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A circle of balloons, part of artist Jessica Serrans installation piece entitled I am waiting for something amazing to happen, greets visitors to a condemned Amtrak station on Sunday, May 13, 2007, in Oakland, Calif. The station, vacant since sustaining damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, welcomed visitors for a few hours Sunday as Serran and two other artists setup temporary art installations in the decaying space. (Photo by Noah Berger/Oakland Tribune)
OAKLAND — A trio of Oakland artists held an art show one recent Sunday inside the long-abandoned Southern Pacific train station at 16th and Wood streets in West Oakland.

It was the first event in the decaying, once-grand structure in many years and it drew a crowd; cars filled the weed-strewn parking lot and people wandered through the cavernous, empty, graffiti-tarred space, its murals stripped, even the marble floors cracked and smashed.

Jessica Serran, a Canadian artist now living in Oakland, said the station fascinates her. "I'm interested in decay, in time passing," she said. Her exhibits showed piles of cakes crumbling into dust.

They should have brought along a poet, a blue-collar guy like Carl Sandburg, who could chronicle the sad end of a mighty terminal that was the last stop on America's first transcontinental railroad, also the place where generations of African Americans found decent jobs as porters on transcontinental streamliners, and organized a union launching them into the middle class despite the nation's apartheid laws.

The art show, which was spare, may have marked the beginning of a new era for the station. After false starts and a great deal of civic uproar there is a deal.

The depot's not only being saved. Its become the centerpiece of a major housing development: "Central Station: It's a Bay Area destination," the developers say in their promotional literature.


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As part of a complex agreement with a consortium of housing developers, it looks virtually certain the historic place will be refurbished and see life once more as a community center or a restaurant or shops or a museum, drawing railroad buffs from around the country or all of the above.

Several developers are working on housing projects around the station; the first three-story town home additionis already under construction south of the depot. To the north, the old Pacific Cannery is being converted into residential lofts, just east of the town houses. Ninety-nine units of below market-rate rental units are planned for construction in a about a year, a project manager said.

But at the center of the whole 29-plus acre development is the Southern Pacific's historic old derelict: the 16th Street station.

Exactly what is going to happen there is an open question at the moment.

The developer, Bridge Housing, and the City of Oakland are asking for proposals from nonprofits and commercial businesses. Once they've been screened, they'll make their way to the Oakland City Council for the final OK.

One tiny problem: Although several groups, including the Oakland Heritage Alliance are working on a plan, no ideas have been submitted so far. The deadline, said Ben Golvin, of Equity Community Builders, who is shepherding the project, has been extended until July 2.

Meanwhile, Naomi Schiff of the Oakland Heritage Alliance is hopeful. History buffs see the station being operated as a nonprofit "Train Station Partnership," with some commercial involvement to make money and pay the rent.

Amtrak used the depot until 1989 when the Loma Prieta did severe damage to the station. Emeryville rushed in — as it famously does — and built a train station there; a few years later, in Oakland's more deliberate fashion, the Jack London Square station opened.

At the same time, the replacement freeway for the Cyprus Structure nearly skirts the edge of the old depot, so the tracks are gone. There's no way it can be used as a train station again.

Nevertheless, although it's been a campground for the homeless and drug users for nearly two decades, the building is important and valuable, Oakland historians believe.

It's eligible for the National Register of Historic Places," Schiff said. "We're also working to save the baggage rooms and other areas," she said. The baggage component is important historically, she said.

This has been a long process," Golvin said. "Making a deal with the city, trying to come up with a long-term use of the station that is solid."

There also apparently is going to be money available, potentially lots of it. The City Council sitting as the Redevelopment Authority, made the entire neighborhood a development area. Using its authority, a portion of property tax proceeds from the various housing projects can be diverted for use on enhancements like the old train station.

It's going to cost, Golvin said. "Basically, what we have is a big, high, tall box. It's of historic significance, so we can't do anything to the outside," he said. The inside is important too. Basically, they'll have to gouge out the interior walls, install some kind of steel frame or bracing, then cover it over, Golvin said.

Something also has to be done underneath, the bay came close to this site and the ground isn't exactly solid, he said.

The total project cost, depending on how much is rehabilitated, is between $25 and $32 million," Golvin said.

That may seem prohibitive, but check out the developers Web site: http://www.welcomeaboard.com. Money is coming to West Oakland, and some it well may save the old depot.

That art show may have just been the beginning.