A group of longtime tenants has successfully halted the renovation of their East Oakland live-work building, a project they feared would result in their displacement. The building is one of a dwindling number of artist strongholds remaining in the city, but exactly what’s next for the property is unclear.
In late July, the woodworkers, performers, and glassworkers at the 58th Avenue space watched construction project notices go up around their building, which is owned by Seth Jacobson, who’s known for having owned multiple large live-work and warehouse properties in Oakland.
The site is part of a complex of buildings that might be familiar to anyone who frequents International Boulevard. The main building is an ornate and stately brick structure spanning an entire block, from 57th and 58th avenues: It was the former headquarters of Safeway. A few years ago the existing live-work units in that historic landmark were converted into chic lofts.
The address of the former Safeway headquarters was the one listed on the project notices taped on walls around the complex last month, so tenants say they didn’t realize initially that the proposal would redevelop their smaller, less prominent building on 58th Avenue, where some renters have lived for 20 or 30 years.
Once they did, said Andreas Lehmann, glass artist and one of the original tenants since 1989, “our reaction was pretty unified: We’ve gotta do something.”
More units, less space
The proposal would have expanded the number of live-work apartments in the building from 24 to 53. In part, this would have been accomplished by demolishing units scattered across other buildings and rebuilding them at the 58th Avenue site. The existing live-work units on 58th Avenue never received official certificates of occupancy—the required paperwork from the city to permit people to live there, staffers said—even though many have been rented out for decades, according to the city. The building is in an industrial zone where residences aren’t typically allowed.
As part of the proposed project, Jacobson, who owns the building through a company called Coliseum Enterprise LLC, wanted to apply a 2008 city law allowing the legalization of existing live-work spaces housing artists—a policy designed to prevent further displacement. The landlord also wanted to expand the number of apartments, and Oakland is tasked with building and preserving lots more housing in the coming years.
But doing so would have cut the physical size of the current units in half, a big deal for artists who’ve established elaborate studios in their living spaces. They also would have needed to temporarily relocate for many months during the renovations.
“I’ve spent 25 years building a workshop that has 13 or 14 cast iron tools weighing 1,000 pounds each,” said woodworker Ron Chisenhall who’s lived there since 1997, at a Planning Commission meeting Aug. 3. “This blithely moving out for 18 months during construction would be a disaster for me. I wholeheartedly support more units but think there are other ways to do that. The new units are too small to be viable live-work spaces.”
Because the building is rent-controlled, the longtime tenants are paying far below market rates. Lehmann’s 1,250 square foot space, where he works and lives with his wife, costs $1,200 monthly. Another couple pays $1,800 for a larger space where they each have their own art studio as well as a shared bedroom.
But landlords can charge any price when there’s turnover and a new renter moves in. So tenants worried that the project was a ploy to both expand the number of units the owner was making money on, and perhaps charge more for existing units if the current residents couldn’t or didn’t return after construction.
“They want to make everything smaller and make more revenue—that’s the underlying goal,” speculated Lehmann.
Jacobson could not be reached for comment. According to previous news reports, Jacobson founded the Thai Kitchen food brand in 1989 and has owned numerous buildings in Oakland, including several artist warehouses and live-work properties. He has converted or renovated some of them, such as the Safeway property.
He’s also come under fire for neglect at multiple properties. In one high-profile case, a live-work building owned by Jacobson at 1919 Market St. fell into such dangerous disrepair that the city declared it uninhabitable, ordering renters to move out. Jacobson sold the property to developer Danny Haber, who demolished and replaced it with a larger, high-end live-work property.
At a Planning Commission meeting last week, city staff said they’d require Jacobson to develop a tenant protection plan if he were permitted to go forward with renovating the 58th Avenue property. This would include permitting everyone to come back and rent new units at the same price per square foot they were paying previously.
At the meeting, a representative for the owners, Debo Sodipo, said he’d personally met with a number of the residents in the previous week, willingly negotiating concessions like preserving the size of one renter’s unit he moved out, and promising some others separate commercial or storage spaces.
“I wanted to see what I could do when the stories were extra compelling,” Sodipo said. “It was a bit of an emotional time.”
But it was the renters’ emotional testimony that ultimately moved the commission to all but scrap the proposal.
Planning Commission criticizes lack of tenant protection
At the meeting, planning commissioners blasted the property owner’s proposal, calling it “baffling,” “insulting,” and a “waste of dollars,” referring to the work on it by city staff.
They questioned why renovations were needed to legalize the units, the stated goal of the project.
“I don’t understand why this is even being proposed, to be honest,” said Commissioner Sahar Shirazi. “If there are issues with the permitting, we can fix them, as we have in the past. I don’t understand why we’d need to evict people and cut their space in half.”
City staffers explained that they’d worked with the owner to scale down an initial proposal that would have added significantly more units, which the Planning Department found inappropriate for an industrial zone.
Tenants shared an email with The Oaklandside showing that property managers had a year prior offered them payments to voluntarily move out permanently, which a couple people reportedly accepted. The email from June 2021 referenced “anticipated renovations” but residents said they hadn’t heard anything about that since.
The Planning Commission discussion focused on the impact to the tenants, with commissioners saying they would be uncomfortable approving a project that came with a requirement for a tenant protection plan, before seeing the content of the plan. They said that even a temporary relocation could lead to permanent displacement for the tenants, who weren’t engaged by the owners until recently.
“Putting a notice on a street wall, to me, just isn’t outreach to a community that has existed this long. It just doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Commissioner Clark Manus, calling that the “fatal flaw” of the project.
Ultimately, the commission stopped short of squashing the project altogether, voting instead to allow Jacobson to come back with a new proposal, provided it doesn’t require any displacement of residents, even temporarily. Sodipo did not indicate whether he thought the owner would take this opportunity.
The renters said they hope this vote means they’ll avoid a similar fate as many of their fellow artists in Oakland. Rents and property values were already skyrocketing around the time of the tragic Ghost Ship fire in 2016, which put a spotlight on safety hazards and liability issues at artist warehouses, leading the city and landlords to shut down multiple properties in the ensuing years.
Luma Gallegos, a building resident who works as costume designer and performs as a professional mermaid, told The Oaklandside that while she was “happily shocked” by the outcome of the meeting, she’s been through too much housing instability as an artist to feel at ease about the future.
“I’m scared because this isn’t the first time I’ve been through something like this, and I’m worried about the next thing they’re going to do,” she said. “Things are cool now, but when you live in this type of space, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”