Naomi Schiff: Preserving what’s good, and building a successful city

5 Feb

This guest post was written by Naomi Schiff, an Oakland Heritage Alliance boardmember. She is on the board of the Train Station Partnership, served on the Chinatown-Central Community Development Advisory Board, Measure X Review Committee, and citywide zoning update technical advisory group. She walks to her small business on 12th St. from her home in the HarriOak neighborhood, District 3.

Some ask: Why preserve a bunch of musty old buildings, when we could scrape them off and build a whole new city?

Here are five ideas to contemplate, with more detailed information below:

Packard Lofts includes live-work and houses the Mimosa champagne bar, reawakening a historic building on Broadway.

1) Cities grow organically. The best examples of urban density and liveable urban neighborhoods are characterized by variety in scale and ages of structures, a fine-grained pattern of open space, highly dense, and less dense parcels, visual richness, and pedestrian-friendly streets. To balance these things means steering away from wholesale demolitions and monolithic redevelopment schemes such as were tried in the 60s and 70s. Those redevelopment schemes had two problems: a) they took a really long time to come to fruition and b) they often failed. Understanding this, we can move forward with a different model: New and old complement each other and together create viable development.

2) The energy embodied in existing buildings–their materials, the energy that went into construction, the transportation costs of lugging materials around, landfill costs, and the effort it would take to dismantle them–often outweighs the benefits we can get from new–even LEED certified–buildings constructed on a cleared site. Because many older buildings were built before the days of air conditioning and climate control, they often are also more energy-efficient and naturally temperature-controlled than one might expect. Updated LEED guidelines recognize this.

3) Older buildings can provide space for commercial and residential tenants at lower rents, if mortgages are fully or partly amortized. They can incubate smaller and new businesses that cannot manage the highest leasing rates, such as art businesses, niche retail, craftspeople, repair shops, food-oriented, and small businesses in general. We are all familiar with new, vacant retail spaces that businesses cannot afford to lease.

4) Architectural, cultural, and historic assets enhance a city’s attractiveness as a destination, emphasize its uniqueness, and make use of available preservation incentives to help make projects pencil out.

Starting in 1982, Oakland Heritage Alliance went to bat several times for the Floral Depot, now home to Flora Restaurant.

5) The California State Historic Building Code allows historic buildings to use alternate building techniques as long as safety characteristics are incorporated. We don’t have to “rewrite building code” as claimed in a recent letter; well-established state law addresses historic structures, and experienced engineers and architects are familiar with its use. On April 8, Oakland Heritage Alliance and the East Bay AIA invite you to participate in an evening presentation on this topic, featuring an experienced structural engineer and a longtime architect who is a historic building code commissioner.

Examples and links:

Temescal shopping district is on the upswing, with businesses in new and old structures.

1) Successful shopping areas in today’s Oakland occur in distinctive neighborhoods with a mix of businesses in old and new structures–Fruitvale, Piedmont, Dimond, Rockridge, Montclair, Lakeshore, Grand, Old Oakland, Chinatown, Temescal. Stretches of Telegraph from Grand to MacArthur are slowly filling in. Just using the uptown example, the contributions of historic buildings are enormous: Flora, The Uptown, The Fox Oakland, the Paramount, and surrounding Deco and Moderne-style structures lend the neighborhood character and excitement. Each of these shopping areas exhibits organic growth combined with city involvement, rehabilitation of old buildings and construction of new ones. As we plan for other areas, such as Broadway between Grand and 580, we should learn from experience, and take advantage of extant assets as well as trying to provide incentives for new construction.

2) Recent calculations indicate that it takes 35-50 years for an energy efficient new building to save the amount of energy lost in demolishing an existing building. Recognizing the value of existing structures, the US Green Building Council is expanding its guidelines to apply to them.

3) Preserving our job-creating base of small business means that we must be cautious about pressuring them out of their locations. Experience in redevelopment areas has shown that we may freeze the leasing market by dangling hopes of property profits and eminent domain before landowners. In the uptown area, dozens of businesses were lost over a thirty-year period, with little effort to retain them. We should be fostering locally-owned businesses, encouraging them to remain here, and supporting them so that they will succeed. Promising them space in a someday-to-be-built expensive new building is the same as telling them to leave.

4) Both federal and local incentives for historic buildings are available: 20% federal tax credits (based on cost of construction) have provided major funding to projects  such as The Rotunda Building, Fox Oakland Theater, Madison Park Apartments, The Altenheim housing, CHORI (former University High/Merritt campus on MLK), and the Press Building. Tax credits can be added together–for example, housing credits plus preservation credits–and syndicated to investors, such as banks. Bank of America and Union Bank have participated in recent Oakland projects through tax credit programs.

The Cotton Mill Lofts used historic tax credits and state historic building code in repurposing a prominent industrial building.

