Owners and fans push for landmark status for the Kingfish Pub and Café
on February 7, 2012
Is a bar worthy of historical landmark status primarily because of the people who have been going there for years? That’s the crux of the argument that the owners and a group of regular customers at the Kingfish Pub and Café made in a presentation to the Oakland Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board on Monday night at City Hall.
“The Kingfish is something special, and you can tell by looking at it that it’s a survivor of an earlier era, both architecturally and socially,” Stacy Farr, a UC Berkeley architecture graduate student, told the board. “Survivors like the Kingfish are few and far between in Oakland, and as such it deserves to be considered for landmark status by the city.”
The Kingfish, which has been operating at Claremont Avenue and Telegraph Avenue since 1922, is something of a neighborhood relic. The place looks like a wood shack from the outside. Inside, it has low ceilings inside as well as an old shuffleboard table, and photos of local athletes and game ticket stubs are tacked to the wall. For years the bar has been a hub for Cal students and fans, and a meeting spot for people who live and work in the area.
“It hasn’t changed much, if at all,” said George Deane, a Kingfish customer since he was a Cal student, and one dozens of supporters at the landmarks board meeting on Monday. “It’s the same dive it always was.”
But the Kingfish is also located on a site where the developer, Project Kingfish LLC, has already gained approval from the city to build 33 condos. That project, which was approved in 2007, was supposed to close the bar for good—and it did temporarily in 2008. But a slow economy put the project on hold indefinitely.
In 2009, two longtime customers, Mike Bowler and Emil Peinert, headed a group that talked the owners of the property into a 10-year lease, with the agreement that the Kingfish owners could be bought out at any time and the place demolished.
Ever since, the two groups have been negotiating to sell the property to Bowler and Peinert, but they remain far apart on a price. Peinert said his group would like to do extensive repairs to the building, including fixing a leaky roof, but don’t want to invest a lot of their own money in the place if it’s going to be demolished soon, anyway.
“It’s not worth it putting in a roof if they somehow develop” the property, Peinert said.
In October, 2010, Peinert and Bowler’s group began applying for historical landmark status for the Kingfish with the city, which they hope will stave off its demolition and allow for some tax breaks to help them make repairs. A landmark designation would not legally prevent demolition, however, and the bid is opposed by the owners of the property.
On Monday, the Kingfish owners brought their case in front of the Landmark Preservation Advisory Board for the first time. In order to get as many supporters as possible to the meeting, the Kingfish closed for two hours and a bus was rented to take about 25 people from the bar to city hall.
In front of a standing-room only crowd, Peinert and some loyal customers spoke of the bar’s significance. Architecture student Stacy Farr gave a power presentation on the bar’s history—how it was originally a bait shop and a clubhouse for area fisherman, and became a draw for sports fans after former San Francisco Seals baseball player Bobby Jones bought the place in the 1950s. Peinert spoke about how he sees himself more as a caretaker of the bar than the owner.
Rebecca Rhine, who started coming to the Kingfish in the 70s to play on the softball team, told the board she thinks the “place has a soul other buildings don’t have.”
“I don’t think we need to sacrifice unique, special places to yet another condominium building in an area that’s hot right now, when there are other locations in the neighborhood that could be used, and used well,” Rhine said.
Roy Alper, who spoke for Project Kingfish LLC, said Peinert knew when he agreed to take over the bar that it was located on an approved development site and could be closed “when the economy permitted us to do so.” Alper said Peinert made no mention of seeking landmark status for the bar at the time they signed their lease. Alper said he thought Peinert was using the push for landmark status in order to secure a “sweet deal” in lease negotiations. Still he said it may be possible to subdivide the property and sell the bar to Peinert’s group.
“It might be possible to save the Kingfish, in a commercial transaction with Emil,” Alper said. “We’ve never asked him to put half of it up, we’ve asked him to help share the cost of going through a very arduous process to try to subdivide a parcel with some old buildings on it and leave something that can still be developed in compliance with current building codes.”
Board members, though, tried to be clear that the building’s landmark status, and its future, were two separate issues. “It is very likely the project could move forward anyway, even if we moved” to give the Kingfish landmark status, said board member John Goins III. “We advise, but we don’t really stop the project.”
But many of the board members had favorable words for the Kingfish. Thomas Biggs compared the bar to Heinold’s First and Last Chance in Jack London Square, the only other bar in Oakland that has achieved historical landmark status. Valerie Garry spoke about the building’s “vernacular architecture”—recognizing an old building’s cultural significance, rather than its grand structure.
“What landmarks do is represent part of our history and character and personality and community that we want to preserve,” Garry said. “So I’m very much in favor of that.”
While the board did offer some encouragement to the Kingfish owners, there still is a long way for it to go before being named a historical landmark. The building had previously been rated a “C” building—in other words, it has “secondary historical importance” and is not located in a historical district. That the property owners are opposed to a landmark designation also is a hurdle—the city council would have to determine their objection to that status was “without substantial merit” or that the property has “exceptional significance.”
The landmark board also could not vote on a preliminary evaluation for landmark eligibility for the Kingfish, though, because it did not receive a reply from the property owners until shortly before the meeting. The board agreed to consult the city attorney before moving forward with a vote.
Still, Peinert said he was happy with how the meeting went, and that the board members had the chance to hear from people that love the bar and have made it a destination for decades.
“It seems like the city is into this,” he said. “And I think they should be.”
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