For a city whose downtown recently has been characterized more by empty storefronts than thriving shops, Longs Drugs offers Berkeley an enticing opportunity.
Aside from its standard inventory of pain relievers, packaged food and beauty supplies, the national chain estimates it would provide $100,000 in sales tax revenue in downtown Berkeley where this year, three national chain stores have already pulled out and the most recent city study conducted last year showed a retail vacancy rate hovering around 10 percent—more than double the tally from four years ago.
But Berkeley doesn’t want everything Longs has to offer. Unlike most chain drug stores, Longs sells beer and wine, and company executives have insisted the proposed store at 2300 Shattuck Ave. at the corner of Bancroft Way—700 feet from Berkeley High School—not be an exception.
That doesn’t sit well with school and city officials. Last November, at the urging of School Board President John Selawsky, the school board voted 3-2 to oppose the store. Then in February of this year, the Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB) unanimously voted to deny Longs its beer and wine license.
Now if the City Council votes to uphold the ZAB’s ruling at tonight’s meeting (Tuesday, May 25), as recommended by City Manager Phil Kamlarz, company executives have told city officials that the deal is off and the storefront at 2300 Shattuck will remain empty as it has been since 2001.
The company wants a standard product line and that includes beer and wine, said Longs spokesperson Phyllis Proffer. Although, the Longs on Solano Avenue in Albany doesn’t sell any alcoholic beverages, Proffer said larger stores like the planned 15,500-square-foot outlet downtown would need to include all of the company’s inventory.
To keep beer and wine out of the hands of students, Longs has pledged to install cameras in the alcoholic beverages section and electronically tag the items so they would set off an alarm at the front security gates if anyone tried to shoplift them.
Under most circumstances, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) would rule on Longs request for a beer and wine license. But when Longs applied in 2002, ABC couldn’t grant one because the store is in an “over-concentrated area.” According to a memo from ABC, there are already three off-sale licenses in the census where Longs would set up shop, yet the population authorizes only two licenses. To grant a license, the city would have to obtain a finding of Public Convenience or Necessity, a ruling the Zoning Adjustment Board refused to make.
“They didn’t give us the [financial data] to back up their claims [that they needed to sell beer and wine], and that was the real problem,” said ZAB Commissioner David Blake.
For Ed Kikumoto, a community organizer for the Oakland-based Alcohol Policy Network, the only figure that matters is the 700 feet the store would sit from the high school.
Despite Longs’ assurances of technological surveillance, Kikumoto argued that chain stores, in general, pose a bigger risk than convenience stores like the E-Z Stop Deli one block away that sells liquor in addition to beer and wine.
“With a small store you can hold the owner accountable, but bigger stores have difficulty controlling their clerks,” he said. There have been several documented instances, Kikumoto added, in which clerks in a chain store have sold alcoholic beverages to their friends.
But according to the results of a recent Berkeley and UC Police sting operation, shopkeepers aren’t putting up a lot of resistance to teenagers thirsty for alcohol.
A March sweep found that 14 of 26 targeted stores were willing to sell to minors—five times the average violation rate.
When it comes to Downtown Berkeley, Police Chief Roy Meisner doesn’t want any more shops to monitor. He wrote to ABC and the city’s planing department that beer and wine sales at Longs would be expected to “add crime to the area.” The census tract already is 97 percent above the city average in calls where an officer suspected drugs or alcohol were involved.
2003 Berkeley High Graduate Joseph Issel, however, doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. When his friends wanted to drink during school hours they went as far away from campus as possible, he said. “The closer you are to the school, the higher the risk of getting caught,” said Issel.
His mother, school board director Shirley Issel, one of the two directors to oppose the resolution against Longs, said the campaign was a poor substitute for having a “proactive and preventative policy against drugs and alcohol.”
“We have a policy where the motivation appears to be against corporations instead of in support of healthy children,” she said.
If current trends continue in the downtown, there is reason to be leery of chain stores. So far this year, Eddie Bauer and Gateway Computers have closed shop and See’s Candies has announced plans to do the same.
Bonnie Hughes, who lives on the same block as the proposed Longs and has worked with Kikumoto and School Board President Selawsky to oppose the project, fears that opening a Longs just three blocks from a Walgreens will ultimately result in more stores closings.
“I don’t think you can have two drug stores in three blocks. Their whole point is to drive out other businesses,” she said. “That’s not a good neighbor and that won’t increase the tax base.”
Hughes, who would prefer a food market at the site, worries that the E-Z Stop Deli, which she said has been a “stabilizing force” downtown whose owners have proved adept at dealing with high school students, would be Long’s first casualty.
Ted Burton of the city’s office of economic development argued that Longs, which has promised to carry produce at the downtown store, caters to a different market than Walgreens (which doesn’t serve alcoholic beverages or fresh food) or E-Z Stop (which is a combination deli and liquor store). The project’s architect Jim Novosel insists the store could bring in $100,000 in sales revenue, the same as its North Berkeley store, Burton said the city hasn’t performed its own sales tax analysis.
If the council upholds the ZAB ruling, finding another tenant at 2300 Shattuck (also known as the Coder building) won’t be easy said Jim Novosel, the project’s architect. The building, owned by the Lakireddy family, needs seismic bracing to house a retail outlet. The revenue from a lease with Longs was to be the catalyst to upgrade the building and renovate the three floors of vacant office space above the retail site.
“Without Longs, the owners won’t have the economic ability to make improvements,” Novosel said. “The building will remain a dark hole in the fabric of downtown.”