Campus Goodbye: California College of the Arts prepares to close its historic doors in Oakland
on December 12, 2019
Catleya Sherbow walks through the California College of the Arts’ Oakland campus, a teal plastic watering can strapped to her backpack. The watering can is for the pollinator plant garden she installed near the photography building—placed inconspicuously and without permission in a concrete planter that had been empty since she arrived on campus earlier this year.
She’s also taken it upon herself to water
one of the coast live oaks near the library. These massive oaks tower over the
buildings, many tagged as protected.
Sherbow says ever since college officials announced the campus will be closing,
she’s grown worried about what’ll happen to the plants and trees, which have
already been suffering from a hot summer and windy weather. “To see the Oakland
campus when it is green is to see a little gem of California wildlife and
urbanity living in harmony,” Sherbow says.
This one gesture of care is part of a long, slow goodbye as hundreds of members of this community prepare for the school to shut down. The school will close its doors by 2022—its 100th birthday. Students and faculty will move to the college’s expanding San Francisco campus. The Oakland campus, a cozy, small group of buildings nestled among the trees in the Rockridge neighborhood, houses many of the college’s fine arts and craft programs, including animation, glass blowing and sculpting. The San Francisco school, founded in the 1990s, is a stark contrast: Housed in a former Greyhound Bus station, the warehouse-like campus is all white walls and straight lines. It hosts the college’s design and architecture programs.
CCA is a private arts college, offering four-year undergraduate programs, as well as graduate degrees, serving approximately 1,900 students on both campuses. Annual tuition is just over $50,000. Students are not enrolled on separate campuses depending on their majors—the separation is inexact. Students may take classes at both, depending on their major, which electives they choose and whether they want to use equipment or studio space at a particular location.
For more than a decade, the school’s leaders have quietly acknowledged a desire to pare down to one location. The physical separation of the bay leads to transit costs and stress for students and faculty members who split their time between campuses. It has also created a cultural division, with students gravitating to Oakland for its more laid-back feel or to San Francisco for its faster pace.
In 2011, the college’s board of trustees purchased a tract of land behind the San Francisco campus. With space to expand, the idea of unification became a reality. San Francisco would grow to become the official—and only—CCA campus, and the Oakland location would be closed down. In 2017, campus officials selected two developers who plan to buy the Oakland site and transform its four acres into housing and public spaces.
According to CCA spokesperson Ann Wiens, unification will be a process, not an event, taking place over the next two years. The merger officially started this fall, when about 100 first year students, who all previously lived on the Oakland campus, were moved into housing on the San Francisco one. “It’s not like one day we’re going to turn off the lights in Oakland and turn them on in San Francisco,” Wiens said. “By the time we’ve closed our Oakland campus, we’ll have gradually transitioned our students.”
But a gradual transition and relatively long timeframe means room for confusion. As the closure approaches, students like Sherbow—as well as faculty, staff and neighbors—have become concerned with what will happen to the Oakland campus and what CCA will be like after the unification.
Students have said they’re worried that the Oakland campus will become increasingly neglected, with current students bearing the brunt of the stress.
Staffers have raised concerns about job losses and extra work created by the merger.
Neighbors have wondered if the high-density housing proposed by the developers will change the feel of the quiet neighborhood.
And faculty are trying to memorialize
the things they love best about the campus.
As for Sherbow, as a junior transfer student, she thinks students are starting to feel the strain of the move. Shifts are happening “in the interest of this future move, but we’re not going to see the payout of that,” she says. “We are going to see the cuts and loss of supplies and faculty and lag time, and then we’re going to graduate.”
She’s worried about the campus falling into disrepair, which is why she’s taken it upon herself to make sure that the trees don’t die, even though campus officials say there has been no change to the tree maintenance schedule. She likens it to the classic 1980s film in which a group of kids tries to save their neighborhood from foreclosure. “I know I probably sound pretty paranoid. But I’ve felt like I’m living in the movie The Goonies since I got here,” says Sherbow.
About ten minutes into the Oakland campus tour, the guide slips the information in.
“We are moving over to the San Francisco campus in the next two years or so,” says Katie Johnson, a CCA alum who works in the enrollment office and gives tours most weekday mornings. “So if you were to come here, you’d be kind of in the middle of that the transition period.”
