D e s i g n E n v e l o p e . c o m
                                                               by William Edward Summers, Inc.


The Oakland Riviera



The link between culture and real estate has been a recurrent topic of interest for architects, and planners. This concern is an especially critical question in what is one of the international centers of innovation, the state of California. With property values increasing dramatically in California, especially in The San Francisco area, real estate has a substantial impact on both culture and business.


Many have observed that San Francisco is the first city to have been destroyed by the Internet. The city was described in “Hollow City”, by Rebecca Solnit and Susan Schwartzenberg, as having been reduced to being a bohemian theme park without the bohemians. Similar devastation of the creative community has occurred in nearby Silicon Valley. The region as a whole has become hostile to the lifestyle requirements of its most innovative citizens. Now the trend has accelerated so that even the top tier of innovative, wealth producing, businesses are being negatively affected.

A productive location for innovation has frequently been in marginalized urban neighbourhoods. Here visionaries, bohemians, and dreamers have, traditionally, found refuge. These types of neighbourhoods are precisely the type that were the most ruthlessly exploited by the dot com era real estate developers in San Francisco. What happens to a culture when these types of people are driven out?

Ironically, a solution to this urgent question may come not from “the next big thing” that many are urgently seeking, but from the world of environmental conservation. Well- intentioned organizations and individuals make great efforts, at substantial expense, to preserve the wilderness. There are even projects underway to create enormous trans- national wilderness habitats.

Conservationist methodologies could be utilized to preserve urban environments for the emerging component of the creative community. Corporate business entities can either individually or collectively, invest in the environments that best accommodate creative people and preserve them as habitats. However, in order to achieve success in this type of endeavor, property owners would need to stop thinking like real estate investors, and begin thinking like conservationists. There is a profound temptation for investors to use standard techniques to manage the explosively rising value of their bricks and mortar. However, in this instance, the most valuable return on investment is the increase in intellectual and cultural capital for the both the investor’s business milieu, and society as a whole. No one should embark on such a project unless they are prepared to wait a generation before beginning to manage their property as simply a real estate investment. The most immediate reward for the corporate investors is the fact that they will be the first in the world to have participated in this new patronage – immediately setting a new standard for the civic and business interface. Naming rights for sports facilities will lose their cachet, how much better to have artists living in the “Microsoft buildings” or “Apple warehouses”, or small businesses setting up in the “Intel district”

The single best area in the San Francisco area for this project is the strip of neighbourhoods along the waterfront, of the nearby city of Oakland, an area that has been named “the Oakland Riviera”. The O.R. is divided into multi-cultural communities such as, “Dogtown”, “Jack London Square”, downtown, “Brooklyn Basin”, and West Oakland. There is a very high vacancy rate throughout the various neighbourhoods, and lots of raw warehouse space. At the time of this writing, Dogtown is the underground warehouse district of choice because of the low cost and proximity to San Francisco – it is located at the eastern base of the Bay Bridge.

Downtown Oakland has commercial space that has been vacant since the 1970’s. One of the reasons for the failure of downtown is, without a doubt, the lack of on-street parking. A sweeping move to install on street, four hour meters on all streets downtown would begin to cause an immediate reduction in vacancies. Unfortunately, government officials in most municipalities still believe in the gospel of public transportation, not fully understanding that in the western United States, any neighbourhood is more vital when it is possible for people to park directly in front of their destination.

For the Oakland Riviera concept to have substantial success, modifications to the zoning codes and city plan would need to be realized. Solutions could include temporary experimental zoning codes, development review in the place of pre-determined zones, and linkage of zoning designation with usage/occupancy of building. The key is to allow flexibility in general, and live/work throughout the area.

Streamlining the building permit process for the addition of bathrooms and kitchens for any building in this area would create an immediate upsurge in occupancy. This could be directed by the requirement that non-conforming occupants in the special zoning area be required to have their own business, in addition to whatever other occupation they have.

Oakland is a city that many white upper middle class individuals view with trepidation. It is majority African American and has a rapidly expanding population with roots in the third world. Frankly, Oakland has earned a reputation as a dangerous, drug-infested city, with stray bullets, and irrepressible gangs. However, Oakland’s physical setting is undeniably gorgeous, with sweeping city and bay views from the hills, diverse architecture, and substantial greenbelts. Now, within the new context of the post dot-com world, Oakland, has undergone a transformation, and is beginning to move in a different direction. Now in addition to merely having weather that is better than San Francisco’s, it is a city with multicultural beauty, a place with many experimental enterprises – especially in the academic and cultural realm. It is a side stream, where anyone can live a slack life with relative ease, without being concerned with trends or fashion. Slack, and non-fashion, are primary components of modern freedom. Freedom is critical for creative people, who are much better off not having to be overly concerned about basic living expenses, or being in style.

Another development is the decline in the inner city crack cocaine culture. Interestingly, it is being replaced by real estate investment and development within a small but growing number of people who formerly might have gone into the illicit drug business. A new type of hip-hop real estate investor can be seen with increasing frequency. Methodologies, and perspectives from hip-hop, and third world multiculturalism, when interacting with influences and wealth from Silicon Valley and San Francisco are creating a positive environment for both the formerly marginalized, and creative people in general.

Coming in December 2005: More about “The Oakland Riviera”, and “Replacing the Nine County Bay Area”

Sole copyright William Edward Summers, 2005, all rights reserved.