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Nearly full on a Monday night, Mua Bar and Restaurant is at the center of Broadway Auto Row's transition from auto hub to cultural enclave.

Gourmet restaurants, art galleries revive Oakland’s Auto Row on Broadway

on November 22, 2011

On a long strip of Broadway just north of downtown Oakland, rows of characteristically derelict auto garages and warehouses are being reclaimed, repurposed, “done up.”

Oil-slicked concrete floors are overlain with warm, salvaged wood. Industrial storerooms are fitted with commercial-grade, stainless steel kitchen appliances. And where well-worn car hoists, floor jacks and air compressors once stood, an assortment of white, minimalist pedestals display delicate, finely wrought sculptures of clay and copper.

Broadway Auto Row is where various Oakland residents have long bought and serviced their cars—from economical Hondas to high-end Audis, and everything in between. Now, with the gentle prodding and financial investment of an eclectic group of gallerists, restaurateurs and niche shop owners, it’s also where the city’s culture seekers come to eat fine cuisine, drink good wine and buy art.

“I see this neighborhood as having two lives,” said John Mardikian, the head chef and manager of Mua, a swanky bar, restaurant and art space that sprang up three years ago inside of a cavernous former wheel and rim warehouse that sits beside an Audi showroom on Broadway and 25th Street. “During the day, you have the car sales,” Mardikian said. “Then the nightlife comes and… it’s like Uptown but more organic, more urban, more real.”

The City of Oakland Redevelopment Agency has big plans for the “urbanization” of auto row, which involves new buildings, parking garages and big-box stores. But as a state-wide budget crisis drains city coffers and new legislation threatens to dissolve redevelopment agencies altogether, those plans have fallen by the wayside.

In their place, a crop of more organic economic developments driven by an assortment of artistically minded entrepreneurs is forging another vision of Auto Row. One in which bellowing industrial establishments sandwich petite, cultural enterprises—effectively mixing the old (and big) with the new (and small) to create a hybrid commercial corridor that keeps money flowing through the street from day to night and back again.

“New life is being breathed into the area,” said Danielle Fox, owner of Slate Contemporary art gallery on 25th Street and Broadway, and the executive director of Oakland’s monthly art walk, Art Murmur. Like many of the business owners on her street, Fox moved into a newly refurbished warehouse space this year.

“The body shop people dominate during the week,” Fox said, “and then on the weekends and in the evenings, the galleries open up and more people are milling around on the street.”

Auto Row lost dozens of car dealerships to the recession and, with them, a number of related service businesses. The fallout for the city was more than $300 million in annual sales tax revenue. Lots emptied, storefronts shuttered and chain link fences went up below still-fluttering, pennant strings.

As auto businesses moved out, gallerists and restaurateurs seized on the large, industrial spaces and relatively cheap rents to forge an artistic enclave not too far from Oakland’s vibrant Uptown area. Mua’s owner, Hi-Suk Dong, bought the 90-year old warehouse that now houses the restaurant within months of its vacancy four years ago, while many of the neighboring galleries moved into their own spaces within the last two years.

“It’s just a really beautiful building,” Dong said. “It’s a very unusual space, a good space. We didn’t change much.”

The building, painted black on the outside, still looks like an auto parts warehouse within, despite the wide bar, the new fire suppression system that hangs bare from the 24-foot ceiling, and the paintings that hang on every visible vertical surface. Dong is in love with the feel and the look of the space.

Fox, whose own gallery space is much smaller and more modernized, said the buildings are what attract artists Dong, and gallerists like herself, to the area. “Part of the reason that galleries are in this area is because auto shops are architecturally beautiful, vintage spaces with large open areas that are perfect for us,” she said. “Creative businesses like to be around each other and they bring a hip vibe to the area.”

There’s another perk: Because Auto Row is classified as a warehouse district under the city planning code, many of the buildings are protected—meaning they can’t be demolished.

“People aren’t going to be able to tear down the buildings and build high rises,” said Brian Kendall, an economic analyst with the City of Oakland who has worked with property and business owners in the area. “But the auto industry is on the decline, many auto businesses are leaving, and those warehouse spaces are not appealing to anyone but artists,” he added. “So having art galleries there is the highest and best use, economically.”

And so came the restaurants and bars—Mua on 25th Street, Pican, Plum and Luka’s near Grand Avenue, Z Café on 28th Street. A developer, Reynold’s & Brown, soon followed, remodeling and retrofitting industrial warehouses for lease just down the block from Mua. Now a fleet of galleries—Vessel, Mercury 20, Slate Contemporary, FM, Manna PHOTO—fill refurbished spaces, gleaming pristinely next to the old guard: Olund’s Domestic & Mercedes Benz Sales, Auto Repair Masters, and the Jack Little British Car Repair Service. There are also craft clothing boutiques, an accordion shop, and a trendy-looking dog grooming businesses called “Pride & Pedigree.”

Kendall said about 25 new businesses—most of them restaurants and galleries—have opened in the area in recent years, most of them clustered within 10 blocks.

Officials at the city’s redevelopment agency are delighted by the organic growth of the neighborhood.

“They are sort of happening on their own,” said Aliza Gallo, a project manager in charge of the Auto Row project at the Oakland Redevelopment Agency. “Some of the old garage spaces are turning into gallery spaces, creating a nice little area for a gallery row. A lot of things are happening now that are causing the area to grow organically—which, to me, is the best way. And the best role for the city right now is to support a program that allows for this transformation to occur.”

