The promise of Jack London emerging as Oakland’s food center hasn’t quite panned out, say some who have businesses there. Photo: Tory Putnam

Oakland’s Jack London Square is in the middle of a reinvention. The change is in keeping with the district’s history of boom and bust, but exactly which part of the cycle the district is in depends largely on where an observer stands.

“Three years ago it was looking very good,” said Paul Hayward, owner of the now-closed country western bar Overland. “The city was bringing in businesses, there was the hope of a big marketplace. Sunset magazine moved in [in 2016],” he said. Another big win for the area happened in 2015, when San Francisco-based CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture), which runs the farmers market at the Ferry Building, took over operations of the Jack London Square farmers market. But the promise of Jack London emerging as Oakland’s food center hasn’t quite panned out.

Hayward also co-owns Mockingbird and The Temple Club, but Overland was a special project for him. For a while, he managed to keep the Texas-themed bar going through sheer will, hosting nightly events and often working 100-hour weeks. But Hayward concluded that Jack London Square didn’t have the numbers of passersby to keep the place running, and he closed the bar on Oct. 13.

“When you can’t count on any walk-by traffic it’s hard to keep the doors open,” said Hayward. “Every night was just a different event to try to get people to come down the road.”

A boom-and-bust neighborhood

For decades, Jack London Square’s main attraction has been its potential. A potential many bar and restaurant owners say the district has never quite achieved.

Over the past two years, more than a dozen restaurants on the square have relocated elsewhere or outright closed, according to Hayward. Bocanova is moving to Broadway. Its neighbor, Jack’s Oyster Bar and Fish House, close, as did Encuentro. After 30 years, Il Pescatore shuttered. The most complete severance with both the neighborhood and the city comes from Oakland-founded Cerruti Cellars, which closed, sold its property and announced it was moving to Napa, all within the space of a month.

Not all of Jack London Square’s closures and relocations have been food-related. Solar energy company Sungevity filed for bankruptcy and closed earlier this year. Cost Plus World Market moved to Alameda. Between those two businesses, there are now about 650 fewer daytime employees potentially looking for lunch on the square.

Besides these closures, there were also some high-profile developments that didn’t quite happen. The proposed Water Street Market — a 32,000-square-foot grocery store along the lines of San Francisco’s Ferry Building — has still not materialized, despite having begun development in 2009. Last month, ride-sharing service Uber announced it would sell its proposed Oakland headquarters. Though located more than a mile from Jack London Square in Uptown, the hope had been that the increase in downtown business would correlate to an increase in the number of commuters and hungry office workers traveling through the area. Uber’s property at 1954 Telegraph Ave. was purchased by L.A.-based CIM Group, the same real-estate development company that has owned Jack London Square since March 2016.

“This whole renaissance isn’t going to happen,” said Hayward, referring to Oakland more broadly. “Uber’s leaving, Sungevity left, they’re building the stadium in the wrong place, they’re losing the Warriors, losing the Raiders,” he said. “Something needs to be done and it needs to have been done proactively years ago. People are going to wake up and say what the hell happened to our town? Where is everything?”

What about sustainability?

Chris Pastena, owner of Lungomare in Jack London Square is a bit more measured in his critique, though he shares many of Hayward’s concerns.

“The renaissance hasn’t been managed very well,” he said.

Besides Lungomare, Pastena also owns Chop Bar, also located at Jack London, and Calavera on Broadway in Uptown. Pastena’s main criticism has been the unwillingness on the part of the city to consider more sensible planning, describing the current model as a “blank check” on development. “Every new building that’s built has to have ground-floor retail no matter where they are,” said Pastena, even in areas with low pedestrian traffic.

Lungomare. Photo: Molly Decoudreaux, courtesy of Lungomare

Another concern Pastena has is that restaurant development has far outpaced residential development. Many restaurants opened or relocated to Oakland in hopes of cashing in on a real-estate boom and a corresponding influx of new residents. But even with licensing delays, it’s far faster to open an eatery than an apartment complex, leading to an over-saturation of bars and restaurants, and thus many unfortunate, though necessary closures.

Pastena feels much of that boom and bust could have been avoided. He singled out Vancouver as a city he said is developed sensibly for both pedestrians and small businesses. Oakland, he says, could learn some valuable lessons from the Canadian city whose urban planning approach has spawned its own eponym.

“Our leadership really needs to put together a better plan for the city,” said Pastena. “As this renaissance is happening there’s not a really good thoughts on how to sustainably build it.”

Currently Pastena has an even more immediate concern. “Are we going to be able to sustain through all this construction? That’s my biggest fear,” he said.

CIM Group is currently in the middle of residential construction in the district, nearly right on top of Pastena’s Chop Bar. Noise and redirection of pedestrian traffic have taken a toll on the number of customers at both Chop Bar and Lungomare, he says.

Pastena does not lease from CIM, and feels that they have generally been responsible towards existing businesses, but does fear that they may not have as much of an eye towards preserving individual businesses as they have towards preserving commercial space. In other words, small beer for CIM if Chop or Lungomare goes under, so long as some other eatery can move in. (Nosh reached out to CIM Group for comment, but at the time of publication, had not heard back with a response.)

“Are they going to be willing to work with us in a way that keeps our doors open?” said Pastena.

