As we noted when the formal application to move forward with plans for a seemingly split 460-foot-tall tower to rise at 1261 Harrison Street in Downtown Oakland were filed with the city, while the site is only zoned for development up to 275 feet in height, and that’s assuming a special Conditional Use Permit is approved as the as of right limit for the block is actually only 85 feet, the project team is planning to leverage a State Density Bonus in order to achieve the extra height and build 185 condos over 120,000 square feet of office space and 12,000 square feet of restaurant/retail within the tower’s base.

But in order to move forward with the development as proposed, the existing building at 1261 Harrison Street would need to be razed, a building which has been designated as a historic resource and contributor to the city’s historic “King Block,” a block of five buildings and alley which were developed by the Charles H. King family between 1904 and 1922 and have been deemed an official Area of Primary Importance (API) for the City of Oakland.

As the existing building falls within an API, any demolition and redevelopment of the site is required to be held to a higher standard and detailed design review, with a stated preference for the adaptive reuse and preservation of historic resources.

And according to Oakland’s Planning Department, the project team has already been informed that the proposed tower may not qualify for an approval as the development “would result in the loss of a historic building” and could “potentially compromise the King Building Group API.”

With that in mind, the Department will be seeking an atypical early review and input from the city’s Planning Commission with respect to the proposed project tomorrow evening.

If the Commission agrees with the Planning Department’s current position that “the project does not meet the requirements for approval,” the department will return with findings to support a denial of the project as proposed. But if the Commission disagrees with the department, Planning will direct the project team to move forward with a formal Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and initiate a full design review for the project, after which an official determination will be made.

We’ll keep you posted and plugged-in.

77 thoughts on “Historic Block Could Sink Plans for 460-Foot-Tall Oakland Tower”
  1. I’m not typically a huge fan of façadism, but this might not be an entirely inappropriate solution for this particular quandary. P.S., I’m glad the City isn’t rolling over for the developer.

  2. We can see that the historic preservationists have really cherished and looked after this “historic” building. The graffiti, peeling paint on the building and surrounding blight should disqualify any so called historic preservationists from now making a fuss about the possible loss of that building. The preservationists aren’t concerned about the neglect but all of a sudden are concerned about someone coming in and improving the area? That building is not very attractive. The attractive historic building next door is being preserved and the alley will be incorporated into the new development. This would be a huge loss for Oakland if this project is denied in favor of saving a small blighted neglected building of little historic or aesthetic importance. Oakland needs the housing and the development in that blighted and underdeveloped part of downtown.

    1. Do not be so superficial. The building needs to be cleaned and the windows repaired and it will last another century.

      1. I’d be much more sympathetic to the plight of the preservationists if they were good custodians of these neglected properties all over Oakland in the first place. People should take care of buildings they value not come out only when something is proposed. Maybe they can incorporate the facade without killing the entire project. We will soon find out.

        1. I agree. I would also like to add, just because something is old doesn’t mean it is better than what is proposed and that the value the proposed building could bring to DTO may be far more significant than the history the existing building has. In my opinion there are some really nice older buildings in Oakland worth preserving but this one isn’t one of them.

          1. I agree. The harm of losing this iconic proposed building far outweighs the value of losing this small, rather squat utilitarian blighted building.

        2. You don’t seem to understand the actual situation or history at hand.

          Oakland’s Lake Merritt Station Area Plan (LMSAP), which was adopted prior to the plans for the Harrison Street site being drafted, addresses the historic King Block by name and outlines specific policies to encourage its retention and revitalization.

          In addition, the approved LMSAP specifically limited new building heights around the King Block “to keep future development within the range of existing heights in the district” (i.e., it’s not simply about saving or incorporating the facade).

          1. That’s all something that can be changed through variances. The developer wouldn’t have made this proposal if all of this was written in stone. The City of Oakland should do whatever it takes to have this proposed iconic building come to fruition.

          2. Once again, you really don’t understand the actual situation or history at hand.

            The development team was well aware of the King Block restrictions prior to drafting their plan but is arguing financial duress based on their stated economic model for rehabilitating and re-purposing the existing building.

