Liberation Park on 73rd Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard is a project of the Black Cultural Zone. Credit: Amir Aziz

At the start of the pandemic, the Black Cultural Zone, a community development group, struck a deal with the city of Oakland to transform a vacant city-owned lot at Foothill Boulevard and 73rd Avenue into an outdoor community space. It became “Liberation Park,” which hosts weekly farmers markets, a rollerskating rink, and more.

The Black Cultural Zone also has plans to develop a food hall and affordable housing on the land, and the Oakland City Council voted last October to enter into an 18-month period of exclusive negotiations with the nonprofit. 

But there’s a catch: A decades-old deed restriction on the land prohibits restaurants from being part of the Black Cultural Zone’s plans because they might compete with a neighboring Taco Bell and McDonald’s. Now, the Black Cultural Zone wants the restrictions lifted. To do this, the property’s current owner, the city, will need to get McDonald’s and Taco Bell to agree to the changes. So far, McDonald’s has resisted the idea. On Tuesday, the City Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee endorsed a plan to seek modifications to the deed. 

A mockup of the Black Cultural Zone’s commercial and mix-used affordable housing project, which would be located between 73rd Ave. and Foothill Blvd. Credit: Black Cultural Zone

“The vision is to not restrict Black Cultural Zone’s effort at this site,” said District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor during the committee meeting. “We want this project to reach its full potential and not be encumbered by this deed restriction.”

Naree Chan, a deputy city attorney with Oakland’s real estate division, said the next step is for city negotiators to sit down with McDonald’s representatives to ask for amendments to the deed. 

A deed restriction, also known as a covenant, is an agreement that limits the ways a property owner can use their land. In the case of the Eastmont property, the city inherited the restrictions from the prior owner.

In 1999, McDonald’s signed a ground lease with the private company that owned the Eastmont Mall at the time. The mall’s owner, Eastmont Town Center, agreed to prohibit other restaurants and food vendors from operating nearby, including the land at 7211 Foothill Boulevard. The deed restriction did not apply to restaurants located inside Eastmont Town Center, which is now an office complex, police station, health care services center, and home to the Eastmont Branch Library. The covenant has an extensive list of what cannot be sold, including burgers, pizza, Mexican food, eggs or egg substitutes, pancakes, ice cream, frozen yogurt, cookies, cereal, and chicken.

In 2000, McDonald’s and the company that owned the mall amended the lease to allow a now-shuttered Southern-style restaurant at 2901 68th Ave. to operate, provided they did not sell hamburgers. 

Meanwhile, a Taco Bell that opened up a location in the parking lot of the Eastmont Mall also negotiated a deed restriction with the mall’s owner that forbids any restaurants on the property—excluding those inside the mall—from offering more than 10% of “Mexican Style” food.

In 2008, Oakland’s Redevelopment Agency purchased the deed-restricted land for $2,214,755. When the state ended the redevelopment program a few years later the land remained under the control of the city.

Ever since, the city has tried to find developers willing to purchase or lease the property and put it to use, including  ideas like opening a Merritt College satellite campus and a Starbucks “community store” that would have included classrooms for local nonprofits to host job training courses.

These projects failed to materialize for a mix of reasons, but eventually the city agreed to allow the Black Cultural Zone to set up its Akoma Market, roller skating rink, and other amenities on the corner lot. In mid-2020 the group started hosting its farmer’s markets and other events there, including hosting food trucks.

According to the Black Cultural Zone’s CEO, Carolyn Johnson, her group has been careful about which food vendors they have invited to sell at Liberation Park events. For the most part, they’ve stuck to selling a variety of cuisine from the African diaspora, including Ethiopian, Afro-Brazilian, and Jamaican food.

Johnson hopes that her organization will be able to invite Mexican vendors to operate there because Latinos comprise a large part of the Eastmont community. “I want good Mexican food in the Black Cultural Zone,” Johnson told The Oaklandside.

On behalf of the Black Cultural Zone, the city attempted to gain permission from McDonald’s to set aside the deed restrictions on the property so that food could be served. But In August 2021, McDonald’s corporate office sent a letter to the city denying this request. “Despite this covenant, you have requested McDonald’s permission to allow the presence of various food trucks on site,” McDonald’s officials stated. “The purpose of this letter is to provide formal notice that Mcdonald’s will not waive or otherwise permit the sale of any food prohibited by the covenant.” The covenant doesn’t directly mention whether food trucks are prohibited from selling on the property.

The market hall envisioned by the Black Cultural Zone will be a three-story building with food vendors and indoor and outdoor dining areas on the 10,000-square-foot ground floor with housing above. The project doesn’t have a start date for construction yet.

“We are developing with our partners a hub around Eastmont Mall. We want to remove these restrictions that limit our success with restaurants. Any restrictions will limit [growth],” Johnson said.

Several Oakland residents called into Tuesday’s meeting to express support for the Black Cultural Zone’s request.

“I was raised in Oakland by Eastmont mall and I’m very discouraged by the proliferation of fast food franchises there,” Cathy Leonard said. “The businesses there are only contributing to the disparities in my community.”

Sheryl Walton said she loved the work that the Black Cultural Zone has done in the area. “We’d love to have a market hall so we need this deed restriction removed,” Walton said.

Taco Bell’s corporate office told The Oaklandside that “the franchise owner and operator of this location was just made aware of the city council’s proposal and is considering it closely.”

McDonald’s did not respond to questions from The Oaklandside about its position on the deed restrictions.

The full City Council is expected to take up the issue at their Dec. 6 meeting.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.