The inside of 510 16th Street looks like a disaster. The carpets are stained and the whitewashed walls are blinding. Each floor is a maze of office suites and if it wasn’t for the overhead lighting, the windowless place would be completely dark. “This is like a 1980’s nightmare,” said Kirsten Melton, chief development officer of Girls Inc. of Alameda County as she walked through the site, which was last renovated thirty years ago. But starting this June, it will be renovated again. “The whole building is going to be gutted,” Melton said happily, passing a monolithic partition of clear glass cubes.
Last June, Girls Inc. of Alameda County purchased the five-story building as the site for its new headquarters. Located a few blocks from Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland, the 34,000 square foot structure will include staff and administrative offices, a mental health clinic, fitness center, teaching kitchen, and other amenities for the 145 teenage girls who are served by the organization. The Girls Inc. program was founded in 1864 as a network of local organizations providing services for working class girls in the United States and Canada. Today, there are almost one hundred organizations geared at providing services—such as after school activities, academic achievement programs, and mental health counseling—to underserved high school-aged girls from low-income households.
For the last 20 years, the Alameda County branch, one of the largest in the country, has been occupying a 13,500 square foot warehouse in San Leandro. But over the years, as the size of their staff and the number of girls in the program has grown, the site has become cramped. “We just ran out of space there,” said chief executive officer Linda Boessenecker of the building which houses both their center for the girls and staff offices. The site is also difficult to reach by public transportation. The nearest BART station is 30 minutes away and commute by bus can take close to two hours for many of the girls who live in Berkeley or Oakland.
The search for a new location began in the spring of 2010. Staffers looked at sites all over the East Bay, in Hayward, San Leandro, Emervyille, and Berkeley, before settling on Oakland as the ideal location. “When we really defined what it was we needed, it became pretty clear that what we needed was to be in downtown Oakland,” Boessenecker said, adding that roughly 60 percent of the girls in their program are from Oakland.
There was some concern from San Leandro officials about the move, she noted. “We spent a lot of time talking about this with schools and officials in San Leandro because obviously they were worried,” Boessenecker said. “But we told them our location is changing but our services won’t.”
The 16th Street location was one of the last sites staffers looked at, but they knew immediately that they wanted it. “It really perfectly matched all of our conditions,” Melton said. “It was just the right building at the right time.”
The building fit Boessenecker’s core criteria for what she wanted in a new headquarters: accessibility by public transportation, centrality in the Bay Area, more space, and a reasonable time-scale for how soon the group could move in. Because most of the organization’s programs take place on school sites, Boessenecker said they were looking for a site that could be renovated during the school year and set to open in the summer in time for hosting summer activities for the girls.
Though the inside of the building has to be gutted and undergo a year’s worth of renovations, this is to be expected, Boessenecker said. “If you think about what you need for a space that meets the needs of the girls, it doesn’t correlate with most buildings because this is not going to be an office,” she said. “You can’t just pick up and have it work like a turn-key. So we just looked at the bones of the building.”
And its bones are pretty indeed. Built at the turn of the century as the headquarters for the East Bay Water Co., the early version of today’s East Bay Municipal Utility District, the Gothic Revival edifice has a terra cotta façade, replete with cornice moldings, strong vertical lines, and multiple panes of windows. To allow more light into the building, each floor will be cleared of individual offices and the second floor will be partially removed to restore it to its original use as a mezzanine. Obvious changes, such as the carpeting, wall paint, and floor layouts, will be made, Boessenecker said, to give the building a fresh, modern look. She is especially excited about the Girls Inc. sign, which she hopes to display lengthwise down the side of the building in imitation of old hotel signs. However, some fixtures, such as the round columns on the ground floor, cannot be removed for structural reasons.
For the last year, the organization has been working with the girls through focus groups to develop a design scheme for the center that is satisfactory to all. “We put a lot of effort into designing it and going over it with the girls,” Boessenecker said. “We want to respect [the building’s] history and maintain the beauty of the building, yet infuse it with the needs of the girls inhabiting the building.”
The style, she says, will convey the girls’ input, including the choice of lotus flower lantern light fixtures and sleek Ikea-esque furniture. Donut-shaped cushions and dual-purpose wooden coffee tables will replace conventional tables and chairs and wireless Internet will be available throughout the structure. The fourth and fifth floors will follow a similar design scheme, said Boessenecker who is intent on creating a spacious and light-filled workspace for her staff.
Jennifer Tacheff, the senior director of development, is looking forward to the new digs, especially when she compares it to their current San Leandro office. “We’re on top of each other,” she said of the crowded space. Last year, Tacheff and other Girls Inc. staff looked at models of cubicles and other office furniture for use in their new Oakland headquarters. The vision of the new location “is really about maximizing space and making the place feel alive with color and light,” she added.
The total for the building and renovations is expected to cost $10.85 million and the site will become the largest Girls Inc. headquarters in the nation. “You’re not going to see centers like this anywhere else,” said Melton, comparing it to the other 83 centers in the country. The center will be named in honor of Barclay and Sharon Simpson, the lead donors for the site, and the organization is currently raising funds for the remaining 20 percent of the project. Boessenecker said they will be turning to community donors, such as their new Oakland neighbors, for the remainder of the money. “I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s $2.3 million, so it’s a pretty big amount,” she said.
But Melton, who used to work in downtown Oakland before joining Girls Inc. in 2009, is optimistic. “There are pockets of enormous wealth in the Bay Area,” she said.
The building’s current tenants will move out in May, at which point the renovations will begin. Girls Inc. will continue occupying the San Leandro office until construction of the new location is finished next summer.
Fifteen year-old Motayo “Tayo” Ogunmayin, who has been commuting to the San Leandro location via bus or BART for the last two years, is excited about the new location. “I’m so glad that it is here,” she said because now her commute to the center, which previously ranged from one to three hours, will be much shorter.