for which streets are being built.

In particular, though its architecture will be new and modern, Brooklyn Basin will include a large waterfront piazza and a huge greenway as its center, as well as boardwalks built with historic timbers from demolished industrial buildings and ongoing entertainment attractions. Signature will also be recruiting local merchants and restaurateurs to give the place a unique character and sense of community.

“If you’re going to sell a widget, people will just look at it online and buy it,” Ghielmetti said. “What people are craving are unique experiences.”

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