Located on one of downtown Oakland's prettiest commercial streets, Lowney Architects' office sits above a trendy Vietnamese restaurant and a Japanese Fried Chicken spot. A great place to work if you get hungry. Since Lowney's office was a short hop from our studio in Jack London Square, we walked over picking up a few containers of Dim Sum in Chinatown on our way to a working lunch in Ken Lowney's office.
Ken Lowney is an Oakland native who studied architecture in London and Santa Monica (SCI-Arc) before opening his eponymous shop in downtown Oakland in 2003. His first project was the renovation of a classic building on Lake Merritt. He turned a 1920s era Cadillac dealership into a Whole Foods. Since then, Lowney has built a solid reputation as being one of the East Bay's leading urban pioneers in housing and retail development. Throughout Oakland, there are dozens of major development projects under construction and Lowney's hand is on many of the most prominent ones.
He is a huge fan of Oakland and sees the city as a place with tremendous growth possibilities. Oakland has many things San Francisco doesn't, like space, affordable real estate and great weather. It also has an urban and regional transit network that serves much of the Bay Area. Oakland did have a robust commercial core sixty years ago, but the construction of BART and suburbanisation in the 1960s and 1970s killed it off. Jerry Brown opened the door to urban revitalization in Oakland when he was the city's mayor in 2000 and it has kept going. This latest development cycle will bring thousands of new residents and hundreds of businesses downtown. Once thought of as a "black city," Oakland is now one of the most racially balanced urban centers in the Bay Area. Crime is way down and property values are rising.
Lowney's office does a broad range of work from historic renovation, to street level retail, to multi-family in a variety of markets, from subsidized to luxury housing. His 1261 Harrison project, when built, will be the tallest building in the East Bay. It's gigantic Y shaped 460 ft. tower will dramatically alter the downtown skyline and hopefully revitalize the adjacent Chinatown. Lowney's 1000 plus unit mixed use housing project next to the West Oakland BART station will breathe new life into a moribund neighborhood that has been scarred for decades by freeways, "urban redevelopment" and neglect. A portion of the Kirkham project is being built using modular housing technology developed by here in the Bay Area.
We talked about some of the ongoing problems Oakland faces, like homelessness, and what can be done about it. One quick, simple solution is to set up temp housing for homeless folks in "Tuff-Sheds," on public land, a program Lowney has actively supported and donated money to. Homelessness, in many ways, is our society's lack of caring for the mentally ill and those with drug issues. These are larger issues that need to be addressed on state and federal levels, but giving a homeless person a clean, sanitary place to stay is something that can happen locally and quickly.
I asked Lowney if he was a form giver or problem solver. Without hesitation he replied, "Definitely, a problem solver. Architecture is the means to serving people and not a means in itself." For Lowney urban planning and how buildings interface with the community and the environment are just as important as the buildings themselves.
In the classic noir film, the Hustler, Minnesota Fats asks Fast Eddie where hes from. Without hesitation and a little sense of irony Eddie replies, "Oakland." I think more people feel like Eddie these days.