New Life for Oakland Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center

Rendering by Heller Manus Architects and photo by Frank Deras Photography

The Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center (Auditorium) in downtown Oakland is being brought back to life by nationally renowned developer, Orton Development, Inc. (ODI).

ODI specializes in structuring win-win public private partnerships and has redeveloped a diverse range of properties including factories, offices, warehouses, retail, medical, educational, and live-work spaces.

City of Oakland’s Mayor Libby Schaaf states: ‘The Kaiser Convention Center is the crown jewel of Lake Merritt. The renovation of this historic space will revitalize the immediate area and bring a new, vibrant energy, to the shores of oui’ lake and one of Oakland’s greatest landmarks.”

The Project

The Henry J Kaiser Convention Center, a historic, publicly owned, multi-purpose building, is located at 10 Tenth St. in downtown Oakland. The 215,000-square-foot building is three stories tall with a full basement and includes a 6,000- seat arena, a large theater, a large ballroom and 185 parking spaces. Built in 1914, it closed in 2005. For 14 years, the building has been vacant and remains in deep disrepair.

Rust}’ Jackson, a nationally- known concert promoter said “the Henry J. Kaiser has an outstanding history as a building that hosted African American cultural arts and entertainment. From concerts featuring James Brown, to the Temptations, to the ‘Trat Games” and stage plays in the theater, the Henry J. Kaiser building has hosted events of historical significance in the Black community.”

The Orton Development Team’s plans are to restore the arena foyer and him the arena portion into offices for local arts and non-profit organizations, add a restaurant with outdoor seating on the first floor, and create practice rooms, rehearsal spaces, shops and storage space for artists in the basement.

The Calvin Simmons Theater, (named after the first African American conductor of a major symphony), located on the west side of the building, will have new theater systems, an expanded orchestra pit, revised seating and renovated dressing rooms.

According to Project Manager David Dial the north facade of the building, which includes historic cornices, awnings and signage, will be preserved. The restoration will include new ADA accessible paths of travel at the building entrances, replacement of sidewalks surrounding the building, and loading and drop off zones along 10th street.

ODI Development Team’s vision for the project encompasses the following 6 core values: 1) History’ – honor the building’s illustrious history in fiction and design; 2) Energy – create a hub of activity that spans the building throughout the day; 3) Community’ – invite the public into the building and design space that builds community within it; 4) Arts – accommodate artists as tenants and value the arts throughout the building; 5) Education – provide spaces for people of all ages to learn from experts and one another, 6) Fairness – support uses that all Oakland visitors and residents can enjoy.

According to Arif Khatib, founder and president emeritus of the Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame, “the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center has a rich history in Oakland, as the former Oakland Auditorium. This project will position Oakland for additional visibility as a city on the rise. It will enhance Oakland’s arts community’, its past and present performers, and has multiple uses that will make major contributions to the city and its citizens. It will add to Oakland’s reputation as a leader in advancing new and innovative ideas, themes and ventures of great social and cultural impact, and enhance the viability of the Bay Area, as a model region’

Project Benefits

The restoration of the Henry’ J Kaiser Convention Center, which will be renamed, Oakland Civic, creates substantial benefits for the City of Oakland, its residents and visitors. Bringing this premier concert venue back to life adds another first-class meeting place for major attractions and augments the Fox Theater and the Paramount Theater.

The project will create long-term and short-term employment opportunities for Oakland businesses and residents during the construction and operation phases. Fifty percent of all work will be performed by local. Oak- land-based small businesses, and will include union construction jobs and apprenticeship opportunities for Oakland residents. Commercial events in the Calvin Simmons Theater will provide work for the IATSE Local 107 stagehands. The project will also partner with local education institutions to create sustainable, hands-on training programs within the arts and trades.

The project will contribute $75,000 annually to support local arts organizations’ use of the Calvin Simmons Theater, the Gold Room and the Ballroom.

“The Oakland Civic represents a major opportunity to activate and operationalize the Mayor’s Task Force strategies for cultural preservation, as well as implement the Cultural Equity’ framework in the Cultural Plan” noted Eric Arnold, co-founder of the Community Coalition for Equitable Development and codirector of the Black Arts Movement Business District Community’ Development Corporation, ‘To do that requires some creative and visionary thinking — how can you balance permanent affordability, community inclusion, and economic feasibility, given the financial and logistical constraints? You have to not only apply an equity’ framework, but envision how community benefits can be realized over the duration of a 99-year lease.”

Next Steps

For the Project to move forward, the Oakland City Council must approve the Disposition and Development Agreement and approve the new markets tax credits, which stabilize the project’s funding. The Oakland City Council will hear this matter on July 9, 2009, 3:00 pm. at Oakland City Hall. Oakland residents and others interested in supporting this project are encouraged to inform the Council of their support and to attend the meeting.

Editor’s note: Eddie Dillard, the author of this article, is a supporter of the Orton project. A column written by opponents of the project has been published online at


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