The one prospective student who has stopped in for a tour that day seems slightly relieved. She says she’s eager to move to San Francisco and that one campus seems a lot more convenient than two.
Students enrolling at CCA as freshmen next year will be some of the first students to feel the full effects of the unification. All of them will be housed in San Francisco for the first time in the school’s history. By the time those students are halfway through their four-year college career, the merger will be complete.
Yet some upperclassmen at CCA today, while likely not to be significantly affected by the unification, still feel uneasy about the transition. Iris Chiang, coordinator of the CCA student union, said she feels strange about the fact that the college didn’t engage the student council in its recent decisions surrounding unification. “We’re probably the most organized group on campus, and we’ve been here probably the longest,” she said. “But the fact that they didn’t reach out to us—like, for anything—was kind of weird to us.”
Chiang takes the shuttle to San Francisco most weekdays, and she said the San Francisco campus already feels more crowded, even though only 100 more freshmen than usual are living there this year. Lines are longer for lunch, and she overhears her professors talking about having to fight for space.
The Oakland campus’s craft spaces feature heavy machinery—2,400-degree furnaces for glass blowers, screen printers that take up the bulk of the room—and some students and staff worry the versions that will be installed on the San Francisco campus may not live up to the quality of the Oakland facilities. There’s also the matter of crowding: How can students complete their projects when everyone is vying for the same spaces?
Some students, particularly those whose majors rely on digital technology, appreciate the facilities that San Francisco has to offer, but can’t look past the lower cost of living in Oakland. Grace Dai, also on the student council, is a senior studying interaction design, which means she works on creating user experiences for things like apps. It’s a new field that she said is growing, “and actually, with the move to San Francisco from this campus, I think CCA will probably have a much more design focused, design-centric way about it.”
That said, Dai thinks the Oakland campus has more to offer in terms of artistic inspiration. “Oakland just has this homey, nature vibe that I really like,” Dai said. “It reminds me of my home in Vancouver.”
She lived on the Oakland campus when she arrived at CCA. Then, she moved to San Francisco and lived for two years in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with four other students and no rent control. She and her roommate moved back to Oakland in August, into a bright blue house just two blocks away from the school. She wanted to take advantage of the space while it was still there.
In San Francisco, Dai said, everything is much more fast-paced. She said it may have to do with the “designer versus artists mindset.” It’s an urban campus that spans several city blocks and features the bustle of through-traffic. It’s “go, go, go,” she said.
“If you go and strike up a conversation with someone just for the sake of it, it’s a lot more likely to happen in Oakland than in San Francisco,” Dai said. “Even things like the way people dress, you can you can tell who’s Oakland and who’s San Francisco.”
But Dai admits the two-campus system has definite drawbacks. Although the school has a shuttle system, students often find themselves using public transit. They’ll take BART to 16th Street and Mission, then a bus. “Closing that last mile is pretty annoying,” she said. She adds that CCA is interdisciplinary by design, but that’s tough to achieve when there’s such a stark physical and cultural separation.
Staff are beginning to feel the heat of the move as well. Matt Kennedy, Kate Goyette and Amber Bales are all members of the newly-established staff union at CCA. Kennedy works in IT, Goyette manages studio space and Bales works in the library as a cataloguer. The union was created in April, partly in anticipation of the unification, and members are currently in the process of negotiating a contract with CCA officials.
It’s a Thursday after work, and they’re sitting at a high-top table at McNally’s Irish Pub, just down the street from the Oakland site. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about what that means for people’s jobs, and what that means for college,” Kennedy says. “Also, the cost of living in this area—it’s an impossible thing to keep up with. I think people are really just feeling the pressure of those things. And they wanted some kind of certainty in their future.”
As the bargaining team pushes for their new contract, they’re asking for cost of living increases and for job security during the move, especially for people whose jobs may be redundant when merged on one campus, like librarians and academic counselors. “So that’s redundancy. But if you want to maintain that level of service to our students, you can’t get rid of any [positions], just because it was the same position on both campuses,” Bales says.
Goyette adds that 100 percent staff retention may require some reshuffling. But she says staff members would be better served if they had job mobility within the college. She says a lot of the staff members enjoy working at CCA, and there should be a focus on staff retention and promoting from within.
