John Gordon is downtown Berkeley’s biggest booster.
“I’m a proponent of the downtown,” said the founder of Gordon Commercial Real Estate Services. “I live and work and buy buildings in Berkeley. It’s one of the few places in the East Bay that has a lively downtown at night.”
A major Berkeley property owner in his own right—he owns “more than ten” buildings in the city, six of them designated as city landmarks—Gordon is also the man to see about renting space along the downtown corridors.
“I see a lot of great things here. There’s been tremendous improvement over the last 10 years,” he said.
With nearly three decades in the East Bay commercial real estate market, Gordon says that claims about inadequate parking and abundant vacancies in downtown Berkeley are overblown.
Gordon moved to Berkeley in 1976, and after a brief residency in Oakland, he moved to the Elmwood neighborhood in 1988, where he’s lived ever since.
After 15 years as a commercial real estate broker for Grubb & Ellis, he started his own firm in Berkeley in June 1995, which has since become the major player in the downtown area.
“We’re transitioning out of an era when you used to see businesses that needed 100,000 square feet” in urban centers, he said. “Now downtown urban areas like San Francisco attract businesses that concentrate to service the commercial tenants” in offices “or retailers where you can order items”—a catalog store, or, in modern retailing parlance, a “clicks and bricks” merchandiser.
As an example of the former, he cites Cartridge World at 2161 Allston Way, a business that refills printer and copier cartridges, and as an example of the latter variety he points to Design Within Reach at 1770 Fourth St., a home furnishings display showroom.
“The challenge is to find space with access for delivery and parking where customers can load their purchases,” Gordon said.
One possible solution, he said, might be to reserve some meters for particular retailers.
Even so, he said, “there can’t be more than 10 vacancies downtown.”
There are three major retail spaces now for rent along the downtown Shattuck corridor: the 8,000-square-foot ground floor retail space in the Kress Building, which Gordon owns, at 2036 Shattuck Ave. and the adjoining vacant storefronts at 2201-2209 Shattuck that earlier this year housed Eddie Bauer and Gateway Computers.
The Gateway store, a consistent earner, closed as result of the computer maker’s decision to shutter all its retail outlets and rely on sales through the Internet and established retailers, mostly discounters.
The local Eddie Bauer, however, was a consistent money-loser and was closed as part of a general downsizing by the parent firm, Spiegel & Co.
Filling the bigger spaces has proven a challenge because of competition from major shopping centers in Emeryville and El Cerrito, he acknowledges.
“Many retailers like to cluster,” he said. “That’s why there are so many clothing stores on Telegraph.”
Gordon says he’s confident he’ll find tenants.
Downtown Berkeley offers unique opportunities for retailers, Gordon said. “We have 75,000 people a day coming through downtown Berkeley, and there are 88,000 people within the marketing area,” defined as from North Berkeley to Highway 24 and from Sacramento Street to the Berkeley Hills.
“Education is the most important thing in attracting retail, and within the marketing area you have a population where 64 percent have bachelor’s degrees and 32 percent have advanced degrees,” he said. “That makes us look very attractive to retailers.”
While many argue that difficulty in finding parking poses a major challenge to downtown Berkeley, Gordon acknowledges that “we’re not Walnut Creek. You may have to walk three blocks to the store, but people forget that you’ll walk just as far from your parking space in a mall to the store you want.”
Lots offer parking during the day, and at night even more lots are available, including the UC lots and the Great Western parking lot.
“This is not like North Beach in San Francisco,” he said. “Talk about parking problems on Saturday night!”
Another solution he offers is parking at the BART stations on Ashby and North Berkeley and riding the train one stop to the downtown BART station.
Gordon said the rapidly increasing number of apartments and condominiums in the downtown area will also draw more retailers.
“The more people there are who are out at night, the safer the streets,” he said.
And what about the downtown area’s lack of a grocery store?
“It will follow when the density is here. It might be smaller, like the stores in New York City that offer delivery,” he said.
The 12-story hotel UC Berkeley plans for the northeast corner of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street would offer another plus for the downtown, he said, as would the associated museums and meeting facilities.
The projected hotel site, now the location of a single-story Bank of America branch and accompanying parking lot, once housed its own 12-story building, which was torn down decades ago.
“Having a parking lot there isn’t a good use of the land,” he added.
Gordon says he is a leading proponent of the Downtown Arts District, especially the Addison Street corridor west of Shattuck with the Berkeley Repertory and Aurora theaters, the Jazzschool and the future site of Freight and Salvage Music House.
When completed, the one-block stretch will offer a capacity of 1,700 seats for nighttime performances.
He is also a member of the Downtown Berkeley Association and the Business Improvement District—which, he points out, differs from the Telegraph Avenue B.I.D. in that not only property owners are included but the tenants and users as well.
While some might accuse Gordon of looking at the downtown through rose-colored glasses, he’s been investing heavily in his vision.
“People are coming, and it’s a good place to be,” he said.