Column: The Public Eye: Support Locally Owned Berkeley Retail (WhileYou Still Can) By ZELDA BRONSTEIN

Tuesday September 27, 2005

One of the many nice things about Berkeley is our town’s neighborhood shopping districts. Their linear form is a legacy of the city’s early twentieth century development as a streetcar suburb. Their distinctiveness is a holdover of another sort: unlike much American retail, this city still abounds in unique mercantile enterprise, a lot of it locally owned and operated.  

As the daughter of independent small entrepreneurs—for 36 years, my parents ran a music store in South San Francisco—I appreciate Berkeley’s homegrown shops and the effort it takes to keep them running. As a resident of Thousand Oaks, I’m glad to have a shopping street (Solano Avenue) within walking distance of my house.  

Of course, commerce can impair as well as enhance a neighborhood. For that reason, the Berkeley Zoning Ordinance includes laws governing both specific neighborhood commercial districts and neighborhood commerce in general. With a few exceptions (Downtown and South Berkeley), these laws make it clear that their primary purpose is to encourage and maintain business that serves the neighborhood. That stipulation may sound innocuous; in fact, it’s generated some nasty disputes.  

Here’s why. To be truly neighborhood-serving, a commercial district needs variety. Aiming to maintain a diverse retail mix, five of the seven district-specific commercial ordinances—those governing Solano, the Elmwood, Telegraph, Central (Downtown) and North Shattuck—limit the number of certain kinds of businesses that are permitted in their area. Absent regulation, some uses—most notably, food services (as they’re known in plannerese), but in some districts, both purveyors of clothing and of personal care (beauty supplies, manicures)—will crowd out other sorts of retail.  

To observe food service run amok, check out the scene around Hearst and Euclid. Here, where there are no quotas, 22 of 33 businesses are restaurants or other food establishments. In effect, the area has become an off-campus cafeteria for the university.  

But food services have also multiplied to excess in commercial districts that have quotas—for example, Solano and the Elmwood.  

The quotas haven’t worked for a simple reason: selective enforcement. In his Sept. 13 memo to the City Council, “Revision of the Elmwood Business District Quotas” (Item 18 on this week’s council agenda), Councilmember Wozniak states: “there is a feeling among [Elmwood] merchants that the quotas have not been consistently enforced.”  

It’s more than a feeling; it’s a conviction rooted in documented fact. Last December, the council held a public hearing on Jeremy’s controversial, quota-busting application to expand its 2161 College Ave. shop into the adjacent storefront at 2163 College. At that time, city staff admitted that in issuing Jeremy’s its original use permit for 2161 College, they had already violated the Elmwood’s quota on clothing stores. Nevertheless, staff recommended approval of the expansion.  

Official negligence also contributed to the food fight over the new La Farine on Solano last winter. Everyone was thrilled to have another classy bakery in the neighborhood. The problem was that the Zoning Adjustments Board had granted La Farine a use permit for table service, which is to say, a use permit for a restaurant, not just a bakery. Solano in Berkeley already had 20 sit-down food services, which is to say eight over the legally permissible number, and that’s not counting the three operating without restaurant permits. Concerned neighbors pointed out that use permits are granted to addresses, not specific businesses. When La Farine departs, any other food service, including the greasiest of greasy spoons, can legally take its place.  

The council cavalierly dismissed both an Elmwood merchant’s appeal of Jeremy’s expansion and three Thousand Oaks residents’ appeal of La Farine’s restaurant use permit. In the case of Jeremy’s, councilmembers said the fault lay with the law! With La Farine, the council dismissed the appeal “on consent,” meaning that it accepted planning staff’s specious defense of the ZAB’s action with no discussion.  

A different sort of dereliction was exhibited by the planning commission in April 2004. At the behest of the Northside Merchant Association, the city council had unanimously asked the commission (for the third time in a row) to establish restaurant and food service quota systems similar to the ones on Solano, College and Telegraph Avenues. Instead, the commission voted 5-3-1 to endorse staff’s recommendation “that the Planning Commission advise the Council not to direct further action” on the matter (for the record, I cast one of the no votes). And indeed, no further action has been “directed.”  

To let food service creep go unabated or, worse, to abet it, is to surrender to the crudest market forces. Most retailers are tenants. Landlords like to rent to eateries because they yield much higher rents than other sorts of retail. I asked Berkeley commercial real estate broker John Gordon how food services can afford to pay more. “Food services have higher sales per square foot,” he explained. That’s partly because there’s a more constant demand for their product. “How often,” Gordon asked, “do you buy a pair of shoes, compared to how often you eat out?” Not very often, especially these days. “A generation ago,” writes Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, “three-quarters of the money used to buy food in the United States was spent to prepare meals at home. Today about half of the money used to buy food is spent at restaurants...”  

Berkeley Office of Economic Development staffer Dave Fogarty agrees. An “increasing proportion of upper and middle-income household expenditures,” he says, “are going to eating, and less to traditional retail.” He adds that the demand for interesting food experiences is being met in part by an influx of immigrants with culinary skills, entrepreneurial backgrounds and ambitions, and long-hour/low-wage prospectuses. Meanwhile, “classic retail has been hurt by the displacement of demand to malls and discounters.” Throw in the Internet (no sales tax) and chain stores. “What’s left is restaurants and hair salons.”  

Fogarty was exaggerating. But clearly, the challenges facing “traditional” merchants are formidable. In the past few years, several revered Berkeley booksellers—Gaia, Easy Going and Shambhala—have closed their doors. Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that neither of the two Cody’s Books in town is turning a profit.  

If we—meaning the city government, the merchants and the consuming public—had done everything possible to ensure that diverse, independent local retail had a future in Berkeley, then the outlook would be grim. The good news, so to speak, is that so far we’ve done very little. Here, then, are some suggestions for action:  

For the city, the obvious first step is to start enforcing the zoning laws—consistently. In this regard, the council’s decisions about the Elmwood quotas will be a bellwether; Councilmember Wozniak is actually proposing to increase the number of food services allowed in the district. Bad idea.  

Next step: implement, i.e. fund, the “Shop Local and Shop Berkeley Campaign” that the consultants Brion & Associates developed for the city in Winter 2002. Commissioned at the urging of Councilmember Maio, that proposal outlines strategies for promoting Berkeley’s varied retail districts, citing similar, successful efforts in Boulder, Austin and downtown Los Angeles.  

At the same time, the council should rescind its spring 2005 directive to staff to prepare plans for commercializing Gilman and Ashby west of San Pablo—areas now mainly zoned for mixed-use/light industry. Initiated by Mayor Bates without prior consultation with either West Berkeley businesses or merchants elsewhere in the city, much less a market study, this project will deal a body blow to our industry, artists and artisans, while draining patronage from the existing neighborhood commercial districts.  

As for the merchants: Amy Thomas, who owns and operates Pegasus and Pendragon Bookstores, is planning to start a Berkeley version of the new San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Association. “The idea,” she says, “is to get people to recognize that there are very good reasons to shop local: more money stays in the community, and we have businesspeople who respond to local needs.” Very good idea.  

Finally, there’s the rest of us, Berkeley residents and consumers. We need to balance our wish to save time and money with our desire to live in a place whose commerce isn’t dominated by giant corporations and their distant managers (and bank accounts), a place that’s a lot like the one we still inhabit but won’t be for long unless we make it our business to shop there. Shop local, shop Berkeley.a