According to Wiens, the college’s spokesperson, the school’s leaders anticipate no job losses with the merge.
“The college’s bargaining team has been encouraged by the progress made in negotiations thus far,” wrote Wiens in an email. She added that the bargaining team members hope to land on a contract that will provide “staff with solid benefits and salaries and maintain the operational flexibility necessary to respond responsibly to the various and evolving challenges that confront the institution.”
But staff members say they’re still uncertain about their future, as communication hasn’t been very clear. And Goyette mentions that, thanks to the campus consolidation, staff members are being asked to do a lot of extra work with no additional compensation. For example, she works as a studio manager on the Oakland campus, and she says she often has to act as a consultant for architects and engineers working on the new campus planning.
And Goyette doesn’t believe the staff members’ anxieties will all be assuaged by a new contract, or put to bed once the merger goes through. “Let’s be honest, even when we’re all over there, it’s going to take a while to work out the kinks,” she says.
The library on the Oakland campus feels modern, but the windows look out onto ancient trees and the historic Macky Hall, also known as the Treadwell Mansion. Inside the library are troves of books and reference materials on the arts—vintage catalogs, oversized volumes of visual art—as well as the collected history of the college itself. A lot of the information lives inside the head of curator and archivist Jennine Scarboro, who stands casually behind the reference desk as she recites the school’s more than 100-year history without missing a beat. She’s worked there for more than 10 years, and she was a student herself back in the day.
In 1907, Frederick Meyer, known as one of the fathers of the early 20th Century Arts and Crafts Movement, established the School of the California Guild of Arts and Crafts just a block away from UC Berkeley. He wanted to create a space for artists in the East Bay after his workshop was destroyed by fire in the powerful 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The college moved around Berkeley a few times during its early years, settling on the Oakland campus in 1922. The school needed more space to accommodate the influx of students coming to school on the GI Bill.
The hillside campus lies at the foot of a massive green area that includes the Claremont Country Club and Oakland’s Mountainview Cemetery. The buildings are a mix of old—two are listed on the city’s historic registry—and newer, industrial spaces that house massive kilns and foundries and darkrooms. It was formerly the Treadwell Estate, originally the property of a family that owned a coal mine in Livermore. By the time Meyer purchased the land, it had become dilapidated. He employed the help of the college’s students and faculty to transform the space.
After being renamed the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1936, the campus grew, with new complexes and residential halls springing up in the 60s. But as the decades wore on, college leaders decided they again needed more space. They opened up a San Francisco location on 17th Street in the 1980s, where they housed their architecture and design programs.
From the start, the two campuses served different purposes. Oakland houses the college’s giant glassblowing furnaces, its screen-printing studio, its jewelry-making program and its ceramics department. In San Francisco, students take classes in architecture, interaction design, fashion and virtual reality. The equipment libraries in San Francisco are much more technologically robust, with microchips and top-of-the-line Apple computers and tablets for students to check out.
In 2003, the school dropped “crafts” from its name altogether, but the craft programs remain alive and well, mostly operating out of Oakland. For the entire history of the college, the arts and crafts have coexisted, a relatively revolutionary concept for arts institutions. But the name change caused some friction. Many in the crafts community—the majority of whom practiced in Oakland—felt jilted.
Allison Smith, dean of fine arts, noted that the name change made waves, and many students, faculty and alumni still point to it as evidence that the college has deprioritized the crafts. But Smith said the name change was actually meant to be more inclusive, as the college grew to include design, architecture, humanities and science. Rather than parsing out each discipline, the college’s name would encompass the artistic elements of all of them.
Craft is in the school’s DNA, said Smith, who admits she was concerned by the narrative of a disappearing crafts programs when she started teaching at CCA. She did her own research in the school’s archives and found that, even in the college’s earliest literature, “art,” “craft” and “design” were always mentioned in conjunction with one another.
“It was really about the [combination], more so than ‘art over here’ and ‘craft over here,’” she said. She added that the school’s early leaders wanted “to bring practical skills to the artists and a way to actually make a living, which I think is still very radical and important.”
“What is special about the school has always been that we have all of these things together,” Smith said. “And right now, those things are separated by the bay.”
