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Can architecture slow gentrification? Restore Oakland wants to show that it can

Even now, seven months after it officially opened, Restore Oakland’s ambitious home makeover in the Fruitvale district is a work in progress.

The theater-type marquee still announces long-gone tenants. The ground floor’s large restaurant space is only now coming alive. One corner of the exterior awaits a large mural.

Such ragged edges are to be expected in a $22 million project conceived by socially oriented nonprofits and funded by a laborious array of grants and loans. What counts is the boldness of all that has been completed, and what the turnaround represents — an effort to provide a bulwark against displacement pressures that can disrupt communities already struggling to hold on in a city and region where seemingly everything is up for grabs.

“Gentrification seems to be the topic of every conversation we have these days,” said Deanna Van Buren, the Oakland architect who led Restore Oakland’s design team. “One form of response is to own in the community, and be a good steward.”

As you might guess from the name of her firm — Designing Justice + Designing Spaces — Van Buren wasn’t seeking glory when she started work on a weary two-story structure at International Boulevard and 34th Avenue.

The draw was creating a space owned by nonprofits working on such issues as restorative justice and job training. As for the location, it’s a prominent corner in one of Oakland’s most diverse neighborhoods. Restore Oakland shares the block with everything from El Palacio, a shop whose window is filled with Quinceañera dresses, to a food market with signs in English and Chinese. Home-grown Red Bay Coffee is on the next block alongside Kick Start, selling athletic shoes, and within yards of the Native American Health Center.

This particular building from the early 1930s had long held a constantly shifting collection of offices and shops, including Ritmo Latino, the defunct music store that still is plugged on the prominent marquee that will be updated once finances allow. For now, the only exterior upgrades are the ground-floor windows added where Colors restaurant will open next month. There’s also a fresh coat of paint except for the stretch reserved for a mural by Favianna Rodriguez, a noted artist who grew up in Fruitvale.

Inside, though, the transformation is invigorating.

On the top floor, split between offices for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Causa Justa/Just Cause, there’s no ceiling — just a thicket of wooden trusses that part to reveal long-hidden skylights.

In the basement, the boiler room’s brick walls had deteriorated but the robust metal door was in good shape. The walls are gone; the door remains as an artifact near hallways lined on one side by public meeting rooms, and on the other by board-formed concrete that exudes tough authenticity.

In between, the restaurant uses dark paint on the ceiling to mask the piping and white paint on the columns to accent the height. The shelves that will hold bottles and glasses are crafted from wood found in the building.

“Most things were done on the fly” is Van Buren’s self-deprecating description of what drove her design. “We cleared everything out and then saw what we had.”

What they have now is more than an act of creative rejuvenation. The building sends a message: Social advocacy can remain as a defining presence in Fruitvale.

Restore Oakland is the offshoot of a partnership between the Ella Baker Center, founded in 1996 with the mission to reform the criminal justice system and steer resources into marginalized communities, and Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which trains low-income people in such potentially lucrative food service sectors as bartending and management.

The two nonprofits lined up grants to purchase the building — Van Buren and her firm helped find it — and then more grants to do the structural overhaul. Causa Justa/Just Cause, the tenant advocacy group that shares the second-floor office space, opened a walk-in clinic downstairs.

“We reached out to them intentionally, because of the tenants’ rights piece,” said Tash Nguyen of Restore Oakland. The whole is intended to be more than the sum of the parts: “People don’t lead single-issue lives, so we can’t be a single-issue operation.”

The backdrop to such innovative activism is displacement, or gentrification, or however you want to describe the pressures caused by a sustained but narrow economic boom in a city where housing prices were corrosively high to begin with.

Fruitvale remains diverse by any measuring rod, with more renters and Latino families than the average for the city as a whole. International Boulevard is a languid and lively strip with no hints of upscale hipster. That doesn’t mean displacement pressures aren’t real.

Which explains the three conference rooms for up to 45 people each in the basement.

“You spend so much time as a community organizer looking for spaces to meet in. We want to make that easier,” Nguyen said. “We’ll be prioritizing folks from this neighborhood and East Oakland. … We don’t want to look back in a year and see that only well-resourced nonprofits used the spaces.”

There are other signs of positive change nearby.

An obvious one is Fruitvale Village, conceived in the 1990s as a link between the Fruitvale BART Station and nearby International Boulevard. East Bay Asian Local Development Corp. and the Unity Council finally completed the second phase this winter, adding 94 apartments for residents making no more than 60% of the median regional income.

The final phase could start construction next year, bringing another 181 units of affordable family housing.

“Fruitvale is a resilient place, but the economic pressure on our clients and staff is excruciating,” said Chris Iglesias, Unity Council’s CEO. “It’s so frustrating to know the needs, but not be able to satisfy them.”

No single apartment building will solve Fruitvale’s housing bind. Restore Oakland’s new home won’t stop gentrification. What they offer instead are outposts of constructive resistance, safe places that can help preserve aspects of a richly varied community. In today’s Bay Area, that need is more urgent than ever before.

John King
San Francisco Chronicle

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