Oakland’s Landmarks Board gave a tentative stamp of approval Monday to a plan to turn the building where the Black Panthers had their first headquarters into a new apartment complex, as the proposal continued to inspire both enthusiasm and dismay among neighbors, city staffers, and former Panthers.
The current owner of 5616-5626 Martin Luther King Jr. Way—where Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton headquartered the revolutionary organization in 1967—wants to demolish the existing structures and replace them with a 20-unit apartment building with shops on the ground floor.
The site currently houses It’s All Good Bakery, which property owner Kim Cloud runs as well, and Kinyozi Cuts barbershop, along with four apartments on top of the bakery. The new complex would include space for the current businesses to reopen, as well as a commemorative wall honoring Black Panther Party history.
“It’s very important to keep the history alive,” said Cloud, who’s referred to as Kim McClure in project documents, during the meeting. After he purchased the property in 1996, Seale reportedly stopped by the bakery and told Cloud about the building’s past life. Cloud was thrilled and collaborated with the Oakland-based Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation to display party memorabilia on the bakery walls.
Since notices announcing the project went up in the bakery window and online in late January, Cloud’s vision to transform this site has raised pressing, and sometimes competing, questions about historic preservation, gentrification, and who has access to opportunity in the North Oakland neighborhood.
Members of the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board—who make recommendations to city staff and officials about whether and how to preserve historic properties—ultimately voted Monday to allow the project to move ahead through the regular city review process. City planners said Oakland’s zoning manager would make the ultimate decision, and the project will not come up for discussion at other public meetings. But the board is also requiring Cloud and his partners to conduct a deeper historical analysis of the property, and propose further “mitigation strategies” to blunt the impact of demolishing an important site.
“The concerns I hear from the community and staff and folks on this board is that it’s just not quite there,” said board member Chris Andrews.
Some former Black Panthers also questioned why they weren’t notified about the plan.
“Consulting us is the best thing, whether it’s yay or nay,” Katherine Campbell, who was active in San Francisco and Oakland, told The Oaklandside. “We didn’t know if we were going to live to tell the story, but we did, and we’re here.”
Can a new building preserve Black Panther Party history?
Seale and Newton, who met while students at Oakland’s Merritt College, founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in October 1966. The following January, they opened their first office in the storefront on MLK Jr. Way, which was then called Grove Street.
A famous photograph depicts the two men, armed and wearing the group’s signature berets and leather jackets, standing guard outside the headquarters. They stayed there until summer 1967, when they moved to a better-known office further up the street.
Saturu Ned, a former Black Panther, said there’s “a lot of mixed feelings” about the development proposal among members of the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party, an organization he co-founded. “I’m getting calls from all over the country. To them that’s like tearing down a museum because that’s where it all started,” he told The Oaklandside.
Ned, who still lives in North Oakland, was active in a wide range of Panther initiatives and survival programs, from teaching at the Oakland Community School and working security, to marching alongside farmworkers and singing in the Panthers’ funk band, The Lumpen.
Other former Panthers firmly support Cloud’s project, like Newton’s widow Fredrika Newton, who leads the foundation she started in his name. She read a statement at Monday’s meeting, commending Cloud for working with party members to honor the party’s history, and supporting his quest to develop a site that, as she noted, has already been altered since it served as the Panthers’ headquarters. Her foundation has an agreement with Cloud to display even more Black Panther history at the new building.
Newton’s statement, released last week, has had a powerful impact on many community members who were initially skeptical of the proposal. An Oakland tattoo artist who posted a viral Instagram message calling on people to protest the development reversed his position after hearing about Newton’s support.
Dana King, the sculptor responsible for a new Huey P. Newton bust in West Oakland, also spoke at the meeting in support of Cloud’s plans, saying there was no widespread public recognition of the site’s significance until he got involved.
“Had he not purchased that building, no one would know, outside of the community, that the Panthers had an office there,” she said. “It could have been torn down.”
When Cloud and Emeryville-based Gunkel Architecture submitted their proposal in April, city staff required the applicants to conduct a historical resource evaluation of the site, to figure out whether it met state requirements for preservation.
They worked with preservation architect Mark Hulbert, who concluded that while the site is considered historically significant, the building itself is not, largely because the only part of it that conveys its legacy is the “impermanent” display that Cloud had put up on the bakery wall.
City planners were unsure what to make of Hulbert’s findings, and asked the Landmarks Board to weigh in. On Monday, at an online meeting attended by 70 people, board members said they were unconvinced that the evaluation was comprehensive, saying it lacked sufficient photographs, interviews, and citations of sources.
Some were also unswayed by architect Brad Gunkel’s assertion that he’d carefully designed the new building to pay homage to the Panthers’ “bold, angular” aesthetic, as well as African American quilt patterns.
“It looks like the dominant-culture design you can see all over the country and world,” said Andrews, who is Black. “I challenge the owners and historical resource consultant to dig a little deeper, to really understand what African American culture is all about.”
Concern about lack of low-income units
Some skeptics of the development proposal worry that a largely market-rate building will speed along the gentrification of the neighborhood, whose Black population decreased by more than 40% between 2010 and 2020.
The proposed building includes 18 housing units with market-rate rents and two, as required by city code, priced for very low-income residents. New construction is not covered by rent control laws in Oakland, whereas the four existing units likely have those protections.
Some Oakland residents have applauded the proposal to build several new housing units, while others have questioned who can afford to live in them.
Cloud told the board he currently rents to tenants with Section 8 vouchers, even though he could likely make more money if he didn’t. He said he’d give the current renters the first shot at living in the new apartments, responding to a commenter concerned they’d lose their housing. But, Cloud said, “we’re all going to be misplaced for a moment.”
Throughout the meeting, numerous speakers came to Cloud’s defense, saying a man who was born and raised in Oakland, who participated in the Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program as a child, has a right to do what he wants with his property, accessing an opportunity to build generational wealth that’s so rarely afforded to Black residents.
Others said one property owner’s ambitions shouldn’t trump larger concerns about housing access in this neighborhood. “Someone has a right to look at what’s going to benefit them and their family, but also we need to look at the community,” said Ned, the former Black Panther. “When we did housing, it was housing according to income.”
Cloud assured the board that he strives to embody Panther principles in his work, including at the bakery, where he’s been celebrated for hiring many local employees who were unable to get other jobs.
Over the years, Panthers have “come down here and educated me,” he said. “It was an honor and privilege to get the history and understanding they were teaching me.”