In the early part of the 20th century, Washington Street, extending from City Hall fourteen blocks to the waterfront, was the bustling commercial core of downtown Oakland, California, in the Old Oakland neighborhood. Between Ninth and Tenth Streets, stood the building now known as Swan’s Market. Built in sections starting in 1917, this white brick landmark served for most of its early life as a department store and prepared food mart. It was boarded up following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and stood empty until it was turned over for development to the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), a non-profit developer dedicated to community economic development and the construction of affordable housing.
In its many years of service to the community, EBALDC had not included market-rate housing in any of its projects, but the project manager assigned to the development of Swan’s Market was very familiar with cohousing, and was eager to include a group of cohousing condominiums and a common house in the multi-use project. A nascent cohousing group looking at possible downtown Oakland sites coalesced and started working in partnership with EBALDC through all stages of the project: building a group of interested buyers, coordinating with the City of Oakland, and working with the project architect (Pyatok Associates) and The Cohousing Company to develop a site plan, design the common house, and lay out our individual residences.
There were many obstacles to overcome in building this group. Three important ones were the reluctance of many to invest their dollars and themselves in a downtown devastated by freeway construction and urban “removal” in the sixties and seventies, peoples’ perception that downtown living was dangerous, and the much-maligned condition of the Oakland public schools. In addition, we ran up against the desire of many potential Cohousers to live away from the center city where they could share at least an acre, perhaps even a dozen or more acres of open space, along with their common buildings. What we had going for us was the incredible convenience of downtown living — “walking distance” to just about everything (restaurants, museums, theaters, entertainment centers, work places, galleries, shopping, Chinatown), the availability of extensive public transportation, lively city life all around, and, at least for some, the challenges and pleasures of being pioneers.
The project was under construction for a little more than two years, and all 20 families completed the purchase of our units and moved in, as the 50th completed cohousing community in North America, in March, 2000. All of our 20 cohousing condominium units were sold to the original buyers who reserved them through our group.