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eastside center provides housing, gathering place

Urban Ecology is helping to transform a historic East Oakland building into a cultural center that offers local residents and artists a performance venue, recording studios and affordable housing.

Just two years ago, the idea of creating a permanent cultural center in one of Oakland's most diverse and low-income communities seemed like an impossible dream. Hurdles included securing a building, finding funding, getting an arts group and an affordable housing developer to work as partners, and, finally, designing a space to suit many different activities.

But today, the EastSide Cultural Center is a becoming a reality. When open in the summer of 2006, the center will house performing arts and gallery space, a small music-recording studio, a visual arts and printmaking workshop, and a digital arts and media lab. The site also includes 16 units of affordable housing, eighty percent of which are already occupied.

"We were told this project would never get off the ground, but we've pulled it off," said Urban Ecology Community Design Director Jess Wendover, who developed the center's design in partnership with Paul Okamoto of Okamoto Saijo Architecture. The design is currently awaiting a building permit, with construction expected to begin in early 2006.

The idea for the center sprang from Urban Ecology-led community discussions about creative ways to revitalize the struggling 23rd Avenue neighborhood. The challenge was to provide a much-needed neighborhood anchor for the business district, which sits between the more successful Fruitvale and Eastlake districts, while capitalizing on the many cultures, and array of artists, in Oakland's San Antonio neighborhood.

The solution was to transform a three-story, 79-year-old building on International Boulevard into a neighborhood gathering spot that offered housing, office and retail spaces for local businesses.

In addition to providing design assistance, Urban Ecology played a significant role in helping secure funds from foundations including the Hewlett Performing Arts Fund and the Walter and Elise Haas Jr. Fund. Other funding sources include the City of Oakland's vacant housing acquisition and rehabilitation program, the Northern California Community Loan Fund and a loan from Washington Mutual.

"We didn't want to do just housing," said Kathleen Diohep, who provided strategic real estate advice on the project. "We wanted to do something that would revive commercial activity, that would build a sense of ownership, contribute to its rebirth, and celebrate the history."

The center represents a new partnership between two non-profits - the EastSide Arts Alliance, a collective of local artists, and Affordable Housing Associates, a Berkeley-based developer. The two organizations finalized an agreement to purchase the historic building at 2277-2289 International Boulevard for a mixed-use development and a cultural center.

The building's second and third stories include studio- and one-bedroom apartments. EastSide Arts Alliance and Affordable Housing Associates operate these affordable rental units, some of which will be designated for teenage mothers involved in an employment service program. The first floor will include a workspace for Tumi's, a design, printing, and web development business owned and operated by neighborhood artists, as well as office space for the Lower San Antonio Collaborative and Oakland Ready to Learn, a school readiness non-profit organization.

EastSide Arts Alliance is a six-year-old collaborative of several arts organizations that believe the arts are fundamental to community development. EastSide hosts the Malcolm X Jazz Festival in Oakland and offers programming that fosters leadership development among local youth cross-cultural understanding through art.

After rent increases, several moves, and a break-in, EastSide committed itself to finding a permanent home for their arts work in the community. In addition, the EastSide Arts Alliance Strategic Plan identifies "an overall lack of community gathering spaces in the neighborhood." The artists hope that the cultural center will be used by other neighborhood non-profits, and plan to make the center's large multi-purpose room available for forums and meetings.

As one of EastSide's founders, Greg Morozumi, describes it, "For a cultural organization, it is not just theater or presenting...it's connecting to what else is going on in the community."