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South Berkeley Neighbors Dream of Fancy Pizza

Friday February 13, 2004

South Berkeley neighbors are starving for a pizza restaurant. But a Berkeley zoning ordinance is keeping ovens cold and espresso machines on ice at Spud’s, a trendy pizzeria planned for the corner of Alcatraz Avenue and Adeline Street. 

“I’m stymied,” said Andrew Beretvas, an Oakland restaurateur who has sunk $100,000 into a South Berkeley landmark only to get caught so deeply in Berkeley’s zoning morass that his landlord and chief financial backer is pulling out of the project. 

Beretvas hopes to turn a former guitar shop into a trendy restaurant, serving health-conscious pizza—highlighted by a potato recipe—salads, coffee and pastries. The 1910 building features cathedral ceilings, ornate columns and seating for 100. Hoping to appeal to a hip clientele, the shop would stay open until midnight, providing foot traffic in a blighted neighborhood often devoid of business activity after dark. 

His vision has captured the hearts of surrounding neighborhood groups, two of which have collected signatures on his behalf. 

“This is the type of business we’ve wanted here,” said Anne Healy, a retired UC Berkeley professor and member of the Lorin Neighborhood Association. “Finally we’d have something open late that would help get dealers away from our neighborhood, but the city just throws road blocks up all the time.” 

The chief obstacle, Beretvas says, is a zoning law triggering a city parking requirement when a business applies for a Change of Use Permit and its stringent application by the city attorney’s office. 

For Spud’s, this means the restaurant must provide 12 parking spaces at a building constructed about the time the Model T was introduced and in a neighborhood where even the most immediate neighbors say parking is not a problem. 

Beretvas says his quest to meet his parking requirement has been an exercise in futility. 

He had a deal with nearby Progressive Missionary Church—the only viable parking option within the 300-square-foot radius mandated by the city—but planners had to the pull the deal on the day it was to go before the ZAB because the city attorney’s office correctly noted it violated Berkeley law governing business dealings with nonprofits. 

That law was quickly changed, but the church then backed out when it learned Spud’s would serve beer and wine. 

Beretvas dropped the alcohol, but the parking deal fell apart a third time when the city attorney’s office ruled that, as in other cases throughout the city, the church would be required to sign a deed restriction guaranteeing to provide the 12 spaces, which the church contended would be an unacceptable restriction on its control of its parking supply. 

Planners came up with what they believed was a legal escape clause in the agreement, allowing the church to reclaim the parking spaces with only 30 days notice, but then Beretvas’ landlord and business partner Allan Cadgene, who had pledged $150,000 towards the project, pulled out. “I’m not putting money in to finance a restaurant if the church can kill it in 30 days and the city can rescind our use permit,” he said. 

This isn’t the first time rigid zoning ordinances have jeopardized South Berkeley business, said Alcatraz Merchants Association President and owner of People’s Bazaar, Sam Dykes. 

“The city is supposed to be friendly for business, but an empty storefront with young men hanging around outside isn’t the ideal situation,” he said. 

Berkeley Real Estate Agent John Gordon said restrictive zoning rules have left storefronts empty throughout the city because prospective merchants can’t provide parking. 

His negotiations to bring Peet’s coffee to the former Houston’s Shoes storefront on Shattuck Avenue have been hung up over the city rule requiring Peet’s to provide three deed-restricted parking spaces at a nearby garage. 

“No garage owner would agree to a deed restriction,” Gordon said.  

To skirt the parking requirement, Peet’s can ask the Zoning Adjustment Board for a waiver because downtown zoning rules gives the ZAB discretion over parking requirements for businesses in mixed use buildings. But under current zoning rules on Adeline, Beretvas must provide the parking, much to the frustration of Planning Director Dan Marks. 

“We don’t like making people jump through hoops to do business in this way,” Marks said, adding that the zoning code offered no flexibility to grant Beretvas a variance since he would have to show that his pizzeria was “a unique property, different from everyone else.” 

Marks is pushing for greater flexibility in zoning rules, advocated by the Mayor’s Task Force on Permitting and Development. The controversial body, with a strong pro-development bent, recommended making zoning rules more flexible, including offering parking waivers to business owners like Beretvas who can show an ample parking supply exists near their business. 

The city council will hear task force recommendation next week and prioritize them for the planning department to tackle over this year, Marks said. An amendment that could spare Beretvas his parking requirement could come within six months, he added. 

Beretvas, meanwhile, is hoping to get a business loan to keep his project viable. Tables, chairs and stools are already assembled in his cavernous space. He received a use permit by signing a three-month agreement with the owner of a soon-to-be developed empty lot and he said he could be open by April if he gets his long-term parking and financing problems settled. 

“This place is a slam dunk,” he said. “There isn’t a restaurant like this for a mile around. I’ve got to find a way to make this happen.”