Oakland – Phil Tagami, or “Phillip H. Tagami”, is someone I’ve know since 1991. That was the year of The Oakland Sharing The Vision meeting that drew 1,000 Oaklanders to the Downtown Oakland Convention Center for a day-long-session of brianstorming and deciding on what the City’s future should be, as expressed in a book of goals and objectives. It was there that David Glover, the late executive director of the legendary non-profit Oakland Citizen’s Committee for Urban Renewal, came up to me with Phil to his side and said “You two brothers should know each other.”
Actually, I was already aware of Phil because the Oakland Tribune published a brief focus on him as a Skyline High School grad (Class of 1983 with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf) who became an expert on something called “adaptive reuse”: taking old Art Deco and buildings and rebuilding them for modern use. The overall picture I had of Tagami then hasn’t changed to this day: one of a focused student of urban change who was more than interested in turning urban planning ideas into real estate reality. One idea that Phil and I and then Oakland lawyer and politico John Russo had in common was the view that Oakland should stop taking a back seat to San Francisco.
At the time, that thought was shared by many in Oakland and so “city-building” was a term that came up at many Oakland City Council-related functions. But, at the time we met, Phil Tagami was less interested in the process of actual “city-building”, then recovering from the loss of over $18,000 owned to him by Randy Burger. See, Phil had worked as a broker for the real estate investor Mr. Burger, and did a great job for him. But via a dispure that was eventually revolved, Phil found himself scrambling to make up for an $18,614 loss.
So, when I met Phil, and contrary to the grossly inaccurate media image painted of him today, Tagami descibed himself as “equity rich and cash poor”. But one thing Phil was also very rich in was personality and charisma. So much so that a now-former City of Oakland female employee who shall go unnamed spontaneously planted flowers in front of the house he owned at Park Boulevard and Portland Avenue – at 3 AM in 1993.
People, especially women, were drawn to Phil like moths to a flame. But Phil never handled himself with anything less than class. Phil was very much like the rest of us who grew up during the late-70s and 80s in Oakland: into music, parties, and friends – we didn’t socialize with smartphones because there weren’t any. For all of its historic big-city dreams, Oakland’s really a very small town, and that’s especially true if you went to elementary school, junior high school (as we called it), or high school. If you didn’t, I have to tell you, you don’t know Oakland.
It’s that group of friends I call “Friends of Phil” today that really came to define his life and provide a kind of warm blanket for him as he ascended. For all of Phil’s local successes, and there have been many, the greatest one is in the relationships he’s not just forged, but maintained.
In the early years of our relationship, and about the time we figured out we knew many of the same people from Skyline High (his brother Ted Tagami was one year behind me at Skyline), Phil would always ask me “How’s your relationship with “fill in the blank”. Why? Because Phil Tagami is a classic study in how to cultivate power. He used his natural charisma to form relationships with all kinds of different people in Oakland.
The trouble is, in Oakland, people with such charisma are very often targets of others who don’t feel good about themselves. Oakland has a giant number of people with very low self-esteem, and that leads them to take action against those in Oakland with high self-esteem. One Oakland city official once said to me in 1999 that Oakland was a “crab-barrel town that liked to pull people down”. That describes Phil’s history with the City of Oakland, which I will get to.
Anyway, our meetings at the top floor of 600 Grand Avenue, another building he owned, were about ideas for Oakland, and mostly about people. At the time, I was an economic consultant and in 1993, hired as a columnist for The Montclarion, solely based on my experience as an Oakland-based, Berkeley-trained, Oakland Redevelopment Agency-hired redevelopment and economic development expert. Phil, John Russo, who had eyes on and nailed his objective of being elected to the Oakland City Council, and I, always talked about people and who was doing what in Oakland. But Phil did so because he wanted to remake Oakland into a better city. That’s not a joke; that’s Phil.