Despite this, she said, she did notice a sort of “binary” when she came to the college. “It felt like: old and new, green and industrial, handmade and machine-made, country and city,” she said. “That was what fascinated me about the school: It had these two different identities operating side by side.”
As the college continued to grow, the two-campus system—and the binary it created—began to take its toll on students. Oakland students had to travel west to use the newest tech, and students in San Francisco had to travel east to branch out into areas like ceramics and animation. Commutes and a divided student body and staff made collaboration across disciplines difficult, even though the school had been founded on this core tenet.
“During the planning process, we confirmed one of our greatest challenges is CCA’s two-campus structure and its effect on teaching and learning inside and outside the classroom,” states the college’s five year strategic plan, which was published in 2016. “The physical divide that currently separates our community of makers presents social, logistical, and most importantly, pedagogical challenges.”
Once the board of trustees acquired the new San Francisco land in 2011, the unification plan went into motion. In a phone interview, David Meckel, campus planning director for CCA, said once everything is up and running in San Francisco, students and staff will have more opportunities to learn from one another. Today, he said, there are very few opportunities for a ceramics faculty member to grab coffee with an architecture faculty member, or an architecture student to quickly model something in clay.
“We have this very rich curriculum with very diverse departments, but they’re all centered around thinking and making, and we’re missing a piece of the natural fertile adjacency,” Meckel said, referring to a space where people can exchange ideas freely.
He said that the unification is, at its core, an effort to improve the student experience at CCA, not a money-saving move. “Making a new state of the art campus is not inexpensive,” he said. “It would have been much cheaper to just stay where we are. But it’s not the student experience we wanted.”
Today, the San Francisco campus is mostly under construction, as Wiens walks past workers on her way to the main building. She crosses the street in front of a car idling at a stop sign and gestures to a building that workers are coming in and out of—it’ll be student housing by the time the next school year rolls around. Inside the former Greyhound terminal, the high ceilings and tall windows let in natural light. The wide hallway is lined with student artwork, and a few classes are taking place in hallway itself—the building was designed to allow the wide, airy walkway to serve as gallery and meeting space.
A vacant lot at the rear of the building remains a promise. By spring, construction workers will break ground on the lot, which will become a two-story indoor/outdoor space with studios and offices, workspaces and an elevated landscape. For now, there are just a few orange storage containers at the lot’s far end, where it backs up onto the 101 freeway.
By 2025, the college’s leaders aim to have 3,000 students, according to the five-year strategic plan and to house 1,000 of them on or near the San Francisco campus.
Wiens gestures a few blocks down the street, where another student housing structure is being developed. CCA’s student housing is below market rate—for the 2019-20 school year, a double dorm room costs $11,221 in Oakland and up to $13,209 in San Francisco. Wiens said that CCA tracks the housing rates at other nonprofit colleges in North America and keeps its prices about on par with colleges in Minneapolis or Los Angeles.
The Oakland campus’s signature heavy machinery and craft studio spaces will all be replicated in San Francisco, although the exact timeline for construction of these spaces is still unclear. According to Wiens, the unification and construction costs will be funded by philanthropy and financing—none of the college’s operating budget will go toward the merger.
“We know not everybody agrees with everything that we’re doing, but we are absolutely certain that what we’re doing is central to the mission of CCA,” Wiens said. “It’s absolutely the best thing to fulfill that mission and provide the best possible education and preparation for our students.”
Before starting at CCA, Catleya Sherbow took a road trip to the Oakland campus with her mom. That’s when she learned that her grandpa, who died long before she was born, had studied painting there decades before. She says she has a complicated relationship with her extended family, but that walking around campus, she could picture her grandpa there. “As I walk around the old campus, and see all of the historical buildings, I imagine him doing the same,” Sherbow says.
One of her favorite part of the campus is the abandoned sculpture garden—also affectionately known as the “sculpture graveyard”—which sits behind the ceramics building and hosts pieces students have left over the years. As Sherbow walks through it, she points out enormous vases, an abstract piece that looks a little like the moon, a realistic rendering of a naked lady.
“There’s a legacy of the people who came before you, and then the legacy you’re going to leave behind,” she says. “It’s not a big thing. It’s like odd quirky traditions.”
