The developers of Jack London Square have concluded that the way to a city's heart is through its stomach.
Dubbed Harvest Hall, the five-story market, restaurant, and cooking-school-complex-to-be is the $300 million development's sexiest component, the piece that could put the East Bay's food scene on the map.
At 185,000 square feet, the proposed hall will be three times the size of San Francisco's new Ferry Building Marketplace -- making it the largest food hall in the country, boasts developer Jim Falaschi. The first floor would consist of a warren of small vendors selling everything from wine to baby lettuce as well as dozens of casual-dining cafes. Falaschi envisions a second floor of white-tablecloth restaurants overlooking the estuary, and a cooking school on the third.
Falaschi and marketing manager Rhonda Hirata of Jack London Square Partners have smart ideas for how to integrate the Harvest Hall into the new, expanded square. Large food festivals in the plaza. Cooking classes for hotel guests. Restaurants in every price range for executives, moviegoers, and condo dwellers. They foresee a growing customer base in the explosion of residential units downtown and in nearby Alameda.
But beyond the architectural models and four-color brochures, the details of what Harvest Hall will contain are still sketchy. The hall may be one of the cornerstones of the partners' plan, but with its consortium of independent shops it's by no means the easiest piece to finance. Higher up on the priority list, says Falaschi, are the expansion of the movie theaters and the surrounding retail sites, then the construction of a hotel, conference center, and spa.
Jack London Square Partners, otherwise known as Falaschi and Ellis Partners, a San Francisco-based development firm run by Hal Ellis, inked a deal with the Port of Oakland in May 2002. Under the deal, the port sold the firm four existing properties in the square and granted it the right to develop nine more. In June, the city council approved the developers' plans, giving them a huge amount of flexibility in what and when they build. In fact, the very first Falaschi-Ellis proposal centered on amusement-park rides, not food. But then San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace took off.
Like the $90 million Ferry Building renovation, which combined several floors of low-profile office space with a high-profile indoor marketplace and outdoor farmers' market, Jack London Square Partners hope to build on the appeal of the well-loved Jack London Square farmers' market. Wilson Meany Sullivan, the developers of the San Francisco landmark, maintained a strict focus on organic, sustainably grown or -raised products -- and convinced the food community that it was serious. According to restaurant PR maven Eleanor Bertino, she and principal Chris Meany worked closely with the farmers' market to bring some of its vendors inside, and carefully selected the tenants, eschewing national chains or businesses that might cast doubt upon the building's virtues. Within mere weeks of its grand opening in 2003, the Ferry Building Marketplace became one of the city's showcase destinations.
The Oakland developers have yet to share their vision with the East Bay food community. Oddly enough, this includes their own farmers' market. Tom Dorn, manager for the Jack London Square Farmers Market, says, "I've seen the plans by looking on the Internet, but they haven't said much to me."
It's probably too soon for that stage of planning. Still, Falaschi says many businesses already have expressed interest in the hall, and Hirata says the partners are talking to three cooking schools. And the wooing has just begun.
The developers say they're not seeking to occupy the same high ground as the Ferry Building Marketplace. Falaschi and Hirata both agree that they're looking for a market more on the lines of Oakland's Market Hall than the Emeryville Public Market, but their goal is to mix small, independent producers and restaurateurs with national chains. Falaschi also cites the desire to highlight prominent Oakland-based products ranging from Dreyer's ice cream to Clorox-owned Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressings. Under the developers' agreement with the city, 60 percent of all restaurants and markets must be regionally owned businesses. Falaschi also wants the restaurants and cafes to reflect Oakland's ethnic diversity.
But cachet -- which Market Hall and the Ferry Building Marketplace both have in spades -- is a tricky thing to foster.
Neighborhood activists and merchants' association leaders express guarded hopes for the Harvest Hall. "We hope that the developers can truly deliver something world-class," says Joanna Adler of the Jack London Square Merchants Association, "and that we don't end up with empty buildings full of chain restaurants, fast food, and 'for lease' signs."
The architectural model of the hall may be all the public sees for quite some time. But the compelling vision it offers is just what the Jack London Square redevelopment project needs. If the gastroplex takes off, it could become a vibrant commercial and cultural convergence point for downtown Oakland. If money trumps vision, however, the developers risk losing both.