Historical Oakland sites to be razed for $70 million development
OAKLAND — The debate over whether the venerable old Hotel Royal on San Pablo Avenue should be saved is moot. The wrecking ball does not care one way or the other, so the building is coming down.
A one-time symbol of downtown Oakland’s innovation and opulence, the Royal was deemed too dilapidated and expensive to save. The adjacent Oakland Post building on Thomas L. Berkley Way stands in the way of progress and will be torn down, too.
Later this month, work will begin on their replacement, a modern $70 million development called Thomas L. Berkley Square, anchored by Alameda County’s social services and job training center. The project will be completed in two phases and include a parking garage, retail space and 100 new apartments, said developer Alan Dones of Strategic Urban Development Alliance.
The late Thomas L. Berkley, publisher of the Post and the Spanish-language El Mundo and other newspapers, would be proud to have such a project named after him, Dones said.
Berkley served as Oakland’s first black port commissioner, opened the city’s first black law practice and operated the country’s largest integrated bilingual law firm. He founded Beneficial Savings and Loan Association, served two years on the school board and generously gave his time and knowledge to help others succeed.”
If you were to ask him what his legacy should be … the largest development of this type, done by an African-American development team, doing a lot of the things that Thomas Berkley stood for,” Dones said.
“As people come in looking for training for jobs and vital services, they will have the ability to learn about what it takes to be a Tom Berkley.
“The county approved the project in January, and the city issued demolition permits last month. A team of archaeologists from Sonoma State University mapped the site and excavated a few areas to recover artifacts from a Chinese neighborhood that existed there before the hotel and other buildings went up.
The team will also monitor the demolition and excavation to recover any additional artifacts from that era, Dones said.
“The really great thing Alan Dones did was to meet with community members while he was planning the project,” said Anna Naruta, a historical archaeologist at University of California, Berkeley who pushed for a historical investigation of the area.”
Community members aren’t being shut out behind a big fence and left to wonder whether cultural remains of their forebears are being mistreated or thrown away,” she said. “I think it’s been really positive all the way around.”
Naomi Schiff, board member of Oakland Heritage Alliance, fought to save the seven-story hotel, hoping Dones would reuse it in his project. She was out of town when demolition started last week, and the alliance had no comment in her absence
Dones said he tried, but the $6 million to $11 million price tag to rehabilitate the building and bring it up to code proved insurmountable.
“Unfortunately, we were not able to come up with a viable financial plan to save the hotel,” he said. “It just proved more costly … it was not a prudent expenditure of funds to save (it). It’s a little bit gut wrenching to work for four years on it, and to think that (maybe) 40 years from now people will regret tearing it down.”
The hotel was built with reinforced concrete and featured all the latest conveniences when it opened in 1913. It was designed by William Lee Woollett, best known for his work on the Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Hollywood Bowl in Southern California for Idora Park and the Municipal Rose Garden in Oakland.
The hotel had deteriorated over the years, and the last tenants were removed in the late 1990s.
Once vacant, the hotel became a magnet for squatters and vandals, and more recently for graffiti painters who broke in and somehow suspended themselves from the seven-story structure to paint the word “NESTA” in large block letters on the upper facade.
“It’s just a tremendous liability and it became a tremendous attractive nuisance,” Dones said. “Once people are successful at that, it doesn’t stop. On top of everything else (with the project), I just got increasingly anxious about somebody getting hurt, so it’s good to bring it to a dignified rest.”
The development team has prepared documentation — both written and photographic — about the hotel that will be included in a history of the site.
Berkley will be honored with a commemorative plaque highlighting his achievements.
A groundbreaking for the new project will take place on July 28, at 10:30 a.m.
Originally published in the Oakland Tribune on July 17, 2004
by Cecily Burt, Staff Writer