            At the same time, Planning is calling BS on the team’s model which includes over $3 million in seismic upgrade costs, costs which are specifically “prohibited in being includes in upgrade costs under the Demolition Findings Ordinance” and without which the team’s stated hurdle rate or return “is exceeded by over one million dollars.”

      2. Does anyone in Oakland know the historic significance of this building? I don’t. I Googled it and couldn’t find anything. Architecturally there appears to be no notable features, claiming the arches are some sort of architectural element worthy of preserving is a stretch. The proposed building is architecturally superior to the existing building, which is being neglected. The proposed building would bring needed tax revenue, foot traffic and would serve as an icon to the Oakland skyline. What benefit would keeping the older dilapidated building have? Developers want to to invest in Oakland and see its potential, why make is so difficult for them?

          1. but also who cares? it’s sort of interesting but the new building is of greater benefit to the city.

          2. I have read this previously. For those who have not seen it here is a quote: “The five buildings and ally that comprise the King Building were developed between 1904 and 1922 by the Charles H. King family and constitute the principal surviving Oakland structures associated with the wheat and lumber baron Charles H. King and his locally prominent descendants. In addition, the group provides a good and somewhat unusual example of an early 20th century downtown development project that was carried out in phases.” from case file PLN17-438.

          3. Notcom:

            Well thank you for the attempt at snarky riposte cum rebuke. I read the document and your “pp03” (sic), which amounts to a dry recitation of the qualities of the supposedly “historically significant” building. But in fact, a detailed description of the architectural qualities of a building sans comparison and contrast or historical contexts social, economic, cultural, political, etc., do not an argument make. What have we left? The document in question tells us this building is “significant” almost solely due to the fact that it (a) represents early twentieth century building modes in downtown Oakland and (b) the building’s original proprietors, a minor dynastic family, were “prominent” at the time.

            With respect to point (a), so what?? The entire downtown of Oakland contains original buildings from the early twentieth century and (b) this now eyesore of a building, reflects neither an important architect’s prescient (let alone charming) envisioning a house of commerce nor a once “prominent family’s” statement about and for Oakland Urbanus Twentieth Century. It was and remains a perfunctory structure for commerce by a white and most likely very racist family (given Oakland’s white racist culture between the late nineteenth and mid- twentieth century; but these are not Oaklander’s of the Kaiser family stature or even the Knowlands.

            Thus, your cited document fails to make any persuasive case about the “historicity” of what is by any measure a rather mundane structure of a minor Oakland white dynastic family whose wealth and prominence dissipated over the past century, a family who have left no current businesses, no lasting technologies, no cultural or educational institutions, no suggestion that any member would foresee an Oakland falling to ruin by the 1970s and rising torturously over the ensuing four decades to emerge as as a multiracial, multicultural Phoenix fledgling. The family in question didn’t even leave so much as a park bench.

            I support the preservation of significant buildings and all manner of significant structures, no matter how flawed the building, its originators, its purposes, and its meanings, both of its day and in the present. But the operative word is “significant.” This building fails to achieve any measure of “significant,” the family that built it failed to make any lasting contextual contributions to Oakland, and the city document to which you allude fails to make any remotely convincing argument as to the existing structure’s enduring historical/social/aesthetic and/or engineering importance.

            By contrast, the proposed high rise would break with Oakland’s cabined, cribbed, and confined mid-century nearly also-ran modernist/international skyline knock-off; it would have the effect of James Syhabout breaking the by-the-numbers Waters Cali-Mediterranean cuisine, enabling Oakland not to kowtow to Berkeley but overtake it with its wild multicultural creations. The proposed split tower is instantly iconic, visually/aesthetically a point of pivot, and it would bring in the tax dollars to help fund the city of Oakland’s perpetually starved progressive social/educational programs for the city’s underserved communities.

            The existing building is no Jane Jacob’s dream or possibility. Have done with it and build what truly will become a significant aesthetic, commercial, and socially constructed space and building.

          4. Rene:

            First, I think Notcom merely linked the developers proposal, probably not a document to support preservation of the existing building.
            Second, by your argument, should the historical designation not be removed from the entire block of buildings then, not just the one that the current owner has chosen to neglect?

