Oakland Undergoes a Construction Boom

Wondering how much new office, retail, and housing space is in Oakland’s future? Here are 17 projects worth reviewing.


Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn

Day and night, Oakland grows. A skyline once painfully stagnant now swarms with cranes. It wasn’t so long ago that Oakland was bad for business — big business, anyway.

Take, for instance, a simple fact: Oakland has not cut the ribbon on a completed high-rise office building since 2002, the year City Center complex opened. Nearly two decades ago, then-Mayor Jerry Brown began to eagerly seek investment in the struggling city. He was successful in many ways — Jack London Square saw some development, the Fox Theater was restored — but Brown was never able to attract the types of businesses it would take to create the robust urban center he envisioned.

The obstacles for development in Oakland have been the same for years. Despite Oakland’s central location in the Bay Area and unrivaled number of available sites — parking lots, vacant auto shops, and the like — its commercial rents simply weren’t high enough to justify building shiny, expensive, steel-frame towers. Not to mention the timeworn idea that Oakland was too rough around the edges to become an economic center, that businesses wouldn’t want to plant their roots in Oaktown.

Today, all of that has changed. The combination of years of accrued cultural capital and skyrocketing commercial rent prices on the Peninsula and in San Francisco have inspired many nontech companies to consider moving their Bay Area headquarters to the East Bay. But as it so happens, right now, Oakland doesn’t have enough space for them. The city’s vacancy rate for centrally located office space is about 3.9 percent, one of the lowest in the country.

Experts say that Oakland, unlike San Francisco, is uniquely positioned to draw thousands of jobs to its downtown because of its affordability and central location, not to mention its celebrated cafes, bars, and restaurants.

“Oakland is incredibly well-served by transit. Every BART line goes through downtown,” said Sarah Karlinsky, a senior policy advisor at SPUR, a Bay Area nonprofit focused on planning issues, adding, “It’s really important to add jobs along transit nodes.” Karlinsky also said that none of Oakland’s BART stations are even close to their max capacity since so many fewer riders take BART to Oakland. 

And the image issue — that’s no longer much of a problem. The folks in suits, it seems, are also eager to participate in Oakland’s latest cultural renaissance. “The positive image that Oakland is projecting is a really big part of this,” said Manan Shah, the Oakland studio director at architecture firm Gensler. Shah and his colleagues have played a big role in envisioning several of Oakland’s most ambitious developments, among them the Eastline and The Key projects.

Most forthcoming projects will also bring significant new retail space into the fold, even if retail as an industry seems doomed because of online sales and the high cost of doing brick-and-mortar business. Kelly Kahn, who works in the mayor’s office and specializes in culture and policy, said that she’s excited about the projects that aim to lift up Oakland’s cultural heritage.

“The projects that are going to have the most transformative impact on Oakland are the ones where the developers are actively thinking about their ground floor and how they can really add to the sense of place and identity in the city of Oakland with great intention and provide space for our arts community,” Kahn said, citing the Eastline Project as well as 2201 Valley St. as examples of buildings where space will be set aside for arts. 

Several of those cranes that have become temporary but longtime fixtures of the downtown skyline are connected to projects that will add millions of square footage of office space to absorb the increased demand for that space.


Project: 601 Oakland City Center

Location: 601 12th St.

Size: 24 stories, 600,000 square feet of office space

Developer: Shorenstein Properties

Completion: 2019

When 601 City Center opens its doors next year, it will be the first stand-alone office building to go up in more than 15 years. The project initially broke ground in 2008, but construction stopped immediately in the wake of the global financial meltdown. The project was infeasible, too unprofitable to finish, so it sat as an empty lot until last year. That’s when Blue Shield signed a lease with the developer, Shorenstein, to become an anchor tenant, a large tenant whose presence ensures a large portion of rent.


Project: The Key

Location: 1100 Broadway

Developer: Ellis Partners

Size: 18 stories, 345,000 square feet

Completion: Unknown

Around the corner from the 12th Street BART Station is the old Key System Railway building, a national historic landmark. The building, originally built in 1911, will now get a facelift, and the empty lot next door will become an 18-story modern high-rise office building. The building will feature a nearly 8,000-square-foot rooftop deck with views of the Bay Area, and the UC Office of the President has already agreed to lease some of its lower floors.

Eastline Project: The city's largest but not tallest building.

Project: Eastline Project

Location: 2100 Telegraph Ave.

Developer: SUDA, Lane Partners

Size: 1.57 million-square-foot office space

Completion: Unknown

The Eastline lot is a familiar one — the 3-acre plot is currently occupied by a vacant burger shack and was known for its vintage cars, bouncing up and down, at First Fridays. At more than a million and a half square feet, the recently approved project would immediately become the largest — but not tallest — building in Oakland. It’s expected to occupy the entire city block adjacent to the Paramount Theatre. Developers have said 18,000 square feet will be used as community arts space.


Other Notables

Uptown Station – In December, Oakland investment group CIM purchased the historic beaux-arts building from Uber for a reported $175 million. When completed, the project is expected to bring 35,000 square feet of retail space to the ground floor as well as office space, though the project currently has no anchor tenant.

2201 Valley St. – A proposed 420-foot, 760,000-square-foot office tower in Uptown. Developer TMG plans to improve the Valley Street edge of the property to accommodate for First Friday events, pop-ups, and outdoor dining.

325 22nd St. – Two Kaiser Center could offer up to 1.1 million square feet in office space.

2150 Webster St. – This 10-story office building undergoing renovation is expected to finish in the next six months.

Uptown Station: Potentially cool co-working spaces. 

