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A crosswalk leads to a green, mid-century drive thru building. A sign says "Merritt Bakery," but the building is empty. This used to house the Kwik Way drive-thru.

Iconic Kwik Way drive-in site to become affordable housing in Grand Lake neighborhood

on September 20, 2019

On Wednesday evening, residents of Oakland’s Grand Lake neighborhood met in the back of the Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church to discuss the future of the Kwik Way Drive-in. The site, which was once a popular destination for burgers, fries and shakes, will be replaced by an affordable housing development.

The Kwik Way was built in 1955 and converted to a drive-in in 1987. Business slumped for the burger restaurant in the early 2000s, and in 2004, property owners Alex and Charles Hahn proposed instead allowing a McDonalds on the site, an idea that Grand Lake residents vigorously opposed. Soon there were plans for a mixed-use retail property and a Fatburger—neither came to fruition. The restaurant closed in 2007, and then sat empty for several years. Restauranteur Gary Rizzo re-opened the Kwik Way in 2011, but it shuttered three years later. Next, Merritt Bakery moved in. But the bakery’s owners recently moved to a nearby Lakeshore Avenue location, and now the Kwik Way site is empty once again. 

Nonprofit developer EAH—originally known as the Ecumenical Association for Housing—purchased the site in 2018. At Wednesday’s meeting, EAH representatives revealed architectural plans for the new development to an audience that included members of the Grand Lake Neighbors, City Councilmember Nikki Fortunado Bas (District 2) and building designer Jesse Duclos. The curvy, five-story structure will include four floors of housing and two parking levels. Balconies will overlook Splash Pad Park below, and an unspecified retailer will occupy the first floor. 

“It’s a very dynamic site,” said Duclos, senior designer at Lowney Architecture. “We wanted to present something so as you’re moving past the site, the curves will actually reflect and refract light.” 

The development will include 50 housing units, 22 parking spaces and bike parking. EAH will not provide retail parking. (The Kwik Way drive-thru previously shared parking spaces with a Bank of America branch next door.)

Units will be reserved for residents who make between 20 to 80 percent of the median Alameda County income. At 50 percent of the area median income, for example, a family of four occupying a two-bedroom apartment would have an income of around $60,000, and pay a rent of close to $1,400.

The City of Oakland approved EAH building plans in December, and the nonprofit began applying for funding this January, said Tessa Quintanilla, an EAH project manager.

Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Fortunado Bas addresses the Grand Lake Neighbors meeting.

Throughout the meeting, residents expressed concerns about a lack of parking in the neighborhood around the site. “I love the idea of affordable housing,” said Lakeshore resident Amy Halio. “I think the location is going to be terrible. There’s going to be too much congestion, and you don’t have enough parking. We can’t ever find parking on our street because the businesses on Grand and Lakeshore park in our spaces.”

“We do hope the amount of parking spaces we have discourages people having their own private vehicle. It is very transit-oriented,” Quintanilla replied.

An audience member asked why Bank of America needs so many spaces. Welton Jordan, EAH’s vice president of real estate development, said that the developer tried to negotiate with Bank of America, but the company “wouldn’t budge.” 

A neighborhood resident wondered if there was a possibility that EAH would add more parking before completing the project. Not really, Quintanilla replied, because that would drive up costs, extending the permit and construction period. 

The restaurant is an example of “googie” architecture, a futuristic style popularized in Southern California in the 1950s and 60s. Think glossy surfaces, neon signs, funky shapes and The Jetsons. The electric-green “Kwik Way” sign was a neighborhood landmark, until Merritt Bakery owners removed it.

Preservationists have fought to save other mid-century buildings in Oakland, but they aren’t putting up a fight about the demolition of the Kwik Way. That’s partly because the structure has been renovated so many times, said Naomi Schiff, a board member for the Oakland Heritage Alliance (OHA), in a phone interview. Some of the building’s unique architectural components—like its neon signage, or the triangular brick columns that once supported the awning—are already gone.

The OHA board also recognizes the need for more housing, Schiff added. “It would be fun to keep the front of that site,” she said, “but we totally understand that it’s an underutilized site and if there’s an opportunity to build affordable housing, that’s a good thing.” 

“Maybe there’s a way that Oakland can have a funny outdoor museum of interesting architectural parts, and that could be one of them,” Schiff suggested.

EAH staff estimate construction will begin after 2021, once they’ve secured funding and finalized permits. They’ve submitted applications to a variety of local, state and federal programs, including the California Department of Housing and Community Development’s Multifamily Housing Program. The source of the funding will also dictate whether EAH allots space for groups like veterans, families or formerly homeless residents. Once the money is secured, construction will take around two years, Quintanilla estimates. 

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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