The Oakland Campus Legacy Committee, a group of faculty and alumni, are working on ways to preserve those quirky traditions. “It’s painful for us to lose that campus, and I think the college administration really understands that,” said Deborah Valoma, a textiles professor and the head of the committee. She said the committee was formed to “give respect to the process of leaving.” The group aims to document and archive as much of the Oakland campus as possible before the move.
“Any large transition like this is really complicated,” Valoma said. “It’s exciting, but it’s also sort of tension-filled. And there’s always a lot of pitfalls.”
She said there are obvious logistical challenges to unifying the campuses, but she’s less concerned with that than with overcoming the cultural challenges of having divided campuses, each with its own character and history. “There has been a process of mourning about moving away from the Oakland campus. That’s a natural process,” Valoma said. “But matching that at least an equal part is an excitement about being fully unified…And I think one of our big challenges, but also one of our big opportunities here, is to integrate those cultures.”
Valoma has been teaching at CCA since 1986, and her father graduated from CCA in the early 1950s. She said she feels a real connection to the Oakland campus. So she and the rest of the committee began meeting last fall to discuss ways to preserve their favorite parts of the space.
One project is being headed up by the chair of the photography department, Chris Johnson. He and other photographers will be documenting events and everyday life on the Oakland campus over the next year. They plan to recreate some historic photos on the modern campus.
Another project involves cataloguing plants from the community garden, which contains edible plants as well as ones used for fibers and dyes. Volunteers will collect seeds and cuttings to archive in the library.
Valoma and CCA archivist Jennine Scarboro have been working to create a log of all of the relics and art objects throughout the campus, attempting to track down each one’s history, with the hope that some can be transferred to San Francisco.
The new urban campus will have whispers of the historical Oakland one, according to planning director David Meckel. “You could pick up the Oakland campus and drop it on the new site—that’s one way to replicate it,” he said. But the new site will be more subtle, with constructed green spaces and artifacts from the old campus here and there. For example, the architect in charge of the San Francisco development, Studio Gang, will use some of the actual building materials from the Oakland campus—like the cedar siding on the painting studios—in the new construction.
“There’s going to be a kind of déjà vu moment, if you’re an alum, and you visit this new campus,” Meckel said. “It may not hit you immediately, but on some fundamental, subliminal level, you’re going to feel like, ‘I’ve been here before.’ It’s a CCA kind of experience.”
Although the college will not be affiliated with the Oakland site after the land sale is finalized, faculty members and administrators have collaborated with the developers, Emerald Fund and Equity Community Builders, to come up with a plan that they say will preserve their legacy. The current plan includes a public park, the preservation of the college’s historical buildings, and new housing units. And, rather contentious among neighbors: A proposed 19-story high-rise residential building.
Preliminary drawings show an uninhibited view of the campus from Broadway, looking east. The iconic stone stairs and wall that line the western border of campus will remain, but large swaths of trees and shrubs will be cleared to make the space visible from the street, and the historic Treadwell Mansion will be an aesthetic centerpiece of an open green quad. Surrounding the 1.5 acres of open space and sculpture garden on all sides will be tall residential buildings, all windows and balconies. Along Clifton Street, marking the northern edge of the campus, will be a business corridor, where developers hope small shops and restaurants will move in to create a walkable enclave off busy Broadway.
Developer Marc Babsin of Emerald Fund said the site—four acres in an established neighborhood within walking distance of BART—is an extremely rare development opportunity. His team has attempted to strike a balance between public functions like affordable housing and a park, which the developers would pay for and maintain, and the market rate housing that would subsidize these features. He believes the proposal, with its space for housing and retail and public use, is the smartest way to use the land. “This opportunity is not going to come around for another century,” Babsin said.
The college required the developers to include affordable housing units, to give artists a space to live in the pricey Bay Area. The current plan allocates 35 affordable units, to be converted from the college’s freshman dorm. But many, including Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb (District 1), say 35 units are not enough, given the more than 500 market-rate apartments planned for the space. Members of the college’s staff union agree, and propose that 30 percent of the new units should be affordable, rather than the current 6 percent.
Babsin said those numbers would make the project unsustainable. And he believes that adding more market-rate housing citywide will help level out the average rental rate. He said that Rockridge—which hasn’t developed housing projects as quickly as other neighborhoods—is “crying out for housing.”
