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Oakland Turns A Corner As Calif. Faces Budget Woes

Ryan Curtis leans in for a kiss from Love Kovtun on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland's Uptown neighborhood in April. New businesses and investment have helped revitalize the city's downtown over the past decade.
Laura Morton for NPR
Ryan Curtis leans in for a kiss from Love Kovtun on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland's Uptown neighborhood in April. New businesses and investment have helped revitalize the city's downtown over the past decade.

The city of Oakland, Calif. has long been associated with crime, poverty, urban decay and, more recently, violent protests tied to the Occupy movement.

So it may have been a surprise to New York Times readers when the newspaper listed Oakland as No. 5 among its top "places to go" in 2012.

But Oakland has seen a revitalization of its downtown in the past decade, thanks in large part to the city's now-defunct redevelopment agency and past support from Oakland's onetime Mayor Jerry Brown.

Now, as governor of California, Brown is closing the redevelopment agencies that helped transform Oakland's blighted places. The goal is to solve California's ongoing budget crisis, but left in the lurch are urban building projects all over the state, including in Oakland.

Uptown Oakland's Hole In The Wall

On a Friday evening in Oakland's Uptown neighborhood, there's a lot of life near the corner of 17th Street and Telegraph Avenue. Local bars and restaurants are filling up, including Cafe Van Kleef, one of Uptown's signature spots.

Cafe Van Kleef is a dark hole in the wall where you'll meet everyone from lawyers to longshoremen. Tom Hammitt, a private investigator in his late 50s, sits at the bar. An Oakland native, he's seen the slow rebirth of this neighborhood in the past decade. He credits tavern owner Peter Van Kleef with leading Uptown's transformation.

"It really did start, I think, with [Van Kleef] opening up this place and making it a comfortable environment," Hammitt says.

'Pounding The Chest Of Oakland'

When Van Kleef opened his bar 10 years ago, everyone said he was crazy. At the time, he says, "hookers, muggers, thieves and homeless were rampant" in the area.

"At 5 o'clock, the streets were absolutely empty. Everybody vacated Oakland. There was nobody here," Van Kleef explains. "You could park anywhere you wanted. You could park a fleet of taxis if you wanted to!"

But Van Kleef, an artist and former rock impresario, had a different vision for Uptown Oakland, which he saw as "the last geographical possibility" for an arts and entertainment district in the city. So Van Kleef opened his bar just a block from City Hall.

"I suddenly felt like a paramedic pounding the chest of Oakland with some vision of breathing life into this dead thing," Van Kleef recalls. "And it worked. The city revitalized. The heart started beating again."

The Fox Returns

But Van Kleef didn't do it alone. Just a couple of blocks away, local developer Phil Tagami had his own vision for reinvigorating this part of Oakland, setting his sights on the Fox Theater on Telegraph Avenue.

With its massive dome, opulent terra cotta tiles and gold leaf, the Fox looks like something out of medieval India or Morocco. A city landmark, the theater had been closed for more than 40 years when Tagami spearheaded a drive to refurbish and reopen it as a state-of-the-art live-music venue. Today it's the anchor for a revitalized Uptown Oakland.

The Fox's reopening in February 2009 has transformed the neighborhood, where dozens of restaurants, bars and nightclubs have since opened within three blocks of the theater, according Tagami.

Mayor Brown Giveth ...

But Tagami says it might not have happened without the active support of then-Mayor Brown. "The mayor set forth a pretty clear objective and vision of what he wanted," Tagami says.

Brown revitalized Uptown Oakland using a common approach in most states called redevelopment. It was an arcane financial tool that allowed cities like Oakland to invest in blighted neighborhoods. The payoff came when the neighborhood improved and property tax revenues would go up.

That so-called tax increment was captured by the city to pay for more land and infrastructure improvement that would attract developers. It was a way to keep property taxes local and away from state coffers.

Brown called the plan his 10K Initiative. The idea was to bring 10,000 new residents to live in downtown Oakland, explains Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR, an urban policy think tank based across the bay in San Francisco.

"Those [new downtown residents] would then provide pedestrian activity and would provide a base of support for restaurants and stores, leading to more private investment, leading to more life," Metcalf says. "And I think in large part it succeeded."

... And Gov. Brown Taketh Away

But Metcalf says that as governor of California, Brown was confronted with a different problem: The state faced a massive $25 billion budget deficit. Local redevelopment agencies had amassed a treasure chest of several billion dollars. So Brown killed redevelopment in California and seized the money to pay for the state's struggling schools.

A performance artist dances on 23rd Street in Oakland as First Friday Art Walk attendees pass by.
/ Laura Morton for NPR
Laura Morton for NPR
A performance artist dances on 23rd Street in Oakland as First Friday Art Walk attendees pass by.

"There is a terrible irony in the fact that Jerry Brown as governor fought to get rid of the tool he used so effectively as mayor of Oakland," Metcalf says. "From the outside, it makes no sense."

State lawmakers in Sacramento are looking at any number of new ways to help cities finance urban development. But it could take years for this to shake out.

For Oakland, this means the city has the opportunity to do development in "very tough neighborhoods," says Mayor Jean Quan.

"I have neighborhoods where other people won't invest," Quan explains. "Redevelopment is how we pulled together the investments for [Oakland's Uptown neighborhood]."

A Spark For The Future?

As in many cities, there's still a lot of work to be done in Oakland. But the seeds that were planted 10 years ago are sprouting up, and there's no denying there's a new buzz in the city.

The question remains: How can Oakland keep the pace without the redevelopment money? Can the city maintain its momentum?

Van Kleef, the tavern owner, is optimistic.

"There's an undeniable exuberant energy that started, but it's spontaneous combustion," Van Kleef says. "It's hot. It's relevant. Do I think it has any sustainability? Absolutely. I think it's something that grows stronger."

Judging by the energy at Oakland's 17th Street and Telegraph Avenue on a Friday night, you'd be blind not to see the spark of a regeneration here and that maybe at least one neighborhood in Oakland has turned a corner. The question is, can it spread to other neighborhoods? And who will pay for it?

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Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.