Changes, growth, construction continues

During the same period Jack London has struggled to retain some of its eateries, other Oakland neighborhoods have emerged, sometimes more organically, creating competition for the Square. Downtown has become a destination for cocktails and fine dining. Old Oakland has gourmet food court Swan’s Marketplace. Temescal is a gastropub hotbed. Rockridge has its high-end grocery stores and restaurants. And Fruitvale’s Mexican scene has become so popular companies now book food tours of the neighborhood as corporate team building events.

Which is why Savlan Hauser of the Jack London Improvement District has a more optimistic outlook. She considers the recent closures and relocations as not so much a loss for the district as a “changing of the guard.”

“Much like the rest of Oakland we’ve seen an enormous growth in the number of bars, restaurants and young businesses that have opened. A lot of them are kind of giving the older guard a run for their money,” said Hauser. “It’s raising the standard of food and dining and drinking in Oakland. Which is awesome but it does put pressure on existing businesses.”

In a telephone conversation and email follow-up with Berkeleyside, Hauser listed all the food-related businesses that have either opened since 2016, or will open later this year in Jack London Square or else nearby. They include Sláinte, the Pizza Pantry, Crooked City Cider, Oakland United Beerworks, Original Pattern Brewing, Grocery Café, Coffee Manufactory, El Sobrasito, Federation Brewing, Diamond Dogs and Starbucks. Hauser also named three food-related businesses currently announced or under construction: Nido’s Backyard, Belcampo and Buck Wild Brewery.

Photo: Federation Brewing opened on Third Street in Jack London Square in March/Facebook

In the second quarter of 2016, revenue generated from sales tax in the district was up by 9.7% over the previous quarter, with no sign of slowing down, according to Hauser. “I get requests all the time about concepts and potential locations for businesses,” she said.

But Hauser reiterates that the increase in the total number of restaurants does put pressure on existing ones, especially since, as Pastena observes, housing has not kept pace. There might be more places to eat out, but there just may not be enough locals to fill the seats.

“We certainly haven’t doubled, tripled, quadrupled the number of people with the disposable income to eat at these places,” said Hauser, who says she is enthusiastic for the residential construction currently going on in the district.

Construction taking place on Oct. 26 at the site of future Nido’s Backyard. Photo: Nido Instagram

No construction has occurred on Jack London Square itself in the past 10 years, but in the larger district, commonly referred to by the same name, several projects are underway.

“Right now we have 600 units under construction [in the district],” said Hauser, including 330 units at Fourth and Madison, the former location of Cost Plus World Market. Hauser says the JLID does what it can to minimize the potential negative effects of construction, providing signage, promoting alliances with community loan foundations, education for small business management and open lines of communication with the city’s department of economic and workforce development.

“Short term it may be uncomfortable due to disruption, but long term will bring more business to the district,” she said.

The district can’t thrive until it attracts more residents, according to Hauser. This is the principle reason she cites for why some larger projects, like the Water Street Market, have stalled despite years in the works.

“These markets can’t just happen out of nowhere. You need the surrounding density to support it,” she said.

“It’s always a supply and demand question and we gotta get more people supporting the businesses that are opening,” said Hauser. “If we don’t have the people there’s the painful truth of not being able support the businesses.”

As to why some restaurants and bars closed or moved, Hauser has another possible explanation: “Sometimes the business is not the right fit for that demographic or neighborhood,” she said.

Manufacturing and wholesale may be the answer

In talking with Hauser, a clear trend emerges. Of the 14 food-related businesses opening in the district, six are breweries or coffee roasteries.

Before it became anything like an event space, and long before the foodie scene, Jack London Square was called the Waterfront Warehouse District. The district is already zoned for industry with a good stock of warehouses suitable for the manufacturing needs of both beer and wholesale coffee.

For that reason, Chris Jordan, chief operating officer of coffee for Tartine Bakery sees reason for hope. Tartine Bakery has opened its newly minted spin-off Coffee Manufactory in the district. The subsidiary roasts and packages beans in a 5,000-square-foot facility. Coffee Manufactory is the first business of the Water Street Market.

Tartine’s Coffee Manufactory is in Jack London Square. Photo: Coffee Manufactory Instagram

“The location allows us to get to all of our customers,” said Jordan. “Oakland is one of the most important coffee ports.”

The manufactory is not the only coffee roastery in town, of course, and it isn’t even the only roastery in the district. Blue Bottle, the Oakland coffee powerhouse, which recently sold a majority stake to Nestlé, is headquartered nearby, as is Mr. Espresso, Peerless Coffee and Tea and the San Francisco-founded Four Barrel.

Coffee Manufactory will occasionally do pop-ups at the square, offering fresh brewed coffee and pastries, but the emphasis will always be on roasting. By focusing on the making and distribution of beans, and not the brewing and serving of coffee, it hopes to avoid many of the pitfalls that have bedeviled some of Jack London Square’s bars and restaurants.

For Jordan, the woes expressed by Hayward and Pastena are not without foundation, but perhaps misplaced. “It’s just hard to do restaurants,” he said. “I think that [the closures] show how difficult the environment is. It’s a story that’s well told regarding the restaurant business,” he said. “I don’t really think it’s linked so much to Jack London Square.”

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Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.