Locally, the city has a thriving facade improvement grant program, and has just made permanent a Mills Act program, which provides for longterm transferable property tax abatements when historic buildings are rehabilitated. Taken together, these programs can make projects feasible.

For an overview, visit this website, which includes a photo of an Oakland example in one of its sections. Information on the 10% tax credit can be found at the National Park Services tax incentives site. In California, publicly-owned buildings can sometimes be funded based on their historic qualities. Studio One and the Fox Oakland received funds generated by a state parks bond known as Prop 40. Other available government, foundation, and grant funds are too numerous to list here, but often can be leveraged with these other incentives to make a project work.

5) The SHBSB board roster includes state officials and professional experts in historic preservation, life safety, seismic safety, engineering, and architecture. City of Oakland building officials have reviewed and approved a number of sizable projects which use this code, including the Fox Oakland Theater and the 174-unit Altenheim housing reuse. Using the historic  code can reduce retrofit costs and help in finding feasible approaches to reuse.

Oakland Heritage Alliance is proud to number among its members many architects, engineers, designers, construction professionals, realtors, and developers, as well as Oakland-boosting citizens, longtime residents, newcomers, and students. Our interest in Oakland is not only in single buildings, but in furthering a liveable and visually rich community, with vibrant cultural institutions, environmental sustainability, and economic progress.


8 Responses to “Naomi Schiff: Preserving what’s good, and building a successful city”

  1. G February 9, 2010 at 10:41 am #

    I appreciate this post. It’s a nice lesson on urban planning.

    But the author is forgetting the most important, number one, above-all-others urban planning rule: cities like Oakland must be safe enough for people to walk, shop, talk, bike, live, etc.

    Does anyone remember the Oscar Grant riots? The riots led to destruction of Flora’s windows.

    We have to discuss how a small minority – black men in Oakland – have hijacked any plans for real growth in this city in terms of population, living quality, etc. Black men in Oakland have such a high crime rate that they essentially dictate how our city budget is spent and how our neighborhoods grow/contract.

    No one wants to talk about though.

  2. Naomi Schiff February 10, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    Hey, there, G. Concerning the racist post above. The so-called Oscar Grant vandalism occurred along my route home from work. The instigators were largely white people from Berkeley, as it happens, with a particular kind of retro-stalinist political approach.

    I have lived in Oakland for 36 years and I am aware of crime issues. I don’t appreciate turning it into a race issue, which it is not. We have plenty of problems with lots of different types of people. You might consider viewing it through an economic lens for a change.

  3. newoaktown February 10, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

    I think “cotton mill lofts” was the worst name ever…

    but maybe that’s what it used to be, what do I know.

    G: try OHA budget $200M. also look into the 1980s crack epidemic and which white men airlifted it from Columbia to the US and into inner cities. (ahem, LAPD) don’t get caught up in color when it was mainly the OFFSHORING OF JOBS TO ASIA led by the internationalist white rentier and wall street elite caste that cut many jobs here.

    So anyway, the real comment I wanted to make on Naomi’s story here is that Uptown SEVERELY LACKS basic “neighborhood” necessities.

    Temescal is approaching full urban renewal (vs 70s, 80s) with a clothing store, FMarket and FM inspired tiny grocer. Still lacks enough manufacturing/making/repairing things.

    no bakery. no cafes. no grocery stores. nothing to do except drink at BARS and listen to music. needs more balance.

    this is a transient village in a commercial district. not a neighborhood. no full urban renewal here yet!

  4. newoaktown February 10, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    the particular subset within the grouping “young black men” you speak of now are children of crack babies and crack babies themselves. they are symptoms of larger structural problems in our economic and political systems.

    not root problems in and of themselves, despite a certain level of “demon seed” as I heard one black OPD officer say there are around, years back. anyway every “race” has its own “demon seed” cornpone nazis gangsters mafia thieves lazy parasites and so on.

  5. Naomi Schiff February 10, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    Yes it was a cotton mill, in fact. A brief history and an old photo here:

  6. G February 11, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

    Race problems shouldn’t automatically lead to accusations of racism. It doesn’t stand up these days, especially in Oakland.

    Whether the reasons are job loss, crack baby epidemic, young black men are a huge source of Oakland’s crime. I mean small, repetitive crime, like armed robbery, shootings that lead to nonfatal injuries, assault, car jackings, gang affiliations, etc.

    City planning is not the answer. City planning does a lot to revitalize, but bottom line: Businesses and investors will NOT pour money into Oakland until they see a safe, livable community and neighborhoods.

    We HAVE to address the black-men issue whenever we can, at every event, at every city council meeting, etc

  7. Naomi Schiff February 11, 2010 at 9:22 pm #


    • ralph February 12, 2010 at 10:59 am #

      Naomi, though poorly articulated, as a community we need to address the issue of young black boys dropping out of school. It reduces their opportunity and results in a poor allocation of funds. We must do a better job at improving outcomes.

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