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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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Sardo has been involved with Slow Food since high school; his father, Piero, was one of the movement's founders. In July of last year, Falaschi and Ellis hired Sardo as Harvest Hall's consultant, and since then, he's worked at translating Slow Food theory into tenant guidelines. But despite a charm offensive aimed at potential renters, Sardo has had little to show for his year here. "Oakland is still not a super marketing name," he admits with a laugh.

Then again, the 38-year-old in fashionably chunky glasses seems an unlikely choice to cheerlead for the waterfront. Not only because he's lived in the Bay Area for only two years — a stint too brief to have built up much credibility in the local food scene — but also because of his very connections to Slow Food.

Spawned in Italy in 1989, the international movement's mission calls for shoring up small farmers and artisan food producers through local chapters, including four in Oakland and Berkeley alone. But Slow Food has become fashionable, and carries an elite aura. Members tend to be educated, affluent, and white — an unlikely fit for Jack London Square, which traditionally has drawn ordinary middle-class families, many of them African American.

No surprise, then, that a Sardo-shaped Harvest Hall suggested it wasn't open to national restaurant chains. Last December, the San Francisco Business Times reported that Sardo's recommendations included discouraging the kinds of business that previously have driven traffic to the square. Sardo acknowledged the report's accuracy but refused to talk in absolutes — or to even say whether the developers would rule out a supermarket, the antithesis of the Euro-style public market the hall aspires to emulate. "If in six months we don't tenant to anyone," he said with an anxious-sounding laugh, 'then at that point I really don't think, you know ..." He trailed off.

Deborah Perry, a senior vice president for real-estate giant Colliers who started searching for tenants a year and a half ago, six months before Sardo was in the picture, said she isn't opposed to chains, but ruled out a development with the flavor of a mall such as Bay Street. She made it clear that the Emeryville mall's mix of family-friendly chains — national outlets such as California Pizza Kitchen alongside smaller local chains such as Asqew Grill — wasn't upscale enough.

But if chains are off the table, boutique operators aren't necessarily convinced that they're on. Caitlin Williams, co-owner of the high-end organic patisserie Miette, wonders if her French-style macaroons are simply too fancy for the square. Williams said that the developers had been aggressively courting Miette to move its baking facility into one of the artisan spaces planned for next door at 66 Franklin. "We might completely alienate a lot of the people who are there," she mused. An experiment having a stall at the Jack London Square Sunday farmers' market turned out to be a bust: "Oakland didn't really support doing fancy desserts, and the costs that it takes to have such fine production." Nevertheless, she said, they haven't totally ruled out the square.

Curiously, despite Falaschi's boast at the June power breakfast that some high-profile culinary school might become the proposed educational kitchen's trophy tenant, neither the developer nor Sardo seems to have been serious about finding one. "Originally, we wanted to get the Culinary Institute," he told the crowd, "but it didn't seem to work in this area." A spokeswoman for the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena confirmed that, indeed, the developers had approached the prestigious school some four or five years ago. But the developer soon discontinued the discussion, she said.

Are Falaschi and Ellis serious about their Slow Food vision? At the breakfast meeting, Falaschi suggested that instead of hosting the Culinary Institute, they could have UC Extension offer wine and food classes at night. But that came as news to both UC Extension CEO Judah Rosenwald and humanities director Ramu Nagappan, who are responsible for developing new class venues. In fact, Rosenwald hadn't even heard of Harvest Hall until the Express contacted him for this story.

So what are the developers' real plans? Rhonda Hirata, their spokeswoman and a former Perata aide, offered a possible glimpse. Her bosses scrapped early plans for a movie theater on the parking lot at the base of Broadway after Regal Entertainment Group, the owner of Jack London Cinema, balked at relocating from its spot around the corner. Now, she said, they're considering an office building on the once-public site.

Gentrification Fears
TGI Friday's experienced its share of problems before Falaschi and Ellis killed it. The chain restaurant overflowed with customers on most nights, but on weekends, unruly patrons forced management to hire security guards. Some local merchants believe Falaschi and Ellis were worried about the younger black clientele, and how the restaurant clashed with their vision for Harvest Hall. "TGI Friday's is not the image they want to portray," one merchant said. "They want to gentrify."

Ellis declined to discuss the developers' plans for Harvest Hall, saying they intend in a few weeks to make "a major announcement." That announcement might involve the restaurant Chow, which sources familiar with negotiations said is interested in a space next door to Harvest Hall. Boasting two restaurants in San Francisco that tout sustainable ingredients, and a flagship location in Lafayette that includes an upscale food and wine market, Chow might prove a pivotal anchor tenant, a magnet for the organic faithful. "It's all about gentrification," said one merchant, who asked for anonymity for fear of angering the developers.

But gentrifying a public waterfront would effectively put it off-limits to a significant number of people who simply can't afford upscale eateries. And that raises serious questions. For starters, shouldn't Jack London Square be accessible to all? Where will low- and middle-income families, the very people who packed the square every Friday and Saturday night for years, go to eat or spend an evening?

Why should a public waterfront named for an author who hailed from a working-class family, once worked eighteen-hour days in a cannery, and spent time as a hobo be made off-limits to a good percentage of East Bay residents? Port executive director Omar Benjamin, who negotiated the original deal to sell the square, didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

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