Uber expands into Oakland, moves into iconic Sears building

OAKLAND, Calif. (BCN) -  Ride-booking service Uber Technologies has purchased the former Sears building in downtown Oakland for a massive planned expansion of its corporate headquarters, making it one of the city's largest employers.

Oakland city leaders greeted the announcement with unbridled enthusiasm.

"Uber is an innovative, game-changing company and its move to Oakland is game-changing for us," Mayor Libby Schaaf said Wednesday afternoon.

The company's expansion to Oakland makes the city the "hottest new center for urban innovation in America," Schaaf said.

City Council president Lynette Gibson McElhaney said that as the deal to bring Uber into Oakland was taking shape, she kept thinking, "Is it true? Is it true? I'll bring out the pom-poms."

"It's going to be great when you open those windows and see all those Uber employees bringing their Uber enthusiasm into downtown Oakland," Gibson McElhaney said. "Uber gets to be a part of that magic soup that's distinctly ours."

The expansion into Oakland will make Uber one of the city's largest employers. The company will house 2,000 to 3,000 employees at 1955 Broadway, placing it immediately among the top 10 employers in Oakland and making it the city's largest non-government or health care employer.

But the expansion doesn't mean that Uber is abandoning plans for a new 423,000-square-foot headquarters in San Francisco's Mission Bay neighborhood. The company is instead planning to expand its operations into both locations.

"Our growth has been tremendous," Uber's global head of people and places Renee Atwood said Wednesday.

The company is operating in 300 cities in 60 countries but is committed to keeping its global headquarters in the Bay Area, Atwood said. Uber may even expand into other nearby buildings.

Uber has roughly 2,000 current Bay Area employees working in its corporate offices and expects to more than double that in the next few years. About 20 percent of those employees currently live in the East Bay, Atwood said.

In addition to the corporate employees, 160,000 California residents work as drivers, with the East Bay being one of Uber's fastest-growing markets, Atwood said.

The drivers are not considered full-time employees but independent contractors -- a classification that has come under scrutiny by courts and regulatory agencies in recent months.

Atwood could not provide figures on the number of drivers working in the Bay Area or demographics for its corporate employees Wednesday, but she said that integrating into Oakland and hiring a diverse staff will be priorities for Uber.

"One of the goals in selecting the building was to stay true to the rich history of Oakland," Atwood said, promising to preserve the historic facade of the building, which is currently under renovation.

The 370,000-square-foot building first opened in 1927 and for decades housed the H.C. Capwell department store. It was severely damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and Sears took it over in 1994, operating it for 20 years more.

Real estate development firm Lane Partners purchased it last year when Sears closed. Now dubbed "Uptown Station," plans for the building include a large food court in an open-air market on the ground floor with the Uber offices in the upper six floors.

A long-closed entrance to the 19th Street BART station inside the building will reopen, providing a path directly into the market.

Uber is expected to move in sometime in 2017. Schaaf said there were no tax incentives offered to the company for moving in and so far no particular charitable outreach has been arranged.

"We have some time to merge a very thoughtful partnership," Schaaf said.

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm from the city's elected officials, Uber's massive expansion into Oakland could prove controversial in a city historically noted for political activism and union organizing.

Uber has created headaches for regulatory agencies, including issues with drivers' insurance, handicapped access and airport pickups. Taxi companies have maintained staunch opposition to the company, which provides an extremely similar service with far fewer regulatory restrictions.

But with the company now owning a large building in downtown Oakland, it seems certain it will remain a staple of the city for years to come.

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