Will Oakland Lose Its Artistic Soul? 

Members of The Town's vibrant arts community say they're at risk of displacement because of skyrocketing rents, and that Oakland isn't moving fast enough to protect its cultural identity.

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In a recent interview, CRP director Desi Mundo said that the city had initially recommended the wall as a location for the mural because it was blighted. To create the mural, CRP muralists interviewed Malonga's artistic residents and Chinatown cultural leaders in order to create art that would depict the cultural legacy of the area and its resilience in the face of ongoing threats of gentrification. But only three months after the mural's completion, Mundo learned about the development plans.

click to enlarge Desi Mundo is the director of the Community Rejuvenation Project. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Desi Mundo is the director of the Community Rejuvenation Project.

At a planning commission meeting earlier this month, developer Maria Poncel said her company, Bay Development, plans to help "kickstart" a replacement mural project on the Laney College campus to make up for CRP's loss. But during public comment, Mundo urged the commissioners to delay the project's approval until Poncel offers the CRP a memorandum of understanding concerning the funding.

"The idea that we're just gonna be capable of re-raising all that money and that the developer won't be responsible for it, even though they said that they would, feels very disingenuous to us," Mundo later told me.

The planning commission, however, green-lighted the condo project without requiring a firm commitment from the developer, thereby seemingly not taking the community's concerns into account.

Since the project's approval, Mundo and others have filed an appeal of the decision and are waiting to be notified of when it will appear in front of the city council. They ask not that the project be denied, but that the developer include community benefits in the project, including funding 100 percent of the mural replacement costs. Supporters also marched on City Hall on February 11 to draw attention to their concerns.

On the evening of January 13, a group of Uptown artists and curators convened at the 25th Street Collective, pulling up about twenty mismatched chairs around a snack table. They were nervous that the city doesn't care about preserving their neighborhood.

Signature Development Group, run by Michael Ghielmetti, has been buying up properties in the area in order to build condos. And, as the Express reported, the Oakland Planning and Building Department, at a planning commission meeting last fall, attempted to sneak through a zoning change that would have benefited Signature by allowing the developer to construct taller buildings than would normally be allowed in the area (see "Special Deal Would Benefit Influential Developer," 11/4). After an uproar from gallerists, who are concerned about rising rents, construction inconveniences, and depleted natural light, the city postponed the decision.

Members of the Uptown artists contingent are also vying for their own cultural district designation. But they hope to have artist-protection legislation folded into the designation from the get-go, possibly including a requirement that a certain percentage of each new development in the area go toward cultural use. They are also considering proposing that the city offer landlords incentives, like tax breaks, in exchange for renting to cultural arts spaces at below market-rate.

Vessel Gallery owners Lonnie Lee and Ken Ehrhardt are currently spearheading an effort to write a resolution based on the community's input, and rallying people to ask their city councilmembers to support it. Their hope is that if it gets passed, it can serve as a template for other cultural districts to be designated throughout the city.

click to enlarge Lonnie Lee spent six months renovating Vessel, her gallery in Uptown Oakland. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Lonnie Lee spent six months renovating Vessel, her gallery in Uptown Oakland.

Lee and Ehrhardt moved into the neighborhood before much was there in the way of art. Like many gallerists in Oakland, they completely renovated the space, which had once been a stable for the Oakland Fire Department's horses. Now, the worn wooden floors and vaulted ceilings add a hip charm to the loft, which glows with natural light in the afternoon and often has a pleasant breeze passing through it. Such improvements, however, have also contributed to what makes the area enticing to developers and wealthier tenants.

"[Developers] say, 'Oh, look at what the arts have done. Isn't it cool? We want to buy property here. We want to be here because of them," Lee said.

For some, the Uptown gallerists' attempt to protect the area's art scene is already too late. The 25th Street Collective — the venue for the January 13 meeting and a shared incubating space for local makers — will soon close. The collective's rent recently shot up by nearly 40 percent, and by August, all of the resident artists will have to be out because they can no longer afford it.

But Hiroko Kurihara, founder of 25th Street Collective as well as Oakland Makers — an organization that supports small-scale local manufacturers and artisan producers — seems more concerned with the bigger picture. She's worked at the intersection of manufacturing and social enterprise for many years, and has also been an active member of Mayor Schaaf's Artist Affordable Housing and Workspace task force, which Kurihara has represented multiple times at meetings for the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan.

Kurihara is interested in creating a citywide cultural district that would try to reap funding benefits from the statewide California Arts Commission budget. That way, Oakland's arts community won't be divided. "There's a little pot of money, and then all these competing interests end up squabbling over scraps," said Kurihara. "We can't do that if we're gonna really try to coalesce and build a cultural arts-based community."


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