The Oakland auditorium under construction last September. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center was scheduled to reopen in the spring after undergoing a major renovation. But that deadline has come and gone, and The Oaklandside learned in recent days that the developer’s original plan for the building—which included converting the Oakland Municipal Auditorium, its main arena, into office space—has changed, leaving some community stakeholders frustrated and confused. 

Plans shared by Orton Development last September called for the building’s largest feature—the 25,000-square-foot arena—to be converted into commercial office space. But according to spokespeople for Orton Development—the parent company of Oakland Civic, LLC, the organization that entered into a 99-year lease with the city in 2015 to rehabilitate and operate the 1915 Beaux-Arts-style building between Laney College and Lake Merritt—that is no longer happening.

“Given the way the pandemic shifted the office market. There are a lot more vacancies and not the demand,” a spokesperson for Orton Development told The Oaklandside. The office vacancy rate in Oakland has risen every year since 2017, according to figures from Global Commercial Real Estate, a private real estate company. Oakland’s current vacancy rate is 19.7%.

Instead, the auditorium will reopen as an event space once more beginning on Oct. 1; the arena will open its doors for a rollerskating event that will take place every Sunday for 12 weeks, according to Nathaniel Cornejo, director of corporate events for Orton Development. The rest of the building—which includes the 1,500-seat Calvin Simmons Theatre and three ballrooms, is expected to reopen in early 2024. 

News of the pivot—and other changes—came as a surprise earlier this year to some cultural leaders who have been involved in the conversations about how the building can benefit the arts community in Oakland. 

Graham Lustig, executive director of the Oakland Ballet, has been involved in the discussions about the Henry J. Kaiser building’s future for almost a decade. Lustig’s conversations with the developer included the ballet company becoming a resident tenant of the building with access to one of the ballrooms as studio space and a small office.

Lustig was told by Orton Development that the ballet would have to take on the cost of adapting the ballroom as a rehearsal space, which would require specialized flooring for the dancers and be covered when being used by other groups. Lustig said he provided multiple proposals to Orton Development on how to do this but that the developer retracted its offer in March, saying none of the proposals would work and the ballroom was no longer an option for the ballet.

“When I had that conversation with Eddie [J.R. Orton III, president of Orton Development], I was shocked. I put so much in and wanted the ballet to have a home, and it seemed like a golden opportunity,” Lustig said. “I tried my hardest to give us a secure home base.” 

Oakland Poet Laureate and West Oakland playwright Ayodele Nzinga is a member of the community coalition that has been in talks with the developer over the building’s potential use and how it could serve local cultural organizations. Members of the coalition include the Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corporation (founded by Nzinga), Black Cultural Zone, Oakland People’s Conservatory, Oakland Asian Cultural Center, and others.

Nzinga and the group played a pivotal role in negotiating a community benefits agreement with Oakland Civic, LLC that allowed for a portion of the building’s office space—including the arena, according to Nzinga—to be set aside for community arts organizations at below-market rates, as well as below-market rental fees for use of the Calvin Simmons Theatre and the ballrooms. As part of the agreement, the developer agreed to also form a nonprofit to run the Calvin Simmons Theatre and allocate 25% of the board seats to individuals representing the community coalition, Nzinga said.

Now that Orton Development and its affiliates have changed their plan for the arena, Nzinga said, “there are many questions swirling about the project,” including how certain aspects of the community benefits agreement may be impacted.

“This was a way to have [leaders from Oakland cultural institutions] be in conversation and physically within the building… for as long as the developer has the building,” she said. “That was the intention of the negotiation.”

This week, The Oaklandside became aware of a job posting for an executive director position with an organization called the Center for Arts and Ideas. The position description calls for the completion of “a $50 million capital and endowment campaign to transfer ownership of the fully rebuilt and upgraded Center’s 99-year lease with the City of Oakland from Orton Development, Inc. to Arts for Oakland,” within seven years. 

Dru Cowan, an Orton representative, confirmed with The Oaklandside via email on Tuesday that the Center for Arts and Ideas website is “managed by Oakland Civic, LLC, an affiliate of Orton Development.”

Cowan also said that the Calvin Simmons Theatre, which was incorporated into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2020, will operate as a sub-tenant of Oakland Civic. The “full operational scope” and teams at both entities will be “getting built out” in the coming year, they said. 

Nzinga said that Eddie Orton had introduced the idea of creating a new nonprofit that could oversee the operations of the entire building during a meeting earlier this year. But the development company has been “elusive” in its plans, she said, and the project has had a number of “false starts.” She also said that turning the arena into offices was never the desired course among members of the local arts community.

“Our argument at the time was we did not need more office space. And Eddie Orton argued wholeheartedly for the failure of arena space and about the viability of office space,” Nzinga said. “And now he’s reversed himself.” 

Keeping the arena intact as an event space was part of another proposal by Creative Development Partners, an Oakland-based developer that competed with Orton Development for the rights to renovate the building in 2015. But the city awarded the contract to Orton, and in 2016 the developer and an independent consultant conducted two feasibility studies that concluded the arena was no longer viable as an event space.

Randolph Belle, the vice president of community and government affairs at Creative Development Partners, told The Oaklandside this week that it never made sense to get rid of a public asset that can accommodate more people than the Fox Theater and the Paramount and that building permanent walls to create offices inside the arena was difficult due to the building’s designation as a historical landmark.

“The entire time that we were proposing keeping the arena as a venue, everybody thought it was a fantastic idea,” Belle said.

Now that the plans for the arena have changed, Nzinga believes the developer should come back to the negotiating table with the community coalition to revise the community benefits agreement. After being in regular communication with community stakeholders for years, she said it’s been months since anyone from Orton or Oakland Civic has reached out to discuss it.

“I am in conversations right now with the City of Oakland because of my disappointment with how the project is moving,” she said. “The Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center is a place to help the City live out its promise and its responsibility to stop the displacement of artists of color.”

In an email sent to The Oaklandside, City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas acknowledged the complexity of the renovation project and called for transparency and engagement between Orton Development and its affiliates and local cultural institutions.

“My office has been in several conversations with multiple stakeholders—the developer, Oakland-based arts institutions, grassroots arts organizations, and their coalition,” she wrote. “We remain committed to working in partnership to shepherd this project toward our shared vision: a local and regional center for arts and culture in Oakland that is grounded in equity, cultural preservation, and vibrancy.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.