Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Jack London Square Market Remains Stalled

By Jesse Hirsch
Tue, Feb 7, 2012 at 10:06 AM

Long presumed dead in the water, plans for the Jack London Square Market resurfaced last week with an announcement in the San Francisco Business Times that the market’s focus would switch from food retail to manufacturing. As it turns out, it’s mostly a semantic shift.

The Market Building
  • The Market Building
Jim Ellis, president of property owner Ellis Partners, envisions five to ten combined retail and production operations, similar to Acme Bread in San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace. Seeing that this kind of mixed-use business has always been the role model for the Jack London market, the plans haven’t changed all that much. The biggest change is a shift to the well-worn foodie lexicon du jour; Ellis favors the term “artisanal food production” to manufacturing.

“We’re trying to keep things current and relevant,” said a tired-sounding Ellis during a phone interview last week. “These are the thriving food businesses that the city of Oakland really needs right now.”

Ellis and company have been banging the drum on their market concept for years now, with grand opening dates pushed back enough times to make skeptics out of the staunchest optimists. The recent opening of Daniel Patterson’s long-awaited Haven restaurant is being heralded as a sign of the market building’s revitalization, but a nighttime dining destination won’t necessarily draw the businesses Ellis needs (Haven may expand to lunch hours this year).

The market building has just over 170,000 square feet total. This is split into somewhere between 62,000 and 95,000 square feet of retail space (Ellis’ PR firm gave conflicting figures), with the remaining square footage earmarked as office space. The office space is roughly half leased, but there are still no retail tenants in the building besides Haven.

Ellis points to the recently opened Baia Pasta at nearby 431 Water Street and Miette at 85 Webster Street (both Ellis-owned mixed-use properties) as evidence of the artisanal food revolution in Jack London Square. Belcampo Meats also has an office nearby, but owner Anya Fernald said the company has no intention of opening retail or production centers in the area; Belcampo’s new shops will be in Larkspur and San Francisco.

While these food businesses, as well as restaurants like Haven and Bocanova, certainly give the neighborhood a boost, it hasn’t enticed anyone to take the bait on the market building. Ellis Partners is even offering attractive investment capital to food startups — in conjunction with nebulous “community organizations” — but has failed to seed the pot. Two other 30,000-square foot, Ellis-owned retail properties in Jack London Square also remain vacant, apparently while the developer attempts to bring in a high-end grocer like Whole Foods.

So the aspiration to create a fancy food critical mass, with the market as a centerpiece, remains stalled. Ellis cites the difficult economy and “issues with Occupy Oakland” (a little creative spin on current events) as reasons for the difficulties. “Times have been tough,” he said, “but we remain on track to create a thriving hub for food businesses.” It’s very similar rhetoric to nearly five years ago — hard to believe then, harder to believe now.

Comments? Tips? Get in touch at Jesse.Hirsch@EastBayExpress.com.

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