For decades, the last block of Fifth Avenue has attracted artisans and craftsmen who find creative space in a cluster of residences set amid the industry and decay on the Oakland waterfront.
Turn off of Embarcadero toward the marina and, in short order, you’ll pass a hand-painted sign for a psychic, a guitar maker, and a gallery founded by graduates of the California College of the Arts and Crafts (before it became the California College of the Arts). On the next street over—some people call it Fourth-and-a-Half—is Performance Structures, Inc., the company that helped fabricate the enormous baseball mitt at AT&T Park and Chicago’s shiny steel Cloud Gate sculpture, better known as “The Bean.”
For the last decade, residents of Fifth Avenue have been eyeing—and sometimes fighting—a massive development proposal that would place several thousand residences and 200,000 square feet of shops and offices on either side of their neighborhood. The development was proposed under the name Oak to Ninth in 2003, but suffered a series of delays. This April it was revived with a new moniker, Brooklyn Basin, and fresh financial backing from Zarsion Holdings Group of Beijing.
If Brooklyn Basin is built as planned, high rise apartment buildings, manicured parks and strolling shoppers would replace the cement plant and vacant lots that currently abut Fifth Avenue. But that “if” is a big one. Michael Ghielmetti, president of Oakland’s Signature Development Group, the lead builder behind Brooklyn Basin, says that even under the best market conditions, buildout may be a decade away.
While some residents of Fifth Avenue are sanguine about the development, others, such as John Rogers, see Brooklyn Basin as a sign that Fifth Avenue’s niche is a precarious one. “I think that it’s inevitable that this area will be developed,” said Rogers, a blacksmith who has lived and worked on Fifth Avenue for nearly two decades. “And I think it’s inevitable that our community will be overshadowed.”
Jacob Pieprzyk, coordinator of Cricket Engine Gallery, takes a more optimistic view. “I really don’t think the bubble plan is going to float,” he said. “But should they do it, we will be the beautiful little bohemian jewel in the middle of their yuppie paradise.”
In the audio slideshow above, Rogers, Pieprzyk, and architect Leal Charonnat reflect on the Fifth Avenue community.