In 2016, when Mayor Libby Schaaf announced her plan to inject some 17,000 new units onto Oakland’s housing market by 2024, it was a lofty ambition. The game plan was to build new housing and restore existing housing. The city also relaxed its parking requirements for “granny” units to encourage residents to build more housing on-site.

If the last two years are any indication, Schaaf may meet her goal of adding housing, though many ask: Housing for whom? The amount of residential building permits issued by the city increased by about 500 percent from 2015 to 2017. Nearly 6,000 apartment units alone are expected to reach the market within the next two years. But in the midst of a generation-long housing crisis, some are concerned that most of that new housing won’t be affordable.

“We’re way out of whack. Even if there’s a lot of housing built, it’s not making it cheaper for low-income people,” said Jeff Levin, policy director at East Bay Housing Organizations, about the city’s low ratio of affordable-to-market-rate housing stock. According to the California Department of Housing and Community Development data, only about 7 percent of Oakland’s new housing is intended for low-income residents. “It’s not as simple as supply and demand,” Levin said, though he admitted, “there’s no magic bullet to solving the housing crisis.”

At least some of the housing will likely be used by a newer, larger workforce that will arrive when the office towers go up. What’s clear is that in the near future, Oakland will have more housing — and residents — than ever before.


Project: 1314 Franklin St.

Developer: Carmel Partners

Budget: $200 million plus

Opening: Unknown

The 633-unit project at 1314 Franklin St., across the street from the Tribune Tower, would immediately become Oakland’s second tallest building. In fact, the project had to receive waiver approval to build up to 40 stories. The development will likely feature some of the Town’s more expensive new apartments. Roughly 5 percent will be earmarked for affordable housing, and, on the ground floor, retail rents will be reduced for “community-service businesses.” Demolition of the site began earlier this year.


Project: Brooklyn Basin

Developer: Signature Development Group

Cost: $1.5 billion

Opening: Soon

After more than a decade in various stages of development, Brooklyn Basin is nearly here, a massive development with 3,100 units on 64 acres. The largest development in years, it will feature thousands of new apartments, retail shops, and considerable waterfront park acreage. Mike Ghielmetti, the president of developer Signature, is excited to bring new life and newly enjoyable shoreline to the public. “The project is going to reunite a part of the city that’s been off limits for a century,” Ghielmetti said. Once finished, Oaklanders will be able to ride their bikes on a new chunk of the San Francisco Bay Trail, connecting Jack London Square and the stretch that goes along San Leandro Bay. Though the project won’t be fully completed for another five or so years, the area’s first residents and retailers are expected to begin moving in next year.


Other Notables

MacArthur Commons – 385 units near the MacArthur BART Station

1700 Webster & 1640 Broadway – 206- and 254-unit projects that should hit the market next, in 2019

Broadway/Valdez – Four years ago, the city of Oakland adopted a plan to add 1,800 housing units, more than a million square feet of retail space, a new hotel, and 700,000 square feet of office space to the Auto Row area along Broadway.

500 Kirkham St. – 1,032 apartments next to West Oakland BART Station with 44,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space; it is currently in the planning stages.


One of the challenges to bringing much-needed housing into the market has been the difficulty of balancing budgets in a region where construction costs are generally high. One potential answer: going modular. Modular building has been around forever, but it hasn’t made much of an appearance in urban settings until recently, because of its association with the cookie-cutter suburbs of the past. But they don’t have to be bland. Over the last few years, scores of modular developments have cropped up in Oakland, and they only seem to be growing in popularity. Why?

“The short answer is — it’s quicker,” said Matt Baran, an Oakland architect whose firm designed McArthur Annex, the office development made of cargo containers that sits near the MacArthur BART Station. Baran said that though modular building’s reputation as generic is often correct, it can also serve as a blank canvas and that its customizability in some ways fits Oakland’s collaborative DIY spirit. “It presents architectural opportunities that are interesting.”

“Few places present a more compelling opportunity right now than Oakland,” said Brian Caruso, vice president of development at RAD Urban, which specializes in modular building. He said that modular construction not only costs less — about 20 percent so — but that it generally takes significantly less time as well. Caruso currently overseeing what will become one of Oakland’s largest modular developments at 51st Street and Telegraph Avenue.


Project: 5110 Telegraph Ave.

Developer: RAD Urban

Opening: 2020

The site is across the street from Bakesale Betty and will feature a rooftop farm that will operate year-round. On the ground floor, Whole Foods has already signed a lease to occupy one of the retail spaces below. There will also be a public walkway connecting the various shops and restaurants to a neighboring park. The 204 apartments have an open floorplan with large floor-to-ceiling windows.


Project: 1888 & 1414 Martin Luther King Jr. Way

Developer: CRC Development, LLC

Opening: 2020

Both of these modular buildings were designed by Baran Studios. Modular building can suffer from a lack of creativity, but Baran and his team are making an effort to use its creative confines to set a new standard. The 88-unit building at 1888 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, in Uptown, for instance, was designed to match the curvature of the street’s edge in a way that would be difficult to do with traditional building methods.


In some ways, how Oakland will change and grow over the next decade is still undetermined. Some of the big development projects that have been proposed may not work out, because that’s just how it goes — financial markets and the economy can be fickle. But if the current trend continues, this wave of the development may only be the beginning. In the past few months, the city has received proposals that would radically redevelop the areas around the Lake Merritt and West Oakland BART stations. And perhaps the most transformative of projects, in East Oakland, is looking more likely. The city’s last remaining sports franchise, the Oakland A’s, is aggressively looking for a home. The A’s recently offered the city a lump sum for the Coliseum site. A lot may change, but Coliseum City, which once seemed like a mirage, may ultimately bend into focus.

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