To that end, his then new real estate partnership with Mark Moss and Len Epstein (and who had my late step brother-in-law Ralph Grant as their accountant) sought to acquire as many Oakland Art Deco and Beaux Arts buildings as they can, and at the same time take advantage of the tax laws favoring adaptive reuse redevelopment. Oakland was and is rich in Art Deco buildings, and Phil saw an untapped market in their reuse. But one building Phil had his eye on was The Oakland Rotunda.
The Oakland Rotunda And The Birth Of The Phil Tagami You Think You Know
Phil wanted to redevelop the crown-jewel of Oakland Beaux Arts buildings, the former home of Kahn’s Department Store, and then Liberty House Department Store, the Oakland Rotunda, to its once great stature. The building, which had stood for decades as an empty and decrepit symbol of Oakland’s social failures and ills, was the focus of a hilarious number of rebuldings efforts led by the City of Oakland. Funny only because each one failed, and the City of Oakland spent $7 million of tax payers money in the process.
Phil believed he could assemble the team to make the Oakland Rotunda whole again, and it was something he never stopped talking about. In 1995, Elihu Harris made me his economic advisor, and one of the projects I took on was helping Phil see his dream come true, and for good reason.
Aside from our desires for the City of Oakland, the departments of economic development and of housing, and which housed the city officials responsible for selecting developers for the Rotunda, were stiff-arming Phil. He presented a sheet of phone calls, 96 in all, to a certain person who will go unnamed for this, and about the Rotunda – none of them were returned.
Meanwhile, the City of Oakland has amassed a pile of studies on the Oakland Rotunda that was almost two feet high. The collective inaction and waste of tax dollars on the Rotunda was becoming a cruel joke.
So, with the Mayor’s blessing, I placed the Rotunda on the agenda for the morning Community and Economic Development Agency Committee Meeting in September of 1996, and went as the Mayor’s representative, and with that bundle of studies. When my item, the Rotunda matter, came up, I raised the package up and personally advocated for Phil to get the project.
To that point, Oakland had a bad habit of thinking that a white male out of town developer should get first, second, and third crack at Oakland redevelopment projects. It was pure institutional racism. The City of Oakland’s claim was that Phil lacked experience; but it was hiring white out-of-town developers who had no experience in California with politics, labor, personnel, or the local tax codes, and they all failed.
Due mostly to Phil’s hard work and of course that care for relationships and his charisma, as well as a practice of refusing to see racism (a lesson for all of us), Phil got the Rotunda project. A contract for $32 million. And for those who may wonder, none of us wanted anything other than to see Phil Tagami get the deal: that includes Mayor Harris, Russo, and then Interim City Manager Kofi Bonner, and myself. For me, Phil, my friend, the Oakland local, got the Rotunda. I knew he would bring the right people in and do a killer job, and he did. Sadly, he had to overcome the City of Oakland’s desire to eat him, and with each and every project, there was an example of the crab-barrel problem.
Take the Oakland Rotunda and the City Auditor’s Report of 2011. I wrote this in my SFGate.com “City Brights” blog post: “While Courtney Ruby tries to make it look like a non-biased report, she mentions Phil Tagami a whopping five times.”
And I continued:
“The so called audit report is a clear smear job and sad document I can’t even seriously call a report, but have to use the term for convention. Courtney should rethink and pull back on this one, because the way it was done is such that she, in my view, could be sued for it. It’s a clear character attack.
Why do I state that? Because in the report Ruby fails to state, even once, the long history of the Fox Theater. She only mentions that the Fox was purchased by the City in 1996. Nothing about how long the building was closed for – almost 30 years. Nothing about how much damage was done to the structure, including rotting support frames and extensive water damage from rains. Nothing about why the change orders were necessary. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zip.
Also nothing of the City of Oakland Community and Economic Development Agency’s (CEDA) own response to the report, something left out of the SF Chronicle’s account, even though the reporter was provided with the information.
For example, this is CEDA response to Ruby’s claim the Fox costs increased 172 percent or about $58 million:
The final development costs for the Fox Theater, including acquisition, pre-development, soft
and hard construction costs, was approximately $90.9 million. These actual costs were in
line with the development costs presented to the Council in 2001 and again in 2003 and 2004
for the complete restoration of the theater.
