A design concept for a 26-story residential tower at Jack London Square.
A design concept for a 26-story residential tower at Jack London Square. (Ellis Partners)

OAKLAND -- "No Wall on the Waterfront" isn't just a San Francisco rallying cry anymore.

At Oakland's Jack London Square, the development firm Ellis Partners is seeking permission to build two residential towers -- one 17 stories, the other 26 stories -- amid the collection of restaurants, bars and offices.

Supporters, who include many city officials, say the projected 665 housing units would finally create a critical mass of residents to sustain the entertainment district and attract long-sought-after grocery and drugstores for those already living near the waterfront.

But opponents, much like their brethren in San Francisco who defeated a proposed waterfront high-rise project last year, say the Oakland towers would block views and limit public access to a site that was set aside for everyone's enjoyment.

"I want development to happen there, but I want it to serve the public and celebrate the waterfront," said Gary Knecht, a longtime resident and property owner near the square.

Ellis Partners wants entitlements to build up to 17 stories at the mouth of Broadway and 26 stories a few blocks south, near Harrison and Alice streets.

While many condominiums have been built around Jack London Square over the past decade, these would be the first residential properties constructed inside the complex where Ellis has served as the master developer for more than a decade. The proposal presents a fair share of regulatory hurdles.

Current city planning rules set aside much of the square for retail, entertainment and dining uses. Housing is prohibited. The 26-story tower, which would be the tallest building along Oakland's waterfront, is more than double the current 125-foot height limit.

Ellis already has the right to build shops and offices at the two sites, which, unlike most of the complex, are privately owned and not subject to state law protecting waterfront property. On Wednesday, the firm will ask the Planning Commission to recommend changing the zoning and land use rules to allow for high-rise residential. The City Council must issue the final approval, and it appears the project has substantial political support.

"I think it's great to have new investment come down to Jack London Square," said Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represents the area. "I don't see it as a privatization of the waterfront. I'm sure there are people who think this would be the first domino, but I don't see that happening."

Although the debate in Oakland is somewhat similar to that surrounding San Francisco's 8 Washington project, the two waterfronts remain worlds apart. San Francisco's is a tourist mecca, while Oakland struggles to lure its own residents to Jack London Square.

"We just need more people down here," James Ellis of Ellis Partners said. "A lot of the customers for these restaurants come from this district. That is their bread and butter."

Ellis said the housing project could break ground in 18 months and generate $20 million in economic benefits to the city over five years. With more than 100,000 square feet of vacant retail space in the Jack London Square complex, he said the two proposed housing sites, currently used as parking lots, could remain vacant for years if housing is not permitted.

When it comes to the waterfront, city leaders want to improve public access, but the money for sprucing up former industrial land has often come from private developers.

Construction recently began on a project south of Jack London Square that will include 3,100 homes as well as public open space on former Port of Oakland property.

Since Ellis took over as master developer, the Port-owned Jack London Square has added new plazas, restaurants and office space, including a "market hall" that has yet to materialize. Building housing, Ellis said, would make the square more vibrant and more attractive to visitors.

Opponents of the housing plan counter that the towers would signal that the square belonged primarily to those willing to shell out big bucks for apartments or condos with stellar views.

"We need to encourage people to go to Jack London Square, and if we privatize it with housing, then those are the only people who will be there," said Sandy Threlfall of the group Waterfront Action. "What about the people who can't afford the housing or the restaurants but would still like to go enjoy the waterfront?"

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.