Call it Oaklands Teflon Triangle. For more than thirty years, the patch of mostly city-owned land just blocks from City Hall, bounded on three sides by 21st Street and San Pablo and Telegraph avenues, has been the locus of high-flown development schemes aimed at revitalizing the city's strangely empty urban core. Yet although developers come and go, very few deals ever stick.
The latest chapter opened last year, when Oakland signed an exclusive negotiating agreement with the Cleveland-based developer Forest City Enterprises. Almost universally known as a shrewd decision-maker, an economic powerhouse that doesn't deal unless it's offered a sure thing, Forest City proposed building approximately 2,000 housing units as well as retail shops within the triangle. Hands were shaken. Deals were signed. The price tag would be $500 million.
Almost immediately, momentum began to flag, and by January the agreement had been allowed to expire. Once again the city was left wondering where to peg its development hopes. That's when a consulting firm hired by the city renewed one of Oakland's oldest and most thwarted dreams. Concentrate a little less on housing, and a little more on shopping, they said, and not just stores targeted at locals, but the kind that would bring in customers and tax dollars from the entire East Bay region. Maybe a regional retail center anchored by ... a department store.
Make that another department store.
There is one major retailer that has managed to stick it out in the triangle that Oakland planners call "uptown": Sears. Selling everything from apparel to hardware, Sears is the only department store left within Oakland's city limits. And as unlikely as it may seem, in an area littered with parking lots, vacant storefronts, and seedy massage parlors, where the remaining wig shops and bookstores seem to be hanging on by their very teeth, solitary Sears, by all accounts, is doing just fine. Perhaps as the city gears up for another go at attracting retail to the uptown area, it's time for it to take a look at Sears. Is this venerable retailer the last vestige of a retail shopping age long past -- or is it the first green shoot of Oakland's downtown retail renaissance?
This is the washing machine that is going to save the world," says Gil MacKenna gleefully, gazing fondly at a silver laundromat-style frontloader that, set to store demo mode, is busy whipping green and white pom-pom balls through a pretend wash cycle. MacKenna runs the home appliance department at Sears' downtown Oakland store, and right now his showroom is clogged with piles of boxes and clusters of cut-rate appliances shoved out into the middle of the aisles. Ever since the state's energy crisis made everyone's power bills spike, the store has rushed to stock and sell as many energy-efficient appliances as possible; MacKenna's world-saving washing machine uses a third less energy than that consumed by other models. He also stocks a refrigerator that runs on the same amount of electricity used by a 75-watt lightbulb.
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