And in a post on the project’s dedicated development website, 5212broadway.com, Babsin said that their proposal would also provide needed public space. “In addition to providing much needed housing, our goal is to open the site up to the community and create a place where neighbors will gather and engage with one another, much like Temescal Alley or First Fridays,” he wrote.
But some of the neighbors, including artist Leslie Correll, who has lived there since she graduated from college in the 1960s, aren’t sold on the plan. Correll said Oakland has overbuilt on luxury units and that “building and building and building” market-rate housing isn’t the answer to the lack of affordable spaces. “CCA wants to get maximum bucks out of the property,” Correll said. “And they can only do this by ratcheting up the number of units they’re going to squeeze on to that property. So that’s the big albatross driving this whole thing.”
Correll sits on the steering committee for the Upper Broadway Advocates, a group of neighbors who live near the campus and hope to guide plans for development. Around 200 residents showed up to their community meetings this summer to voice a variety of concerns about the project, including the size of the buildings being proposed for a small neighborhood made up primarily of one and two-story houses.
Correll points out that earlier projects—like the Safeway construction and two large-scale mixed-use apartment buildings along Broadway—created some headaches for the neighborhood already. “There are the traffic problems, and the lack of planning on the city, the lack of coordination among the city and the developers, the lack of forethought and planning, so that what we’re left with is a real dog’s breakfast here,” Correll said.
She and some other neighbors approached the fire marshal with fears that such high-density housing along narrow Clifton Street and the ridge at the edge of the property could pose problems in the event of a disaster. And she wonders if the very infrastructure of the neighborhood can support a spike in the number of people and vehicles.
As for Kalb, he has never been on board with the campus’ closure. “They have a lot of students in the East Bay, and for them to think that all of them are going to go into San Francisco is difficult,” he said. “I urged them not to close at all, but they made a decision.” He said Oakland is nationally recognized as a center for the arts, so “losing this campus is a disappointment and, in my opinion, a mistake on their part.”
The development plans are in the early phases with the city’s planning office, and several stages of feedback could mean a potential redrawing. Because the plans are still in the process of being approved, Kalb said he can’t comment on them. He said the high-rise is “far from a done deal,” but that residents should be aware that no matter what the plan will bring a lot of new people into the neighborhood. The plans, Babsin agreed, are not necessarily final. The developers are still in the beginning stages of conducting an environmental impact report for the city.
A lot may still change in two years.
In the basement of the Oakland campus library, students tenderly sort through archival photographs and artifacts with white gloves.
The students are in a course for juniors and seniors called “Legacy Starts Here: Oakland Campus.” It’s a semester-long class open to students of all majors, led by Victoria Wagner, who has taught there for nearly two decades. She started the course two years ago as a way to help students understand the history of the college during the unification process.
“The class gets very granular on the history of the Oakland campus and California College of Arts and Crafts, specifically where the college began and where it is now,” Wagner says. She says the class considers how the college “sort of shifted and folded and overlapped and become this living organism.”
The students start the course with some exploration: They sort through photos in the library and sit down with campus archivists, they wander through the abandoned sculpture garden and see if anything catches their eye. The goal is for each team of students to pick one aspect of the campus and honor it in some way. They may choose to recreate a sculpture from the graveyard in a new medium. This semester, one creative writing student is putting on a marionette performance to honor the college’s short-lived theater program. Over the course of the semester, the students also track down someone who’s made their mark on CCA—literally or otherwise—and interview them to capture an oral history.
Wagner has seen the college change significantly in her time as a teacher. She was there for the name change and for the growth of the San Francisco campus. Her connection to Oakland runs deep—her role at CCA was the first teaching job she got after college. She said she loves Oakland for its “dappled light” and the “privacy and poetry in its spaces.”
“It’s very different from San Francisco, and I felt like it should be captured in some way,” Wagner says. “Not just captured in the way that a librarian would do it…but captured in a way that a student experiences it.”
For the next two years, Wagner’s students will create these projects honoring the campus’s past, documenting the process on video as they go. The videos will become a sort of meta-history, highlighting the campus as it was decades ago through the lens of its students today. In this way, today’s students, who will be the last to walk the halls in Oakland, will become part of its 100-year history.
Until the very last minute, Catleya Sherbow will surely be out there with her plastic watering can, tending the campus she loves.
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