          5. Honestly, I feel hurt – quite hurt really – that you feel THAT was an example of snarkiness. Snarky would have said something like “for a few more minutes of research beyond basic Googling you might have found this..” or “if you’re going to launch on long rants you might want to acquaint yourself with the City of Oakland’s website.”
            Instead, serving as ‘amicus curiae’, I simply provided the info requested. So if the level of discourse has progressed no more than from “this buildling has no significance” to “OK, it has some significance but no one cares”, it’s hardly my fault.
            But anyway: you’re welcome.

          6. Sorry, the link is actually the planning commission report which is where you should direct your anger…

          1. It is historic as judged by zoning regulations. The law might be changed, especially if the historic value of what seems to be an unkept old building is reevaluated.

          2. Not quite. The King Block is actually a National Register-eligible block of buildings and the specific building on the project site was assigned a National Register Status Code of “3D,” meaning “Appears eligible as a contributor to a fully documented [National Register] district” back in 1995.

            And as previously noted, the King Block/Building Group has been identified as “one of seven Areas of Primary Importance (API) within the City, and the subject building is individually specified as a Historic Resource.”

          3. What does National Register eligible mean? Does that classification come with legal status? It looks like Oakland once decided that this was historic. Oakland could change its mind.

      1. I agree that Oakland’s history is important, but is this building worth preserving when compared to the more prominent and more relevant historic buildings in Oakland?

    2. Your hypocrisy is incredible! One would think a regular reader of a real estate site would know that property upkeep is the responsibility of the owner – not interested third parties – but here we don’t even need to wonder, one has to go back less than 2 months to find this:

      “There are so many blighted properties in transition where anti-blight ordinances are not enforced by the city. It’s as if the City is afraid to ask anything of the owners or developers as they allow their valuable well located properties to remained blighted with huge amounts of graffiti.”

      You might remember this kernel of wisdom, you wrote it.

      1. Why aren’t the preservationists pressuring the city to pressure the owner to maintain blighted historic buildings? The City and preservationists could work in tandem. One does not preclude the other from looking after these historic properties. You don’t allow something You supposedly cherish to become rundown and neglected. That’s the ultimate in hypocrisy coming from the historic preservationists in Oakland.

        1. Last-minute intervention isn’t ideal, but it’s logical if one has limited resources; so perhaps they spend them where they feel it will do the most good.

          Maybe you can make a nice six (five or even four) figure donation to the OHA, or some other similar group, to allow them to expand their efforts.

          1. If they could make a solid case for why this building should be preserved, their metrics on how they deem a particular building to have historical and architectural significance, and when a historical building should be preserved regardless of a proposed building’s positive effect would have on DTO.

      2. Don’t put it past an owner of a blighted building to keep it in that condition as a bargaining chip with City Planning.

        1. Maybe the current owner saw no value or return in investing in it? Look at the block it’s on and the immediate area.

          1. The current owner is Pinnacle Red Group – correct? how long have they been in possession off the property? Did they purchase it because they expected a return of capital on the “historical” building or because they figured they could level it and build something profitable?

            Nothing wrong with trying to make a buck, that is probably why the current buildings were constructed, and they probably did yield a good return in their time. It just isn’t a good argument against the designation of the building as a historical resource.

      3. Maybe the owner can not afford to keep the property up or does not think it is worth the investment. It is a business investment after all. There are so many vandals ruining public and private property in Oakland it takes a significant financial investment to maintain a property free of graffiti, etc. Is that the fault of the owner?

  3. Seriously…keep the cool 4 store brick building and rehab it for sure, but this little grey thing? How can this possibly be serious? This awesome tower next to a cool old red brick building will look amazing, and much better than the current state!!

    1. I completely agree. The contrast and the alley way between old and new will be amazing. The four story building is really cool. I’d lay down in front of a bulldozer if anyone came for that gem.

  4. Not saying that this building has any historical value, but I do have to point out that letting a building fall into disrepair does not make it any less historical – otherwise it is not hard to figure out how some developers would get around historical preservation requirements.

  5. The developer bought a protected property occupied by low income tenants and now wants to build on it like they bought a vacant lot. Only shady people do that and only a shady government allows it. We’ll see how this goes.

