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West Oakland facility designed to feed students pivots to emergency food bank

The $43 million-dollar project extends its services to help people in need during the pandemic

The Center’s urban farm area.
Photos by Bruce Damonte Photography, courtesy of CAW

A food center originally slated to open this fall to feed Oakland students locally-sourced meals (thank you, Alice Waters), in lieu of frozen or mass-produced lunches, has opened early and is now being used as a space for the collection and distribution of roughly 5,000 meals daily for those in need, ranging from homeless people to anyone facing job loss.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has relegated most in-person tasks online, has shaved off approvals timelines in many cities, even in San Francisco, a city notorious for its unyielding adoration of bureaucracy, egregious regulatory commissions, and eye roll-inducing public input that routinely holds up projects for months—sometimes years.

“We didn’t have to move walls or anything like that, but the approvals process was sped up,” says Brent McClure, principal and lead architect at CAW Architects, the Palo Alto-based firm that designed The Center.

Opening on April 15, McClure says it only took three weeks, instead of months, to get approvals finished.

The methodically designed space now acts as a food bank co-operated by the school district and the Alameda County Community Food Bank for the entire county.

CAW spent five years designing the facility, which features a main central kitchen for district-wide food production, culinary arts classrooms, and even an urban farm, all of which were designed to support roughly 37,000 students across nearly 100 schools for Oakland Unified School District.

The Center also comes with a series of rhythmic wooden slat patio coverings that give the building architectural flair rather than the listless bureaucratic look found at many a city school district building.

While no structural changes were required for The Center to seamlessly transition into a food bank, the usual red tape, which normally takes months to clear, wasn’t a problem.

The patio area of The Center.

The Center’s new, albeit temporary, life as a food bank will last as long as shelter-in-place orders remain in effect, which could be anywhere from June 1, when the orders are expected to end, until late summer.

This immediate shift in priorities shows that when architecture and civic authorities work together, they have the power to positively affect urban planning and emergency response.

“This project sets the standard for a new model of scalability in food justice and community wellness issues,” says McClure.

As life after stay-at-home orders unfolds within the next few months—or years—architects will be faced with a new challenge.

“Architects need to think about designing spaces where people can feel safe, but more importantly feel connected to each other,” notes McClure. “More than ever we will need to create humane spaces where people can build a sense of community and come together while still establishing a sense of safety.”

The Center, he says, with its organic partnerships between the school district and county food bank, “in some ways are an example of community building during the pandemic.”