Retail Climate Delays Jack London Market 

Hunger is there for the culinary playground, but developer is wary of committing to a firm launch date.

The long-awaited artisanal food mecca at Jack London Square has been billed as a "culinary playground" that will help revitalize the Oakland waterfront. Brochures promise that the building will become the East Bay's response to the flourishing gourmet market halls that exist around the country. "Our vision is to be like the Ferry Building in San Francisco or Pike Place Market in Seattle, a large-scale market that features local sustainable produce and focuses on this idea of local being best for the community," said Molly Tafoya, a spokesperson for the Jack London Market.

According to the most recent floor plans, the ground level will offer a mix of produce stands, spaces dedicated for butchers and fishmongers, and artisan retailers who will sell goods such as olive oils, teas, and spices. Cafes and casual eateries will dot the second floor. It's enough to make any East Bay foodie drool. "I think the market would be a good fit," said Steve Sacks, owner of Prime Smoked Meats, whose operations are based at Jack London Square, and which sells dried cured bacon and artisan hams under private label at the Ferry Building. "I keep watching the market and hoping it will get going and established."

But observers like Sacks have been teased by more than one missed opening deadline. Although the building is nearly complete, it remains a vacant, rebar-exposed work-in-progress. The market's web site promises a 2010 opening date, and publicist Tafoya says that everything is "on track" to meet a year-end deadline.

The developers, however, are less specific. "We are obviously flying in the face of a challenging economy and the dates that we have put out there, we haven't been able to meet," said Will Miller of development partner Ellis Partners, who is handling the leasing. "So we're most interested in announcing the date publicly when we have a date that we can confidently comply with. We want to build a critical mass so that when we open, we know we have an appropriate opening lineup. And we want to ensure that when we invite the public to come down, they will be delighted."

Signage on the building boasts that Bracina, a restaurant collaboration between star chefs Daniel Patterson and Laura Kiino, will open soon. But even that offers no hint to the market's overall timeline. A spokesperson for Patterson said that there are "no firm projections" about when Bracina will open and that they are "hoping to begin construction in the fall," while some foodie blogs have reported a January launch. 

But there are some signs of life. Last year's inaugural Eat Real Festival filled the building with the types of businesses that Miller would hope to attract as tenants, and the festival's apparent popularity seemed to demonstrate that a hungry base of customers would be willing to support such a development. This year's festival occurs August 27 to 29.

Meanwhile, the 31,000 square-foot parking garage across from the market is slated to open around Labor Day, which is when the law firm Kazan, McClain, Lyons, Greenwood & Harley will move into the market building office space. A weekday shuttle running down Broadway from Grand to Jack London Square from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., is set to begin soon.

All of this makes Oakland City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel hopeful. "They have made progress in filling office space," she said. "Retail is challenging at this point, but as the financial conditions improve, that should improve as well. No one could predict an international financial collapse, and it's taking longer than we'd hoped."

Still, with anchor retailer Barnes & Noble exiting the square late last year, locals have expressed concerns. "[The developers] are obviously having a problem realizing things, and largely because of the economy," said Ben Delaney, board president of the Jack London Square Association. "And I'm not sure how these guys are at retail management because they have managed to empty out the going concerns in the square, and that is distressing to those of us who consider this our home."

Miller quelled rumors of a Whole Foods filling the former bookstore space, and said that Ellis Partners is in "ongoing negotiations" with interested retailers.

Whatever the reason for the dark storefronts, one thing's for sure: Only a trickle of retail foot traffic can be found at Jack London on most days, except for Sundays, when the farmer's market brings a crowd. This frustrates some existing retailers.

"I love Oakland," said Meg May, founder of Miette bakery. "I live here, and I want to see it work. I think that the potential of having a market on the waterfront, it could be so good. I really believe in the potential. We have our fingers crossed. But at this point, we're starting to exhale a little bit, and we're wondering if it's worth it, if there should be a Plan B."

Nevertheless, some residents remain cautiously optimistic. "If they're able to get the market piece of it going, it'd be great," said Jack London Square Association board member Gary Knect. "I'll believe it when I see it."

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