OAKLAND -- Mark Efe, his wife and young daughter moved a few months ago from American Canyon to a downtown Oakland area that until recently was populated by parking lots, a few auto-related businesses, and some hardy arts groups.
The family joined a population shift sparked by former Mayor Jerry Brown's ambitious plan to reinvigorate downtown Oakland with 10,000 new residents and new housing for them all.
While Oakland as a whole lost more than 8,000 people, or 2 percent of its population, its downtown bucked that trend in the past decade, adding 5,000 people since the 2000 census, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released this week.
Twelve years after Brown made his push for bringing "elegant density" to a struggling downtown, the census data shows the so-called "10K" plan got at least halfway.
The same pro-density formula has been promoted throughout the state, from downtown Los Angeles to downtown Hayward, as city leaders tried to lure back people from the suburbs with promises of good public transportation and cultural amenities.
According to the latest census figures, population in the seven census tracts that make up Oakland's downtown -- which includes Uptown, Old Oakland, Chinatown and Jack London Square -- grew by 5,134 people, from 16,399 people counted in the 2000 census to 21,533 today.
Slightly more than 3,500 new downtown condominiums, townhouses and apartments have been finished in the past decade, and hundreds more are either under construction or still moving slowly through the planning phase, waiting for the recession to end and financing and customer demand to pick up again.
The fastest-growing of the downtown districts were Uptown and Jack London Square, both of which grew by more than 75 percent. Unlike other parts of Oakland, where the black population dramatically declined, the downtown saw a rise in almost all ethnic groups, in part because so few people were living there before.
New lofts have transformed the blocks around Jack London Square from a working-class produce market that came to life in the wee hours of the morning and rolled up its sidewalks by 5 p.m.
More than 2,300 new residents have filled the new residential developments, built either from scratch or transformed from older warehouse buildings, such as the Safeway headquarters or the Dreyer's Ice Cream plant.
The other stark transformation has occurred in the Uptown entertainment district, which is mostly sandwiched within the triangle between Broadway, Telegraph and San Pablo avenues, and 15th Street and Grand Avenue.
The largest single development, Forest City's Uptown, added 665 apartments, and coupled with the restored Fox Theater, sparked a flurry of new restaurants, bars and cafes to streets that were largely devoid of foot traffic, day or night.
Efe, 28, works downtown for the state and chose to move to Oakland to cut his commute. He could have chosen any neighborhood, but the hip vibe spoke to him and his wife, Genevieve, both UC Berkeley graduates, and they moved to an apartment in Uptown.
"For us it works out," he said. "We weren't looking for big square footage. When we get a chance we'll go to the restaurants and bars around here. We like the night life."
Eric Foley, 36, also likes not needing a car to get around, and the burgeoning night life scene is practically right outside his door. He moved from Los Angeles to work for Forest City about two years ago and bought a condominium on 13th Street last year.
"I really like the changes in (downtown) Oakland," Foley said. "About 10 or 12 years ago I was here and stayed at the Marriott, and (the staff) said, 'Don't walk around. Don't venture too far.' Now I don't think I'd rather be anywhere else. The weather is good. The changes are great."
Other urban places that grew sharply in the decade include the 1-square-mile city of Emeryville, which grew by 46.5 percent, and the South of Market and Mission Bay areas of San Francisco. The fastest-growing census tract in central Contra Costa County, where the suburbs are mostly built out, happened in downtown Concord after a push by city leaders to build housing near downtown and BART. The fastest-growing tract in southern Alameda County was the one surrounding the Union City BART station.
Skeptics of density-focused development argue that the emphasis on getting people close together is misplaced, and that the comparatively higher growth in the suburbs -- in places such as Brentwood and San Ramon -- is evidence that most Americans still want their space.
"All these cities have put enormous amounts of resources in their downtowns and it's created housing where there wasn't any," said Joel Kotkin, a professor at Chapman University in Orange County. "But the real danger point for places like Oakland is you have other neighborhoods that are depopulating."
"What is 5,000 people in a region of over 4 million? It's one housing tract in Tracy," Kotkin said of the downtown population spurt in Oakland. "The money that has been spent on downtowns: Why don't we spend it on our neighborhoods, which is really where people live and where they stay a long time? The investment dollars would go further."
Cynthia Kroll, an economist at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, said that density-focused growth might have stalled in the past few years, but older downtowns reinvigorated with housing or commercial development will be better able to lure new residents in the future.
"Growth downtown is not only a response to economics and demographics, but a response to public policy," Kroll said. "The state promotes sustainable development that has less reliance on fossil fuels, so this trend of downtown development fits right in with that, and cities that have already begun to build up their downtowns will be ahead of the curve."
Staff writer Paul Thissen contributed to this report.