And there’s more. But it’s rather stupid to list every noted CEDA response here, when the one main issue – the real problem that led to the cost increases – is NEVER discussed.
The overall condition of the Fox Theater.
Folks, the Downtown Oakland Fox Theater was in worst shape that you can imagine, and I know this from my own visits to the Fox before Phil got involved in it, and from conversation with Phil over the years after he became involved in its renovation. Tagami took on an impossible job and did it.
City Auditor’s Report Is Awful,
In closing, for now, the City Auditor’s report is just plain awful, and a terrible smear job on a person who has suffered and sustained much to redevelop a building that many said could not be saved. Why Ruby chose to do this audit is the real question and one never asked until now. What Ruby did looks, feels, and smells like a hit job on one man, Phil Tagami.”
The Oakland Fox happened, again, because Phil stepped in where others the City of Oakland trusted, failed. The economic activity and national visibility the Fox has brought to Oakland is vastly more than the cost to renovate it – something the City of Oakland has never formally thanked Phil for.
Something else the City of Oakland has never thanked Phil for is how he’s helped people. It’s fair to say that any bar business you might walk into in Uptown Oakland had Phil’s monetary backing to some extent. Tagami’s given enough money to many people in need to start a small foundation. He has a track record of supporting local Oaklanders that’s arguably unmatched.
The Biggest Example Of City Of Oakland Hostility To Phil Tagami: The Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal
The Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal has been incorrectly described as a coal terminal and by media types who have committed continued mis-information malpractice when it comes to the project. The Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal wasn’t really Phil’s idea, it was the dream of Port of Oakland commissioners, staffers, and fans, and started as a call for a deep-water bulk terminal in the Oakland Sharing The Vision. In fact, it was the first project mentioned in the Oakland Sharing The Vision document.
Fast forward to 2008, and the too-slow-to-happen West Oakland Army Base Redevelopment Project. A series of developers answered the request for proposals, and Phil, this time with a giant New York real estate financing firm as his partner, answered it. Phil’s knoweldge of Oakland and relationships set him apart from the crowd of developers – his response was the only one to focus on basic industry and used the Port of Oakland’s dream project as its focus. The center of a giant cargo logistics city Phil envisioned for the old Army Base. Phil won the competition, and from the start, the focus of those in Oakland who are just plain scared of anything he might do.
From the start, the City of Oakland was a pre-development partner with Phil’s California Capital Investment Group. The City’s project manager, Pat Cashman, hired The Tioga Group to make a market study of what customers the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal should seek if it was to draw a profit. The Tioga Group focused on the coal industry and in a study that was commissioned in 2011 and released in 2012. It was also a study that the City of Oakland told the court didn’t exist in the Oakland Coal Ban lawsuit Phil filed in 2018. (It was one reason I was hired by OBOT co-developer Insight Terminal Solutions: to digitize the study and release it to the public in various online ways.)
In short, in the process of answering to a new money master named Tom Steyer (who gave $500,000 to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s Oakland Promise effort. Sorry, Libby, but its true, and you should be protecting our friend), and the local climate change activists he financed directly and indirectly, the City of Oakland turned around and worked to make Phil’s efforts a living hell, yet again. A lot of lies have been told about Phil and advanced by the media. Phil is not a coal developer (contrary to lies). The Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal is designed to be a low-emmission facility (contrary to lies). The Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal is not a coal terminal (contrary to lies). The Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal will provide good basic jobs for low skilled workers (contrary to lies).
The truth is that Phil Tagami has never given up on the real dream: a better Oakland. For that, the City of Oakland has played the role of the ultimate crab-barrel, pulling him down whenever it gets the chance.
And in closing, and to the crab-barrel media, I wrote this on my own, spontaneously. Deal with it. Because the lot of you are terrible people. God knows Phil deserves a medal for all that he’s done for Oakland. Period.
Zennie Abraham is the CEO of Zennie62Media