The city may have no choice, though, as dwindling public funds challenge the agency’s own, ambitious plans for the area. When the auto industry took a nose dive in 2007 and 2008, threatening the city’s single largest source of sales tax revenue, the agency unveiled a retail and redevelopment strategy for the area, which aimed to recover $1 billion in “leaked” sales tax revenue—money spent by Oakland residents in surrounding cities like Emeryville, San Francisco and Walnut Creek. As part of this effort, officials wanted spacious car lots to consolidate into more upscale, indoor showrooms, offered tenant and façade improvement grants to attract new businesses and began scouting underutilized parcels large enough to accommodate big-box retail stores like Target.

“We found that our residents are shopping in other areas because we don’t have ‘destination retail,’” Gallo said. “Meaning you don’t go have an experience when you shop in Oakland, like you might when you go to a shopping center. And we found that this changing area could help us create that environment.”

But she said that given the state of the city’s finances, that plan is 20 to 25 years away from coming to fruition. And as redevelopment agencies teeter on the brink of extinction because of two new state laws that dissolve redevelopment agencies and divert funding to the state—AB 1x 26 and 27—financial resources for the project are shrinking.

“If there still is an agency next year, we would have limited funds,” Gallo said. At this point, the city can’t even afford to clean up the medians on the street, she added.

Given these constraints, the plans have shifted. In an effort to direct organic development at minimal cost to the city, the redevelopment agency provides grants to small businesses interested in repurposing Auto Row’s 21 acres of underutilized land. Officials are also encouraging both auto dealers and smaller enterprises to form business associations that would allow them to pool resources for cooperative marketing efforts and streetscaping.

“We’ve been trying to pull what’s happening in the Uptown area into this southern part of the district so that, on a short-term basis, we can manage the development,” Gallo said. But, she added, “We don’t want to add any more industrial service uses.”

“It’s not to say that we don’t want to continue our auto dealerships,” she added, “but it definitely means that we would like our dealerships to be more cognizant that they’re in an urban location….We want to keep the uses more shopping, entertainment and food.”

Food, at least, has been a boon to Oakland’s economy in recent years. About 120 new restaurants have opened in the downtown area over the last eight years, according to Kendall. And, by sales category, restaurants and hotels have experienced the most growth in recent years, generating $525 million in sales tax revenue in 2010—up $10 million from the previous year, and just $30 million less than the auto industry.

That upward trend is evident in Mua’s sales as well, according to Mardikian.

“Our place is pretty much a destination for a lot of people,” he said. “We get people from The City, Walnut Creek and Oakland. It’s been great for us.”

Many of the business owners agree that the close proximity of other restaurants, galleries and small retail has created a vibrant, if nascent, pedestrian corridor that supports everyone on the street.

“At nighttime, there was absolutely nothing here before,” Mardikian said. “Now there’s action. We’re good neighbors and we’re not competing with each other. We’re happy to have as many businesses in this neighborhood as we can fit.”

And, for the most part, the restaurants, galleries and shops seem to meld with the auto businesses—both architecturally and commercially.

Giovanna Tanzillo, the owner of Uptown Body and Fender—an auto shop on 27th Street and Broadway that, according to Tanzillo, is surrounded by “nothing but art galleries”—now hosts art exhibitions during the first Friday Art Murmur.

“If you’ve ever been out on a First Friday, you’ve seen the masses,” Tanzillo said. “The food trucks and the music and the people—it’s just wonderful. At one time it was all automobile businesses and it’s becoming galleries and workshops. Even though we’re in a recession, all of the restaurants are busting at the seams.”

Motivated by the changing character of the neighborhood and the success of nearby restaurants, Mike Murphy, who owns three of the eight remaining car dealerships on the street, is planning to open two of his own restaurants near 27th Street and Broadway. He’s leased the 95-year old Arnstein-Field & Lee Star Showroom, which once housed a Kia dealership, for the purpose.

“It’s a really positive experience,” said Drew Mickels, vice president of the real estate development firm, Reynolds & Brown, which refurbished many of the buildings on 25th St. “We have a thriving auto business across the street from our building and on First Fridays those guys put a BBQ on the street and feel part of it all, not necessarily outside of it.”

It helps that the gallery owners and restaurateurs who are settling upon the struggling area have money to burn. Shortly after Dong opened Mua, for example, he bought matching Audis for himself and his wife, Sanju, from the dealership next door.

Despite the new business, the street still shows evidence of the economic downturn. In between small clusters of galleries, shops and restaurants, the corridor is peppered with vacant lots, boarded-up storefronts and barbed wire fences that protect little more than empty space.

“We’re about 25 percent of the way there,” Mickels said. “Obviously, we’re going to need some more businesses.” Better public transit and streetscaping are also essential to the neighborhood’s growth, he added.

Most of the business owners in the neghboohood are optimistic. The area is bustling on a Friday night and several restaurants have wait lists, even during lunch.

“These are people who want to stay,” Kendall said of Auto Row’s newest tenants. “And it’s sustainable because you’ve got increasing wealth in areas like North Oakland and you’ve got a crowd of people demanding good places to go.”

And that crowd doesn’t seem to mind that the places they go to drink and dine in the evening are right next door to the places they went to have their oil changed in the afternoon. That contrast seems to be part of the charm.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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