Much to the delight of city officials, downtown Oakland continues to be a magnet for new businesses despite the slowed economy. Restaurants, bars, and clubs are moving into formerly vacant storefronts, remodeling long-decayed interiors, and beckoning entertainment seekers from as far away as the West Bay.
In six years, 191 businesses have moved into downtown Oakland, according to Brian Kendall, who's in charge of downtown development in the city's Community and Economic Development Agency. In five years, the vacancy rate downtown has dropped from 25 percent to less than 5, he said, and only a few of the new endeavors have gone out of business.
"The great thing is the people who are doing well are doing really, really well," said Kendall, citing Hibiscus restaurant, which just started serving lunch. "The amount of vitality is fantastic. It's the first time in forty years that downtown has been a destination again."
While there certainly has been no shortage of restaurants and bars moving into the area, now there will be more live music as well, Kendall said. Vitus, named after the "patron saint of entertainers and Bohemia," will be a restaurant/bar/club located at 347 14th Street, according to owner Damon Gallagher of local band Damon & the Heathens. "We are going to have a full restaurant and bar, plus intimate venue," Gallagher confirmed in an e-mail. "We will serve food late-night, which has been absent from Oakland for some time." The decor will resemble "an old art deco jazz club with new touches," and the music will be "intimate and eclectic."
Meanwhile, Awaken Cafe is being evicted from its building, which the business was subleasing. The good news is that its new location near 15th and Broadway is a city-owned building and will be a much larger space. Kendall said it will have a beer and wine license and will also host live music.
And finally, Kendall reports that a group of owners have bought a "really funky, funky little place on 19th and Webster" that closed a couple years ago, and that they'll likely have live music as well.
On the food front, Kendall says Flora owner Dona Savitsky took three spots next to her Uptown location in order to move the restaurant's bar next door and open a 2,400-square-feet taqueria. And chef Daniel Patterson is opening a new restaurant called Plum (and eventually a bar) to the left of where Franklin Square Wine Bar was. Right now it's just a rumor, but Kendall says Mike Dirnt of Green Day is in talks with Another Planet Entertainment's Gregg Perloff to open an eatery to the left of the Fox Theater, which would complement The Den. Kendall said he didn't know what the name would be but that it would be "the first in a tiny chain of these Rudy's Can't Fail Cafes."
While Kendall is clearly thrilled with all the revitalization, he's also cognizant of the fact that 95 percent of the businesses that have moved into the downtown/Uptown area are restaurants and bars. The next challenge is how to get other types of businesses to join the party. "It's a big, big topic of conversation," he said. "Well, where do we go next? It's great you got the art galleries — that's the first wave of a city revitalizing itself. A big part of it is because the Fox Theater is doing so well. Also Oakland is becoming this food movement capital."
One major missing component is retail. Back in the day there was Emporium Capwell and I. Magnin. Now there's Sears. "The big question is will downtown ever have department stores or anything like that," said Kendall. "The answer is no. There's no place big enough." Kendall said Urban Outfitters almost took 13,000 square feet between Telegraph and Broadway but then the economy tanked and the clothing retailer backed out.
Right now the "big thing" his department is looking at is Broadway from 27th to Grand — the "Valdez Triangle" — and having that "be a Bay Street of Emeryville but a lot more tailored, denser, not being mall-like. ... We want to be near Grand and Broadway. We want to be near Whole Foods, near Lake Merritt. That area is perfect because it's got so many things going for it," he said, citing the fact that it's a warehouse district so it can't go to housing developers. Plus it has lots of big spaces where auto dealers are vacating.
"Oakland has the largest retail leakage of the Bay Area," Kendall noted. "More dollars leave Oakland than any other city in the Bay Area. We really need to have something like that. ... In the interim, I'm just trying to fill in the blanks down here. Hopefully others will come."
While new music venues are moving in, others continue to struggle. 21 Grand, the experimental music/art venue that's had more than its share of permitting issues over the years, has moved or canceled all its shows in September "due to ... the City of Oakland," according to an e-mail from local promoter Club Sandwich. No further details about the cancellations were offered, and a message left at the venue was not returned. ... Machine Head's Rob Flynn lost gear and other valuables last week when his Martinez home was burglarized. The guitarist/vocalist wasn't home when the robbers broke in to his residence during the afternoon and stole three guitars, including one from Pantera's Dimebag Darrell and the one that Flynn used to record the band's first album, Burn My Eyes. Flynn is offering a cash reward for the two guitars. ""I am offering a $1,000 reward for the return of the black Ibanez Strat along with many stickers, a 'Designated Drinker' sticker," Flynn said in a statement. "Additionally, I am offering a $2,000 reward for the safe return of the blue Washburn Dimebolt prototype." E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.