Michael Sturtz’s Plan for Alameda’s Carnegie Library Gets a Warm Reception
The self-styled creative provocateur and founder of The Crucible wants to turn the historic library into the Carnegie Innovation Hall, a state-of-the-art center for innovation that pairs educational programming and entrepreneurship with the arts, performance, music, and technology.
Photo of Michael Sturtz by Lance Yamamoto
The public seems to like a plan by Michael Sturtz to renovate and reinvent the historic 1903 Carnegie Library Building as the Carnegie Innovation Hall.
After a Feb. 13 City Hall presentation about a possible state-of-the-art center for innovation that pairs educational programming and entrepreneurship with the arts, performance, music, and technology, Sturtz got a round of applause. Members of the enthusiastic audience also asked how they could donate to the project, and some even handed cash to Sturtz.
While soft-spoken, Sturtz projects confidence and appears to be a man on a mission. On his website, he calls himself a creative provocateur who prides himself on creative new ways of imagining and doing things. If he gets his wish, the Carnegie Building will reopen as an important venue for private events and community classes — something the city and the public seemed ready to embrace.
He’ll need millions to realize the goal, but Sturtz may be able to pull it off. Now an Alamedan, Sturtz founded The Crucible, an industrial arts education facility in West Oakland, 20 years ago, with an initial grant of $1,750. It flourished under his 12-year tenure as executive director. Today it has an annual budget of over $3 million, 90 faculty, and 8,000 students, and is the largest U.S. nonprofit industrial arts education facility.
While the Innovation Hall won’t offer classes such as blacksmithing or welding like The Crucible, it will offer classes in video and television production and sound recording for children and adults in its smaller spaces along with youth summer camps and after-school programs. It could possibly house an Alameda High School Community Access Television Station.
The most crucial use of the building will be the rental of its main floor that features a beautiful vaulted ceiling and atrium as an event space for up to 600 people. High-end rentals such as concerts, corporate events, parties, weddings, birthdays, school dances, and proms could pay the bills.
Jennifer Stein, director of student activities at Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School, said at the meeting her school would rent the Innovation Hall to compensate for its limited on-campus space. “We have to do so many things offsite since we don’t have the space,” she said.
For the Carnegie to rise as the Innovation Hall, Sturtz needs major money: According to the city, the Carnegie Library may require $6 million in upgrades for occupancy, including: new electrical and interior lighting systems, a new heating system, fire sprinklers, more complete disabled access to the entire building, additional restrooms, and restoration or preservation of historic elements. An old elevator in the building has been decommissioned, and its reactivation is not included in the cost estimate. The adjacent Foster House — the old Children’s Library — may require more upgrades also not included in the estimate.
Sturtz knows that securing the funding for the renovation is vital to the project’s success, but he also said the Innovation Hall’s plan streamlines some of the city’s elaborate 2007 Master Plan for Renovation and Preservation of the Carnegie and makes it cheaper.
Sturtz seems to be getting things in order and said the Innovation Hall filed to obtain nonprofit status in October. “We’re just getting started,” he said.
Thanks to the connections he forged during his years at The Crucible and as an Alameda resident, Sturtz had no trouble assembling a team of 25 volunteers with experience in historic building restoration, architecture, education, fundraising, community engagement, venue design and use, business, and strategic planning to work on the project. All are listed with photos and experience on the slick Innovation Hall website.
One volunteer who has signed up to help raise money is Alamedan Ron Limoges, a retired strategic planner and fundraiser who is the chairman of the Alameda Recreation and Parks Commission. “It’s an uphill, but it’s a very good uphill if we get it right. Also, as a community with kids, it’s important to support kids, so there’s a lot of threads we can pull to get support,” he said.
Limoges said they’ll hold a traditional fundraising campaign that will seek donations, challenge gifts, and naming grants, but, most importantly, a few large donors in the form of leadership gifts from businesses and foundations. “A seven-figure gift is what we’re looking for,” he said. “I guess it will take two years to get all the funding.”
Limoges supported Sturtz’s vision. “He’s persuasive and his ideas are really strong. I like the idea of using a space that goes back to 1902. [The] Pinball Museum could’ve filled the building with 1,700 machines. It was a good potential use, but, ultimately, this is a better use of space for the community at large.”
Sturtz also has recruited Oakland resident Patricia Dedekian, a real estate agent and property manager who, as the past president of Oakland’s Friends of the Fox Theater, helped raise the $70 million to renovate and reopen the historic theater and unite various community groups behind that project. “The Fox didn’t return to its original use, and the Carnegie Building won’t either. The proposal had strong support at the February meeting. It has sentimental value for a lot of people and will be used in a new and exciting way.”
Sturtz, who said he has several major donors in mind but wouldn’t disclose them, has an aggressive fundraising timeline. “I think we’ll know in the first six months whether we’ll be able to raise the money needed for the project,” he said. If he can raise the money, Sturtz also has a very ambitious reopening date: the end of 2020.
A 2013 proposal from Alameda’s Pacific Pinball Museum to renovate and lease the Carnegie Library Building failed in 2017 when the Pinball Museum couldn’t raise the money needed for repairs to the building. But it was that unsuccessful proposal — Sturtz worked on it with the Pinball Museum’s founder, Michael Schiess, another Alamedan — that started his formal thinking about the reuse of the building.
Sturtz lives in a Victorian he restored over the past decade just steps from the Carnegie Building on Santa Clara. “I have walked by that building every day for a long time. It is my dream to use that building,” said Sturtz.
After the Pinball Museum withdrew, Sturtz began forming his proposal in spring 2018 when he and an architect met with city officials to discuss his idea. “That’s when the city realized I was serious and initiated the RFQ process. So, we’ve been ramping up for this for awhile.”
Sturtz said he and his team are open to all ideas for use of the Innovation Hall and isn’t trying to compete with existing Alameda entertainment or education venues. “We’re trying to bring something to Alameda that it doesn’t have.”
Amanda Gehrke, a management analyst for the city of Alameda’s Economic Development & Community Services, said the lease, once agreed upon between the city of Alameda and the Innovation Hall, will come before the city council for approval this spring. “We think this is a fantastic proposal,” she said.
The city also receiveed ar proposal in the RFQ process, by Peach LLC, led by Bobeck Preandian and Joann Guitarte, the owners of Café Jolie on Webster Street. However, a selection panel disqualified the proposal because scored it scored below the RFQ’s minimum threshold of 65 points.
The 115-year old Carnegie Free Library building has been closed and vacant for 20 years. In late 2018, the city sought requests for qualifications from companies or organizations interested in restoring and leasing the building and the adjacent Foster House. The goal was to find a tenant that would provide cultural, educational and/or economic benefits to the community while restoring and maintaining the character of the building and opening it for public use.
Constructed as the Alameda Free Library, it was one of the first three libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie to be built in California. It was designed by San Francisco architects William H. Wilcox and John M. Curtis and built by Alameda’s Foster & Son. The Foster House was the home of project contractor C.H. Foster whose house was converted into the Children’s Library after his death. It is a City of Alameda Historical Monument and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
To learn more about Carnegie Innovation Hall, visit CarnegieInnovationHall.org.