This page is currently a work in progress.
- 1 History of the building itself (an overview)
- 2 History of the Omni Collective group (an overview)
- 3 Prehistory to the Omni Collective effort
- 4 Beginnings of the Omni Commons, née Omni Collective (a more detailed history)
- 5 Others' efforts to acquire the building
- 6 Help write a new chapter of our history!
History of the building itself (an overview)
Built in 1934 as the Ligure Club, a neighborhood center for the local Italian-American community, the building served as a social nexus predominantly for the Oakland Scavenger Association, the largely Genoese refuse collectors who formed one of the Bay Area’s first worker-owned and operated co-operatives. From this time until the early 1980s, it served as the site for not only countless social events (concerts, dances, banquets, weddings, birthday parties), but major civic gatherings and lectures. Public speeches by the likes of presidents (Richard Nixon) and supreme court justices (Earl Warren) filled the building to capacity, along with regularly-held forums on local politics. Even sporting events like boxing matches and bocce ball tournaments were regularly held at the building.
As the neighborhood changed, by the early 1980s the building transitioned first to a community-centered club called The White House before becoming the infamous Omni nightclub and grill from the mid-80s through the 90s. Focusing mainly on rock and local metal scenes, it featured innumerable local musicians as well as well-known performers as diverse as Dr. John, McCoy Tyner, Bad Brains, Primus, and Crazy Horse.
From the mid-90s onward the property was carefully stewarded by a thoughtful couple who returned the building to its more diverse traditional use - albeit on a smaller scale - with a mixture of occasional social events (dances, weddings, birthday parties) as well as civic ones (political forums, neighborhood meetings), while also making it their workplace and home. This continued until mid-2014, at which time the Omni Commons assumed possession.
History of the Omni Collective group (an overview)
Emerging out of the Occupy movement, Bay Area Public School and Sudo Room had already formed a collectively-run space in downtown Oakland that, for approximately two years, was made freely available for meetings and events to all other local groups and individuals who shared a vision of a more equitable commoning of resources and meeting of human needs over private interest or corporate profit. When the opportunity to move to the far-larger Omni building presented itself, we started meeting weekly to build support for a far more ambitious version of what we then able to provide: To found a truly expansive Commons with a wide range of diverse resources and multiple meeting spaces for all of Oakland to participate in.
For seven straight months, we held open, widely-publicized meetings, reaching out to all aligned groups and individuals who might want to have a home with us at Omni. Through a consensus-driven process across a multiplicity of groups, many thousands of hours were put towards creating an effective, non-hierarchical internal working structure, assembling business plans and projections for each of the member groups, and building our collective fund. With no investors of any kind (and no profit motive), all the financial support for this project came entirely from within our own community in the form of modest donations and long-term, no-interest loans.
Prehistory to the Omni Collective effort
In late September 2013, a few members of Sudo Room went to view the building at the invitation of a small burning-man-oriented group. The burning-man-oriented group were at that time seeking subtenants in advance of making a proposal to the owner to let or purchase the property. A brief discussion around the possibilities afforded by this offer was had within Sudo Room and no action was taken for a variety of reasons, mostly around in-depth conversations that were still ongoing regarding: whether to move at all, how, where, whom with, and so on. To the best of our knowledge, the burning-man-oriented group's proposal for the property was also turned down by the owner (for reasons unknown to us.)
Sudo Room's internal discussion around whether to move into the Omni building specifically at that early time, was short-lived and did not extend to the Bay Area Public School (BAPS). Sudo Room had, however, begun pursuing discussions around exploring new locations in general, to possibly share with the Bay Area Public School (who were also looking to move for similar reasons, sharing common space - and the same perplexing landlord - with Sudo Room at the time), and Counter Culture Labs.
It should be noted that, those from Sudo Room who had gone to see the property at this early stage, were not the same Sudoers who went to see the property later with BAPS in the visit that would jumpstart the Omni Commons effort. Likewise, these early Sudo Room visitors to the Omni building, were also not core organizers of the later Omni effort.
