Oakland artists buy the right to stay put as development rises up around them

A resident of Shadetree reads on an outdoor couch. Shadetree residents recently bought their live-work artist complex amid surrounding development in Oakland. Photo: Nathan Bennett

Oakland’s last section of undeveloped, privately-owned waterfront is a nubby spit of land at the very end of 5th Avenue, where charmingly ramshackle structures occupy roughly four square blocks along the estuary connecting Lake Merritt to the San Francisco Bay.

For decades, this area known as Fifth Avenue Point has been a makeshift live-work hub attracting artists, musicians, mechanics, sailors, and craftspeople to its remote-feeling stretch of industrial waterfront; its gravel lots teem with succulents and found objects repurposed as decoration.

In the middle of it all is Shadetree, a tight-knit, insular community of dozens of residents, living in interconnected buildings, that feels like a family. During a tour, resident Benjamin Burke called a neighbor’s newborn child “our baby,” before letting himself into another neighbor’s unit.

Freddi, a resident of Shadetree, pets a cat on the steps. Photo: Nathan Bennett

But the cloistered, hideaway atmosphere is changing. To the property’s immediate north, east, and west are building sites within a scheduled 35-acre commercial-residential project Brooklyn Basin, Oakland’s largest new development since World War II. Developers have plotted to “revitalize” Fifth Avenue Point for decades, but when Shadetree’s owners decided to sell in 2016, it finally seemed likely.


Instead, the tenants raised $2.5 million and purchased Shadetree themselves.

“Now we’re this little strip in the middle of the Brooklyn Basin plan that says, ‘Not a part of project,’” said Burke, a writer and onetime TED Fellow. (His talk centered on the virtues of “winging it.”) “If we could pull this off, I mean—we’re made of trash!”

A map of the scheduled Brooklyn Basin development, showing Shadetree at left, circled in yellow. Image: via Brooklyn Basin

In September 2016, the Shadetree tenants received a letter from their landlords, Reed and Matt Westphal, giving them 90 days to make an offer on the property. They mustered a deposit and signed a purchase agreement in February, and spent months securing $2.5 million in loans—about half from a private equity lender, and the other half from 22 individual supporters—to buy the property through a newly-formed nonprofit, Shadetree Historical Artisan Development Engine (SHADE). The sale went through last July.

Threats to Oakland live-work housing have been mounting for years, due to development, encroaching cannabis business, and a city code-enforcement crackdown. Shadetree’s shoreline locale, its position within Oakland’s cannabis-permitted “green zone,” and location in the center of plans for Brooklyn Basin made it particularly vulnerable. Donna Smithey, 66, a 5th Avenue resident who helped organize the acquisition, said that when the Westphals offered to sell to the tenants, she thought it was just a face-saving gesture before eviction. “I don’t think they expected us to get it together,” she said.

A meeting at Shadetree. Residents recently bought the live-work artist complex amid encroaching development. Photo: Nathan Bennett

The structure of the acquisition—involving a property-specific nonprofit and a plan to collectivize ownership—is similar to the land-trust model, wherein tenants generally rent from a nonprofit entity bound by an affordability covenant and restricted from selling the property. In the past year, the Oakland Community Land Trust has added two mixed-use buildings to its portfolio. Like those arrangements, the Shadetree tenants consider their acquisition a bulwark against displacement, and insulation from real-estate market pressure.

“Shadetree is now an important model for other communities of artists trying to find the wherewithal to buy their building in Oakland,” said Kelley Kahn, the city’s policy director for art spaces, who supported the tenants through the acquisition. “Ownership is the most powerful tool artists have to protect themselves in a changing and highly competitive private real estate market—and unfortunately the hardest to achieve.”

David Keenan of Safer DIY Spaces, a consulting organization helping Shadetree resolve permitting and zoning issues, called the purchase “unprecedented,” adding that the live-work complex is arguably the oldest of its kind in Oakland. “The odds were long and the timeframe was compressed,” he said. “It defies not just my expectations—all of the lawyers and professionals who helped were dumbfounded that they made this happen.”

