High Art and Razor Wire 

Upscale gallery bets on a nascent downtown Oakland renaissance.

Some cash-minded out-of-towners have set up shop in the heart of Oakland's very crunchy gallery district with the aim of being the new avant-garde. The two SF Castro District transplants unlocked the doors this week to their new, 2,500-square-foot Esteban Sabar gallery at 23rd Street and Telegraph Avenue. The space is named for its owner, a fortyish former psychologist who opened it for his husband Marty McCorkle, a graphic designer. They intend to show abstract paintings starting from $2,000, with a special room for local underground art.

The opening brings the number of show spaces in the nascent day-job artist zone to nine, a figure born of low rents and Oakland Redevelopment Agency subsidies. Gallery space hauls in $5 per square foot in the Castro and $3 in parts of the Mission or Jack London Square. Sabar is paying just $1.60 per square foot, and realtors spiked his two-year lease with up to $99,000 in matching redevelopment funds to cover renovation. The city, for instance, contributed half of his opening budget of $15,000, which the gallery owner spent on white paint, floor stain, rewiring, walls, and track lighting for his six-"bedroom" acquisition.

Constructed in 1916, the residence at 480 23rd Street endured downturns that wrecked much of the surrounding neighborhood, only to be shuttered in the '90s after a stint as an electrician's office. Its entryway ultimately was caved in by two vehicles in separate incidents involving a police chase and a driving lesson.

The city later shelled out to replace the two-story arched-brick facade as part of an effort to entice renters back to the area. "Since people don't physically choose to visit Oakland, the grand scheme is to make them live here," notes Brian Kendall, a redevelopment agency project manager.

Some 1,700 new residents buying in for around $500 per square foot are expected to join a postmodern gold rush downtown, where it's hoped the dirt will triple in value within a decade. Over the next few years, 6,300 more units in the planning pipeline could see daylight, and Sabar is banking on the promise of a new, richer downtown.

Neighboring gallery owners have generally greeted Sabar with open arms. "The more the merrier," says 33 Grand owner Alex Munn. Yet, Sabar's New York establishment demographic doesn't exactly mesh with the handmade crafts and occasional trash art found in nearby hangouts like Rock Paper Scissors or Mama Buzz. "I can't wait to open. I mean, I'm here to make money," Sabar says. "I want this place to be a destination for all of Oakland, and eventually the people that live in the Oakland Hills and in New York."

Kendall calls the new upscale gallery a sign of more things to come. Fifty-four businesses in two years have used city money to spruce up the area, which has helped cut the vacancy rate in the 200-storefront downtown redevelopment zone from 25 to 12 percent. "This is something that is now moving along and it's economics driven," Kendall says. "Downtown Oakland is primo right now."

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