    1. I am curious, how many tenants live in this building and what condition are the units in? What is the present condition of the access to rental units now and could the proposed building building, with its significant increase in units, be an improvement? Also, could the tax increases from development allow the city to provide more assistance and services to low income families or even allow the construction of low income buildings which are modern and up to current standards?

      1. There is no question that this building will generate much more revenue for Oakland than this small building. The City of Oakland will lose out tremendously if this project is derailed. The blight will remain in an under utilized block.

  6. Ridiculous and sad. There is too low a bar for declaring something historic these days. Classifying entire blocks as historic without cause can be just as damaging as bulldozing them — it’s like bulldozing and destroying, in advance, the new buildings that were supposed to be part of our future.

    1. That section of downtown Oakland is filled with small under utilized blighted buildings. The thriving areas of DTO are City Center, Uptown, Old Oakland, a few blocks of Chinatown, and Lake Merritt Financial District.

    2. I am glad you said what I have been wanting to say. The bar is set way too low. The future will be part of our history as well.

  7. History is very best appreciated in books. While physical historic preservation in time and space has its place, this is not it

  8. If I’m not mistaken this is the site of the brick King Building which partially collapsed in the ’89 quake and was demolished. So I would suspect the historic designation is literally a leftover — an afterimage.

  9. There wouldn’t be so many people crying foul about the historic status for this parcel if Bay Area cities weren’t so anti-development across the board. You reap what you sow…

  10. So in this case we need to preserve a wheat and lumber baron’s legacy? Because the King’s never took advantage of their employees or treated everyone fairly. Where is the outrage from District 3 Representative Lynette McElhaneous? It all comes down to Oakland officials padding their pockets.

    1. The Planning notes mention “the wheat and lumber baron Charles H. King and his locally prominent descendants” so there’s a clue. Any local detectives want to figure out who those descendants are?

          1. Frisco:

            The Kings, whoever they were, witnessed their “prominence” dissipate over the past one hundred years. During this time, they left no Oakland cultural institutions, no endowments for any Oakland educational institutions, no lands, properties, or holdings for Oakland to develop into zoos, museums, schools, and/or performance spaces. The Kings left not so much as a park bench.

            Whatever one might think of the politics of the Roosevelt-supporting Oakland dynastic Kaiser family or the Nixon-supporting Oakland Knowland dynasty, the former left one of the nation’s leading health care corporations ensconced and powerful in Oakland and a decided funder of Oakland cultural institutions. The Knowland’s left iconic towers, lands for public parks and a certain innovative zoo of national growing national prominence, not to mention some outstanding private homes in the Oakland hills.

            The Knowlands and Kaisers are dynastic Oakland families. The Kings? Not so much.

  11. Agree with Aerel. Was excited to see something interesting (and more housing) added to our skyline of boxy, bland mid-rises.

  12. So if this development doesn’t go through what happens to this block? Is the city satisfied to leave the blighted unproductive buildings sitting there forever? Do we keep a blighted block without repurposing it for the greater good of Oakland? I don’t see any other developers clamoring to do a “The Hive” style development here like Signature Property developed in Uptown.

  13. Forcing the retention of these buildings in lieu of the proposed development is the equivalent of making the present generation live amidst malevolent ghosts.

  14. Oakland has an historic problem with poverty. It would be nice if any of the City’s politicians took an interest in encouraging development of people alive today instead of rehashing and glorifying the history of last century’s 1% elites.

    Walk around this block at nighttime. Mentally ill drug addicted homeless people passed out on the sidewalk with literally dozens of rats hopping out of the sewer to feed on the piles of garbage.

    City Hall? Historic. Fox theater? Historic. This thing? Ha.

    Is it more important than the people who live in community that needs jobs and a place to live? No. Build the new building asap.

    1. I drove by there today and posted photos online. This building looks terrible and has been severely neglected. It’s obvious no one cares about it. Oakland needs all the development it can get. Who knows when the economy will take another dive.

  15. Google Charles H King. Nothing comes up except a biography written over a hundred years ago. So we need to preserve this dilapidated building to serve as a landmark forever just because he was wealthy. Who cares about King? The more I think about this the more ridiculous it seems.

