Back to Square One 

Jack London Square's future lies in an ambitious-but-risky proposal whose failure could turn once-public waterfront into office space.

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Even though theirs is the only business in the square that perfectly fits the lands commission's definition of an appropriate waterfront store, the Millers said Falaschi and Ellis refuse to give them anything more than a one-year lease. "They feel we're not paying enough rent," Tammy Miller explained.

Keith Miller said his landlords now make him sign a document each year stating that his shop's rent is "below-market," even though Falaschi and Ellis have failed to find tenants to pay "market" rates throughout the square. In fact, the old TGI Friday's space, across from Barnes & Noble, has displayed For Lease signs in its windows since it closed three years ago.

Ellis said he and his partner really haven't been trying to rent spaces the past five years, despite the nearly $1,000 a month in advertising fees he charged Gurnani. "We have deliberately delayed the launching of our marketing program until we are under construction," he said, referring to the building of Harvest Hall, which he said is scheduled to begin in January or February.

Several current and former Jack London Square merchants believe Falaschi and Ellis have starved the square not only to gentrify it, but also to gobble up more property cheaply. Last month, for example, the port approved a deal that would allow the two developers and their partners to purchase the Waterfront Plaza Hotel and Jack's Bistro from another private entity for a mere $22 million. Occupancy rates at the once-venerable 144-room hotel dipped last year to just 56 percent.

The Sell
At a breakfast meeting near Oakland International Airport in late June, Falaschi guided a banquet room full of engineers and commercial builders through a slide show of handsome 3D renderings. For the developer, it was a chance to stir up a little preconstruction interest in Harvest Hall six months before its steel girders are likely to be visible.

Dressed in a crisp suit, the towering Falaschi appeared affable and upbeat as images of the future square flashed on a projection screen above his head. He described a scene bustling with activity, like the teeming center of a European capital. "This is one of our drivers," he said, "the Harvest Hall, one of the things that will bring people into Jack London Square for everyday activities. Continuous, daily activities." He paused to let the audience take it all in: a soaring, multilevel contemporary structure with a tower and deep roofs like awnings.

Falaschi and Ellis originally proposed Harvest Hall in 2002. Their plans actually call for two buildings: a five-story structure facing the estuary and a three-story building fronting Embarcadero Way. Connecting them will be the so-called Fresh Market, a cluster of produce stalls covered by a high atrium. Falaschi bragged that the Fresh Market alone would rival the Saturday Ferry Plaza farmers' market across the bay — named by The New York Times as one of the nation's best.

"We'll have more day tables," he said, pointing to an overview of the Fresh Market, without mentioning that the project had yet to sign any tenants. "More stone fruits, seasonal offerings. ... Over here, separate, will be a meat hall ... a number of fishermen from Half Moon Bay who'll wholesale in the morning before it opens to the public and then start selling to the general public."

What Falaschi also neglected to tell his rapt audience is that the models he touted as inspiration — the San Francisco Ferry Building, Pike Place in Seattle, and Vancouver's Granville Island — operate under conditions very different from those of Jack London Square. Set in superheated tourist meccas, they benefit from their proximity to restaurants good enough to rate as destinations in their own right. But while Oakland's Piedmont Avenue, Rockridge, and Temescal are culinary hotbeds, the waterfront is decidedly a work in progress.

What Falaschi described to the audience had the outlines of a pipe dream. Just ask someone from one of the markets to which the developer likes to compare his project. "It's hard to do something like this," said Ferry Building spokeswoman Jane Connors. "It's hard to get people to buy into what's initially a concept." But unlike Jack London Square, whose Sunday farmers' market is hardly a foodie destination, the Ferry Plaza farmers' market boasted a regular weekly supply of shoppers spending serious cash on heirloom eggs or organic salad greens from West Marin even before restoration of the Ferry Building began.

It's also easy to get to. BART, Muni, Caltrain, and ferries deposit commuters — in some cases literally — right at the Ferry Building's back door. In that regard, Harvest Hall has two strikes against it: The nearest BART station is twelve blocks away, and the ferry terminal is a long hike from the opposite end of the square. Unless you live within walking distance, driving is the only feasible option, and even then, you must traverse the port's busy railway traffic.

But even if Oakland could somehow fix Jack London Square's access problems, might Harvest Hall become the thriving foodie hub pictured in Falaschi's slides? That may all be up to Renato Sardo.

Little to Show
Back in that windowless marketing office, Sardo echoes the implausible optimism of Falaschi's slide show, but in the jargon of a food lover. "If we found some good tenant who does oils from all over California," he says, pointing to an entire floor of Harvest Hall supposedly to be set aside for a teaching kitchen, "we may do courses on olive oil. Really create a system that works between the different tenants." His Italian accent packed a big dose of culinary authority, but like Falaschi's, his bird's-eye tour was short on specifics.

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