Beginnings of the Omni Commons, née Omni Collective (a more detailed history)
(work in progress; please forgive any outstanding omissions)
In late October 2013, local Temescal poet and artist Zach Houston, who had known the present owners for many years, met with David Keenan of the Bay Area Public School (BAPS) regarding the building as potential new location for BAPS and Sudo Room. An appointment was made with the building owner to tour the property, and David K. entreated Jenny Ryan and Marc Juul of Sudo Room to join, which they did. Zach had also contacted Emji Spero of Timeless Infinite Light (TIL) as another potential partner in the project, and these representatives from the three groups - Bay Area Public School, Sudo, and TIL - visited the building with Zach in late October.
Impressed by the building, later the same day David K., Jenny and Zach returned to Bay Area Public School & Sudo's then-current space and proceeded to write up copy for a brief one-sheet proposal and create the first infrastructure for the group, working deep into the night. The proposal was then worked over into something properly presentable by Otis Pig of TIL, and from that point on regular organizing meetings and nearly-weekly visits to the property began. During this initial period, the bulk of organizing for the effort was done by Bay Area Public School and Sudo Room.
David Keenan began to bottomline weekly Omni planning meetings, as well as bi-weekly (on average) field trips to the building, in which members of interested collectives could tour the property. These trips to the building continued unabated for approximately 6 months.
During the time we held organizing meetings, hackathons, pulled all-niters, and generally built support for this effort, several groups expressed interest in participating in our vision for a Commons - many stayed in it for the long haul; for others, their interest and energy could not be sustained through the intense 7 month process during which we worked to concretely define our shared values, our internal processes, and above all ourselves as a cohesive new entity, in order to turn our vision into reality. Other groups who subsequently joined during this period, and stayed on until moving in were: OMNIdance, Counter-Culture Labs, Backspace, Food Not Bombs, Black Hole Collective Labs, Oakland Nights Live, and Peak Agency. A large number of people across all member collectives worked incredibly hard during this period. In an effort to recognize and de-invisibilize the labor of those who put in truly insane hours during this particular period, the following organizers deserve a round of applause: Yardena Cohen, Niki Shelley, David Keenan, Otis Pig, Jenny Ryan, Matt Senate, Margit Galanter, Ahnon Milham, David Brazil (note: Organizers - please add to this list as you see fit :)
In late March 2014, the Bay Area Public School hosted, at the Omni, a one-night speaking event featuring PM Press authors, which primarily focused on the social need for a Commons, featuring writers Silvia Federici, Peter Linebaugh, and George Caffentzis. Although technically hosted by BAPS, all groups organizing with Omni Collective effort worked substantially to put on this event and make it a success.
It was around this period the 'official' name for the effort was settled on. For a very brief period in the very very beginning (October 2013), the overall effort started off as 'CAMO' (Contemporary Art Museum of Oakland). However within the first week or two this name was scuttled (although eventually revived as the name of a member collective), and by March 2014 the project meetings were simply known as 'Omni meetings'. By March, we were not sure whether the name of the group organizing the effort, and the name of the place/building itself, should be one and the same name - or two distinct, different names (i.e. one name for the group, another for the building). Ultimately we decided for simplicity's sake, the name for the group and building should probably be the same. With this in mind - although 'Building Bloc' was a strong runner-up for the name of the group - the first 'official' name for the effort was the Omni Oakland Collective. However, it was changed shortly thereafter to Omni Oakland Commons, reflecting a sense that a shared sense of place (a 'Commons') rather than organizational/group structure ('Collective') was marginally better to emphasize. While Omni Oakland Commons remains the 'official' name, since this time, the effort has come colloquially to be shorthanded as simply Omni Commons, though it is also still often referred to internally by its full initials, 'OOC'.
In late April 2014, we received a form submission on our website from an email address we didn't know, informing us that the building had already been sold to an unnamed party who planned to make it into a venue and were looking to 'rent out the top floor' to a subtenant, and that this buyer knew about our own effort. The email did not say anything more specific about the buyer's intended use for the building, nor the buyers' identities. Asking after these presumptive buyers and their plans for the building, we followed up with this emailer who said they would get back to us, but we never heard back. We subsequently talked with the owner to confirm the apparent sale. The owner informed us however, that the building had not in fact been sold.