    1. I just Googled him – founder of King City in Monterey County, a “rags to riches” story. I didn’t read the whole thing even though it is an interesting story – just because a person is accomplished in life doesn’t make the building worth keeping; I don’t think that he was known for ground breaking architectural talent. Even if the building was erected by an early US President or a Civil rights leader, would it still be worth keeping?

      I think the issue is if the building should be preserved based on its history, not what somebody is proposing to build in it’s place. There are other available lots.

      1. Thanks, Googling King City helped bring up something. “Charles King became well known in Oakland as a developer and public-spirited philanthropist. Two boys of Charles and Kate King, Joseph and Charles Jr., and daughter, Pearl, all achieved notable success in their chosen fields”. Interesting story but I still don’t think this particular building should be saved because of it.

      2. Also, if it such an important building why is it being totally neglected? Imagining 20 more years of neglect. Few people are interested in this building. King’s history my be interesting to some. The need for housing is real and Oakland needs all it can get before the next economic downturn.

        1. “if it such an important building why is it being totally neglected?”
          Perhaps the current owner wants to level it?

        2. I agree with you.

          This is so not an important structure. The city document to which one NOTCOM alluded tells us the building is “significant” and that its builders, a minor dynastic family, were once “prominent.” But the document’s dry recitation of the architectural features of the building in question in fact makes absolutely zero argument as to why the architectural features qualify as “significant.” There is no comparison and contrast, no social/cultural analysis, and given the actual structure, a discerning view would know why: there is nothing remotely “significant” architecturally, aesthetically, historically, technologically, and culturally about it.

          As for the family that built it, their “prominence” dissipated in the ensuing century: the family was wealthy in its day and white, and that pretty much is it. They were not ever an Oakland family at the level of, say, the Kaiser dynasty or even the Knowlands. The once “prominent” family left no cultural institutions, no academic centers, no parks, not so much as a park bench. They left a mundane structure on Harrison Street that served the needs of their business, one that no longer exists, left no defining or lasting economic or cultural mark on Oakland, produced no lasting technology or present day cadres of industry experts, and most certainly evinced nothing about Oakland’s rise as a white racist industrial town, its crash and burn due to white flight, and its torturously long but ultimately deeply moving (and ongoing) rebirth as the urban, multihued Phoenix of outsize cultural, political, and social influence and power.

          I’m with you.

          The proposed split tower is instantly iconic, visually/aesthetically a point of pivot, and it would bring in the tax dollars to help fund the city of Oakland’s perpetually starved progressive social/educational programs for the city’s underserved communities.

          The existing building is no Jane Jacob’s dream or possibility. Have done with it and build what truly will become a significant aesthetic, commercial, and socially constructed space and building.

          1. Well put. Having studied architecture, architectural engineering and civil engineering (3 years of architectural history), I see nothing of value in this building. I also inspected commercial buildings for almost a decade and this building would be at the bottom of the hundreds of buildings I have inspected.

  16. not building this tower, which will create jobs, add to the tax base, increase the vitality of the area, all to save this crumbling, abandoned waste of space is insane. like seriously, totally insane.

    1. Exactly! Time to put this blighted block to productive use for the good of the entire city. Leaving this block in its present condition is not an option.

    2. I know. I always talk up Oakland but sometimes some make is so hard. There is no upside in keeping this building. If someone did a benefit to cost analysis of whether to keep the existing building or build the new one the benefits of the proposed building would be many times that of the existing one.

    1. I believe you are mistaken: “No official action to be taken on the development application at this hearing. No decision will be made at this hearing…”

  17. The Planning Commission on 3/21 requested the staff prepare Findings for Denial, a unanimous vote.

    The Lake Merritt BART Station Area Plan calls out this block for preservation and adaptive reuse and zoned it to an 85-foot height, and did not designate the block as an “opportunity site”.

    This project would use one of the last 2 extra-height provisions in the LMSAP implementing ordinance, on a relatively small footprint. It would thus not generate the intended large impact in no. of residential units or amount of commercial space.

    1. Thank you. The public notice might use clearer language since, while this apparently doesn’t constitute “official action” or “(a) decision” in theory, it would seem to represent one in point of fact.

      Too bad: out of literally dozens of blocks where this might proceed – or at least proceed with (many) fewer problems – the developer picked one of a very few where, apparently, it couldn’t.

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