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Bustling downtown nightlife on City’s wish list

By Kimberlee Bortfeld Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday October 04, 2001

At midnight on Saturday, the Shattuck Down Low Lounge, Berkeley’s newest downtown nightclub, pulsed with activity. But outside, the streets stood silent. Theatergoers exiting Shattuck Cinemas bee-lined to their cars, and the manager at nearby Original Mel’s Diner closed up for the night. Even Starbucks, a bastion of insomnia, slumbered in the dark. 

“This is the busiest block in downtown, and there’s nobody around,” said Sergeant Abebe Lemma of PR&T Security, a private security firm hired by the theater’s property owner to patrol the area until 2 a.m. “It’s no San Francisco.” 

Not yet. But city officials hope that the activity at the Down Low marks the birth of a nightlife.  

“We don’t want a place that dies at 5 p.m.,” said Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing downtown. “We want a downtown with activity at all hours of the day and night.” 

The association’s efforts began in 1989 at the behest of downtown property and business owners seeking to invigorate the area lacking in vitality. To that end, some $150 million has been spent for public and private development projects, according to Badhia. Restaurants such as Via Centro and Santa Fe Bistro developed outdoor seating, and the new 91-unit Gaia building went up. The city also loaned $4 million to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre for its expansion and doled out $1.2 million to other arts groups seeking to move into the area. 

But even Badhia and her cohorts understand that it will take time for late night customers to reach the critical mass necessary to keep more businesses open.  

The Shattuck Down Low Lounge, one of two downtown establishments to receive approval for an expanded hours use permit this year, represents one of the tests.  

“We get people all the way up to 1:45 a.m.,” said Ace Johnson as he checked IDs of customers entering the club at 2284 Shattuck. Johnson estimated that there were already 175 to 200 people inside the club, which opened in July. It can hold 344.  

“It’s a pretty swanky club,” said Andro Hsu, a UC Berkeley graduate student who just moments earlier had been one of the 50 people out on the floor dancing to the jazz-fusion band Sfunk. “I’d come back.” 

“The club itself is gorgeous,” said Sara Roth, 24. “This could be a hotspot. It’s got so much potential.” 

Daniel Cukierman, the owner, stood at the edge of the dance floor, satisfied with his take. He said he makes enough, especially on weekends, to offset his expenses. “I’m taking my time. Right now, I want to build a nice clientele.” 

But how much time before downtown’s nightlife picks up is unclear.  

Since the mid-1990s, several arts groups and restaurants have established themselves in the area, among them Capoeira Arts Café, Downtown and Venus. Moreover, the city’s 1990 Downtown Plan, which guides future development, specifically “encourages nighttime and weekend activities that provide a longer period of activity in the area” and calls for incentives such as tax benefits and density bonuses to promote growth.  

“The mayor recognizes that for a city to thrive, it needs a vibrant downtown that attracts people from both within the city and outside of it,” said Jennifer Drapeau, chief of staff for Mayor Shirley Dean. “A lot is happening now and more will be happening soon. It’s an ongoing effort.” 

Drapeau said that within the next few months the Aurora Theatre and JazzSchool will be opening on Addison Street. In addition, Freight and Salvage, Shotgun Players and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra are trying to secure space in the area. Drapeau also said that the mayor is working with city and university-owned garages to increase parking options for nighttime visitors.  

But for night owls, bar hoppers and club goers, there are still few post-midnight options. The last movies at Shattuck Cinemas and United Artists Berkeley begin at 11 p.m. And on one recent Saturday at 1 a.m., only Down Low, Beckett’s Irish Pub and Restaurant, Jupiter, Thalassa, Au Coquelet Café and Sun Hong Kong Restaurant remained open. 

Ciaran McDunphy, manager at Beckett’s, which opened eight months ago, said that part of the problem is perception. “We have to think: Why is it quiet on Saturday night? It’s because people are going to the city. But why are people going to the city? It’s because they think that there’s nothing in Berkeley.” 

At Jupiter, 70 people sat in the outdoor beer garden. Doorman Paul Tatum said that many patrons are stunned by the lack of clubs in Berkeley. “There’s a massive pull to the city (San Francisco),” he said, because “club hoppers require options. They want to go from one place to another and that requires a strip of clubs all within walking distance.” Tatum said that Berkeley lacks the “romantic aestheticism” of San Francisco and that it would take “a massive effort” to get people to come to Berkeley. 

Nevertheless, Tatum and others continue to work to make it happen and try to share the night owls who do show up. “If people want to dance, I send them across the street,” said McDunphy. “If people want a microbrewery, I send them to Jupiter. We all talk. It’s in our best interest. The more people who come downtown, the better it is for everyone.” 

But the Downtown Berkeley Association believes it will happen: A recent report issued by the organization points out that the ground floor vacancy rate in downtown was less than 4 percent in 2000 compared to 16 percent in 1992. 

Key to developing a night clientele are new residents. The 91-unit Gaia building on Allston Way opened this summer and another 300 housing units are two years from completion. 

Mary Lee, an undergraduate at UC Berkeley who just moved into the Gaia building, said she enjoys the convenience of her new apartment and the shops, but adds that they shut down by 9 p.m. “After midnight only a few bars are open,” she says. “Nothing really happens here.”