From this point, we moved quickly to consolidate our financial commitments and refine our proposal for the building for the owner's review. This included complete business plans and thorough financials for eight community groups and constituted essentially a communal push for a 3-day all-nighter amongst all the organizers to complete and polish.
In early May 2014, we signed our first formal agreement with the owner of the building. As it became apparent that finalizing the deal would essentially require one-on-one negotiations, David Keenan was consensed on to be the Omni Collective's representative in these dealings, with the assistance of Omni Collective's main lawyer, Jesse Palmer. (We did not realize at the time just how extensive and intensive these negotiations would prove to be.)
For the next six weeks, the depths of our financials, business projections and organizational vision was checked and exposited upon at the same time that the terms of the lease and our option to purchase were painstakingly negotiated, on a near-daily basis, with the owner (lease revisions and associated paperwork often stretched into the hundreds per week). In addition to negotiating terms directly with the owner, aggregated lease/option revisions emerging out of one-on-one negotiations were presented back by David K. in batches (or otherwise summarized) regularly (usually weekly) for the group's collective amendment, approval, or denial. Any additional changes demanded by the collective in response, were in turn brought by David K. back to the negotiating table to the owner, and so on. Lease/option revisions were also floated by Jesse near-daily, who tirelessly converted much of the daily negotiation outcomes into (and out of) legalese. It was in general a profoundly intensive period of work for David K. and Jesse; and also for the collective as a whole - all of whom, during the negotiations period, worked doggedly on the myriad logistical issues and tasks needed to move on the property and make the effort practically and financially sound and successful.
By late June, the lease and option to purchase had been finalized and signed, and the Omni Commons assumed possession of the property on July 1 2014.
Others' efforts to acquire the building
For most of the two years that the building was known as being available to rent or purchase, it was not 'officially' on the market, and by the time Omni Commons was involved there was no 'bidding' process as conventionally understood. Rather, our understanding is the owner was approached directly and independently by a number of interested parties, enticed not only by the unique nature of the property but by the owner's unusual standing offer of a seller-financed loan. To qualify for the owner's loan, prospective buyers were to present the owner with what amounted to business plans for his consideration. Likewise, those wanting to rent the property also had to present the owner with business plans. To the best of our understanding, it was these business plans as visions for the building, as well as naturally the achievement of mutually-agreeable specific lease or purchase terms, that formed the basis for selecting a new occupant for the building.
Alternate proposed uses for the building that we by now have heard of variously included: a bowling alley, a movie theater, a live theatre, an orchestra rehearsal space, a co-working space, a thrift store, a burning-man-oriented live/work/party space, several kinds of music or event venues, restaurants, cafes, and bars.
During the seven months we worked to acquire the building, we assumed that there must have been other actively-interested parties at the time in a generic sense - but our actual knowledge of other parties specifically was confined to relatively well-known and already-abandoned attempts such as that of the New Parkway Theatre or the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse. Crucially, we never knew the identities of any other co-extant / actively-interested parties at the time, their specific plans for the building, nor the timing or financial aspects of whatever proposed purchase, lease, or any other contractual aspects they may have been in negotiations over with the owner. The owner kept all such information strictly confidential, and none of these parties came forward to us or otherwise made themselves known during all the time we met publicly prior to acquisition. Similarly, at the time, we had no way of knowing if any of these other parties possibly also attended our own planning meetings prior to Omni Commons acquiring the premises, since our meetings were (and still are) open to the public, and no one at any time, to the best of our collective knowledge and recollection, identified themselves privately or publicly as such a party with a potentially competing interest in the same property. (Our meeting notes from this early time forward were, and remain, documented and archived for the record.)