Kate, a resident of Shadetree, among the busy decór. Photo: Nathan Bennett

Fifth Avenue Point hosted largely shipbuilding businesses for much of the 20th Century. J.W. Silveira, now a major Alameda County property owner, acquired six and a half acres in the 1960s, and Robert Schultz bought the half-acre known as Shadetree in 1979. Schultz, a wild-eyed flea-market magpie, collected and sold antiques on the property and rented space to artists. Visitors tended to note his 3,500-pound aluminum tooth sculpture—a gift from Seward Johnson, estranged heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.

Under Schultz’s “benevolent dictatorship,” as Burke called it, Shadetree became a waterfront curiosity, a fringe community à la pre-money Sausalito with the cluttered, rustic look of public art installations such as Nitwit Ridge or Watts Towers. Shadetree published a photo book, edited by nautical artist Constance Hockaday, documenting years of life at the Point, which the introduction likens to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

Even the Port of Oakland’s 157-page estuary policy plan, published in 1999, is threaded with surprisingly perceptive praise for the creative haven: “The Fifth Avenue Point community includes a synergistic grouping of artists, artisans, and small industrial business,” it reads. “It should be noted that enclaves such as this are rarely planned.”

A plaque at Shadetree, erected in 1993. Photo: Nathan Bennett

At the same time, Shadetree seemed precarious. “For the past decade, Fifth Avenue Point has been well known for something else: imminent doom,” wrote former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll in 2006 amid the planning of Brooklyn Basin, adding darkly that it “would not survive efforts to redevelop it, nor would it survive efforts to preserve it.”

In the late 1990s, a consultant firm hired by local government proposed a plan calling for “the city and port to take the land through eminent domain,” according to a 1997 East Bay Express article, prompting outcry from the residents. Early in planning Brooklyn Basin, a project championed by former mayors Jean Quan and Jerry Brown, Signature Development Group founder Michael Ghielmetti tried to buy Shadetree from Schultz.

(Ghielmetti acknowledged trying to acquire Shadetree years ago, but said he’s happy for the tenants’ successful purchase. “We’re thrilled to have them as neighbors,” he said.)

In 2008, Schultz sold the property to the Westphals, a family tied to Balco Properties and Bay Alarm, with an understanding that they’d try to preserve Shadetree, according to Smithey. (The Westphals did not respond to an interview request.) But Smithey, a Safer DIY Spaces consultant who’s worked in affordable housing development, said that during negotiations, the Westphals revealed that they’d commissioned an assessment indicating the property could support “40 or 50 condos.”

A unit at Shadetree. Photo: Nathan Bennett

As for the effort by residents to buy Shadetree, it wasn’t exactly easy. Twenty-two lenders turned them down. “I talked to so many private equity brokers,” Smithey said. “One guy drove up in a Tesla. He saw the place and declined.” Eventually, Val Chris Investments provided $1.25 million. The tenants then solicited 22 smaller loans from friends and supporters totaling $1.55 million. For the very last $100,000, Burke visited a patron on a houseboat.

Technically, the property is owned by the SHADE nonprofit. Within a few years, Smithey said, the goal is to consolidate the loans with one bank, and give tenants ownership stakes through a limited-equity cooperative.

Now they have to pay back the loans, and equitably reengineer responsibilities. To that end, they equalized rent, measuring all of the units and determining a shared cost per square foot that’d meet their loan obligations — so some tenants’ rent increased. “I was afraid we’d lose someone over that,” Burke said. “But we didn’t, and it’s still way under market.” He said rent now averages $900 per unit, and everyone contributes to upkeep.

Outside at Shadetree in Oakland. Photo: Nathan Bennett

The residents said they’ll soon need to raise more money for code-compliance improvements, and there’s some tension between Shadetree and Brooklyn Basin over shared property lines and easements.

And on the other side of the Point, according to Smithey, Silveira has been gradually phasing out residential tenants in favor of cannabis business. “We went into this knowing that in 10 to 15 years we might be surrounded by tall buildings,” she said.

In the meantime, Shadetree is in Oakland to stay. “It’s sink or swim,” Burke said of his waterfront home, “and we’re swimming.”