The demise of a longtime barbeque pit just a few blocks from Oakland City Hall has sparked a lawsuit and raised broader concerns about the future of Black-owned businesses downtown.
Beverly Ann Thomas, the former owner of Uncle Willie’s Original BBQ & Fish restaurant, recently sued developers and a construction firm that she says are responsible for ruining her family’s business, which was established nearly two decades ago on 14th Street.
According to the suit, developers started building a 19-story Marriott Hotel next door to Uncle Willie’s in 2020. Thomas and her family claim that dangerous debris—including a box cutter and metal panels—periodically fell into the outdoor dining area during construction, endangering staff and customers. Thomas’ family also claims that construction damaged her property and prompted at least one tenant who lived on-site to leave, further diminishing the family’s revenue. The restaurant is now closed.
“The Thomas family intends on prosecuting the lawsuit they’ve filed to recover fair compensation for the damage to the building, their business, and all the emotional turmoil that they’ve been forced to endure,” Clifford Fried, an attorney representing Thomas and her family, said during a press conference last Thursday on the outdoor patio of Uncle Willie’s.
The developer behind the Marriott, Hawkins Way Capital LLC, and the construction firm, Millie and Severson Inc., did not respond to requests for comment. The Oaklandside was unable to contact a third firm listed in the complaint, Jefferson Street Hotel LLC. One of the partners at Hawkins Way Capital is Lewis Wolff, who is a former owner of the Oakland Athletics.
Speaking at the event at the restaurant last week, Thomas’ son, Craig Jones, said Uncle Willie’s used to be a place where people who were down on their luck could get a meal and leave “with a smile on their face.” He said the restaurant also contributed to the vitality of the surrounding community, which is part of Oakland’s Black Arts Movement Business District—a cultural district established by the City Council in 2016 to celebrate and preserve historic Black-owned businesses and organizations in the downtown area along the 14th Street corridor from Oak Street to Frontage Road.
Some of the well-known organizations in the district include the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, the African American Museum and Library of Oakland, and the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce.
According to a press release, the developers approached the owners of Uncle Willie’s in 2018 to buy their land. The family refused to sell their building or their air rights—a term in real estate describing the space above a property’s surface. Construction started in 2020.
The family claims that large cranes worked above the restaurant and that dust and debris fell into the back patio, which doubled as a cooking and dining area. Workers set up temporary nets to catch material, but the restaurant was also allegedly affected by loud construction noise and a freezing wind tunnel.
To underscore the safety threat posed by the construction, Jones and Fried presented a table loaded with materials they said fell off the building into the restaurant area. These scraps included a box cutter with an extended blade, a heavy metal panel with an exposed screw, and various pieces of plastic.
“This would have killed one of us,” Jones said, holding up the metal panel.
Jones says that Hawkins offered them $5,000 for the air rights around their property and to install support infrastructure for the construction. He said Lewis Wolff, the Hawkins Way partner and former A’s owner, previously spoke with the family about selling their property but didn’t describe the potential impact the project would have on them.
Jones claims the recklessness of the developer and construction firm destroyed his family’s livelihood and his parents’ health. His father recently passed away. Fried told The Oaklandside that Thomas, Jones’ mother and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, died shortly after the press conference. She had been battling cancer.
“It’s sad because not a lot of African American businesses are around in Oakland anymore because of big development,” Jones said during the press event.
An uncertain future for downtown’s Black-owned businesses
Like other cities in the Bay Area, Oakland’s downtown experienced a severe economic crunch during the COVID-19 pandemic. Business travelers and office workers stayed home, forcing many local shops to shutter. According to data reported by the San Francisco Chronicle last month, the office vacancy rate downtown is nearly 29%, compared to nearly 11% pre-pandemic. Mayor Sheng Thao is eager to attract more companies to Oakland that can increase the city’s tax base. The City Council may approve a plan later this year to encourage more development downtown.
Some tenants in the Black Arts Movement Business District are concerned that Oakland’s economic recovery could come at their expense. During a Planning Commission meeting in May, dozens of residents showed up to express outrage over a proposed tower project that would be adjacent to Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, a jazz club located just a few blocks from Uncle Willie’s on 14th Street.
Geoffrey Pete, the founder and owner of the club, claims the tower will block the natural light his building has enjoyed for over 30 years. He has also argued that the project will remove a parking lot that many of his elderly customers rely on to gain access to the club. At a Planning Commission meeting on May 17, Pete noted that his venue is in a building that once housed the famous Athenian Nile Club, and he fears for its existence.
“This building poses a grave danger to the historic building next to it,” Pete said at the meeting. He did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Oakland Planning Commission approved two potential projects for the site for which developer Tidewater Capital submitted applications. The development requires approval from the City Council. In a letter to the Oakland Planning and Building Department, Tidewater said its proposal is consistent with the zoning requirements for the Black Arts Movement Business District and that it has received support from several community stakeholders.
Succatti Shaw, a resident whose grandmother used to go to Pete’s club to listen to jazz, said Black residents are at risk of displacement.
“It would behoove all of you to not have the blood on your hands of decimating the Black culture and the Black people that are left in this city,” Shaw said.