Cathedral near Lake Merritt could stimulate urban uplift

Rebecca Rosen Lum

McCatchy-Tribune Business News [Washington]

Nov. 26–OAKLAND Light is the pivotal feature of the 110-foot high Cathedral of Christ the Light sanctuary. As the lakefront cathedral complex has taken shape, it has also generated plenty of heat.

The cathedral itself has been compared to a nuclear reactor, a basket wrapped in glass, an architectural symphony and by Bishop Allen Vigneron as “A great soaring vault.”

Architectural merits aside, Oakland’s business community says it is also helping to generate something the district needs: economic development.

“I think it’s an absolutely phenomenal project,” said Joe Haraburda, director of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. “It will become another landmark that people will visit and (will help them) come to appreciate Oakland for the diverse place it is. It will stimulate more interest in Oakland — yes, indevelopment, too.”

While the cathedral has gone up, Essex Property Trust Inc. has been building a 238-unit housing structure nearby, and Signature Properties a complex on Grandthat blends condominiums with ground-floor eateries. Office space will open up as well: Brandywine Realty Trust is expanding its 20-floor tower at 2101 Webster St. by nine stories.

Forty-five days ago, a Whole Foods market opened nearby. With the church and its public spaces, new housing and the store, some say the district is beginning to feel more like a neighborhood.

From his office on the 16th floor of one of Brandywine’s buildings, senior vice president and managing director Dan Cushing has watched the area metamorphose from an office district to a community.

Brandywine sold the plot of land at Grand Avenue and Harrison Street to the church corporation and cheered the result.

“We saw the benefit of the cathedral,” he said. “There’s been the most amazing wave of development over the past two years, an incredible transformation.”

“We’ve seen the first speculative office development go up in quite some time, along with hundreds and hundreds of housing units,” said Karen Engel, director of economic development for the chamber. “Investment in the area has been tremendous.”

The Oakland Diocese first approached the city with a large cathedral in mind some 10 years ago, Engel said.

Financing for the $190 million cathedral project has come from donations solicited specifically for the project.

None of the money has come from the $350 million the Oakland Diocese spends annually on social services, schools or church administration, according to the church’s finance committee. Fundraising for the cathedral has gained momentum as the structure rises, said cathedral spokesman Mike Brown.

The committee has so far amassed $105 million of the $190 million pricetag.

Wrapped in shimmering glass, Christ the Light replaces St. Francis de Sales, fatally damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. When it opens in fall 2008, it will draw together two parishes, St. Francis and St. Mary’s, also in downtown Oakland.

Glass panels encase a latticelike structure made of twenty-six 110-foot curved Douglas fir ribs and 768 horizontal struts.

Looking straight up into its highest reaches affords a cubist shot of the sky, the glass panels mirroring pieces of blue. From some angles, the sun illuminates the ceramic fritting that’s been baked into the glass; from others, the glass appears to fall away, leaving only open sky.

Throughout the cathedral, the most industrial of materials — steel, concrete, glass — combine to create an ethereal quality.

Tuesday, as the morning sun inched higher, the fir joists gleamed. A crane elevated two workers to the cathedral’s heights to vacuum particulate from the beams.

“A man’s work is never done,” Brown said.

A worker’s jacket hung from one of the white, winglike, triangular pieces that piece together to form the ceiling. Some of the pieces are dotted with pinholes to direct the light into the sanctuary.

Architect Craig Hartman, who won the San Francisco American Institute of Architects Design Award for the project, has said one of the best features of the design is the inability to predict what the light will do at any given time.

The landscaped complex encompasses an open plaza, smaller chapels, offices, a rectory and a residence for Bishop Vigneron, gathering places, gardens and a conference center. Brown said he envisions area regulars taking lunch outdoors in the plaza, drinking in the views of Lake Merritt and the conifered green beyond.

Some of the visitors who stroll around the work site with cell phone cameras flapping say the cathedral has succeeded in one dubious way: Other buildings look drab in comparison. The slab-style office buildings jutted daringly skyward in their day, but suddenly never looked boxier. Engel laughed when she heard the criticism.

“The urban fabric is composed of many different looks and feels,” she said. “That’s the richness of urban America.”

She toured the complex recently and was awed by its design and construction.

“I think people will come just to see (the cathedral), and if they spend their tax dollars here why, that’s fine.”

Credit: The Oakland Tribune, Calif.

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