Some time since acquiring the building, external parties have recently let it be known that yes, apparently, third parties with an active competing interest in the property back then, did attend our public meetings (without making themselves known to us as competing interests). And that these third parties apparently did, to their mind, proceed to compete directly 'against' us for the property, with, we imagine, all the advantages of being able to know our specific plans, timelines, financials etc. As opposed to these other apparently-secretive parties who knew about our effort, Omni Commons did not - and could not - reciprocally compete directly 'against' any such group or anyone else for that matter, as we had no real, actionable, specific knowledge of any competitors or other proposals for the building. Rather, we were only able to present to the owner our own best plan for the property as a community resource center and Commons for all of Oakland in isolation and on its own intrinsic merits, and not as compared to, or in any way situated against (financially, morally, strategically or otherwise) any other potential competing use of the property about which we had no specific knowledge, leverage, or any other special advantage.
Such information is germane mostly in light of recently-rumored counternarratives in which Omni Commons' success in moving to this particular building, somehow cynically 'blocked', 'outbid', or otherwise directly prevented, through some imputed sneakiness, underhandedness or imagined collusion, the success of anyone else's competing efforts to acquire the same building (and correspondingly that Omni Commons is therefore, in whole or part, somehow morally culpable.) We feel for all who had dreams of using the building towards a myriad of ends during the multi-year period it was available for sale or lease, but from the perspective of Omni Commons, there was simply never any direct relation or knowledge whatsoever between our efforts to secure the property, and that of any other specific, actively competing effort (about which we knew nada). As we have said, so far as we knew, any knowledge of competing offers resided exclusively in the mind of the owner, who kept all such information entirely confidential from us, including the nature of any competing offers or negotiations. The responsibility for the owner's decision to rent or sell and to whom, when, and why, lies with owner alone - and therefore we urge all with lingering questions or doubts about why exactly their own proposals or negotiations did not work out, to simply contact the owner directly for these answers, as the owner is truly the one and only person who can answer such queries -- Omni Commons cannot speak for the owner, and in any case simply lacks any knowledge of such affairs.
For what it's worth, to the extent that lease and purchase terms were negotiable, its important to note we negotiated generally down in price/terms with the owner, not up, so its not at all likely that our success could be thought of as 'outbidding' any other party in the sense of throwing down more money than what one might have considered the owner's long-held 'asking price' with respect to terms in any conventionally-understood way. And in terms of any imagined monetary advantage on the part of Omni Commons generally: Any competing party in the economic position to actually meet the owner's purchase price (or seller-financed loan terms), as we have heard was apparently the case, had to have at least 15x times as much cash immediately to hand to buy, as we had scrimped together in order to lease. Our deposit, at that, was comprised entirely of small donations and personally-financed interest-free microloans with no 'investors' or big capital...Given this its hard to imagine what purely financial advantage we may have possibly wielded over any other competing parties looking to buy. And for anyone who suspected we swooped in at the last minute somehow: the property was available for years, and, we worked on our proposal 9 months. So, there was both plenty of time for other offers to work out in advance of ours, and, we worked diligently, collectively, and openly for quite a long time on our own proposal, in regular conversation with the owner long before signing any agreement. So to our mind our process towards letting the property can hardly be thought of as last-minute, secretive, pre-emptive, or otherwise unfair to any other competing party.
Finally, again, there was no conventional 'bidding process' - there was only a series of long and difficult negotiations that had to be followed through with the owner to the very end, with no definitive deadline or timeline per se. We expect (though we do not know) that every suitor for the property faced these same challenges, and having lived through it - just barely - we are exceedingly sympathetic to all those whose own negotiations and hard work to secure the building did not in the end pan out. The number of stories we have heard of previous deals to rent or purchase the building all falling apart 'at the last minute' is relatively large, spanning several years' worth of suitors, so it appears most faced much the same challenges as we did in negotiations - as our own negotiations were, as we said (and as was widely known within our community at the time), extremely difficult to consummate.
With all this in mind, we hope the community can recognize that the difficulties of any other party to consummate a deal on the same property lay squarely between the owner and that other party, and really not with Omni Commons, as we just did not interfere in anyone else's business.
Help write a new chapter of our history!
We hope this page clarifies the history of how we came to be as a group, and also how we came to the building. We encourage anyone, including the many, many other parties we are gradually learning about that had previous designs on acquiring the building over the years, to come on over and co-create with us the Commons that you would like to see!