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Putting Telegraph in Perspective

By Judith Scherr
Friday August 17, 2007

The hysteria of Cody’s closing having subsided, merchants and city officials have had time to evaluate what’s caused customers to frequent Telegraph Avenue less often. Chain stores going belly up, high rents and city bureaucracy are among the problems cited. 

“Sometimes there are reasons that have nothing to do with Telegraph,” said Roland Peterson, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District. One is the impact bankruptcy of national chains have had on The Avenue. A big loss was when Tower Records, a regional draw, went out of business last year, Peterson said. It’s left a large empty building on Durant Avenue off of Telegraph.  

Another was Berkeley Athlete’s Foot. While the local store was profitable, the chain was not, Peterson said. And when the Gap sold off some 20 percent of its stores, the Telegraph Avenue store was among them. 

Another problem is the high rents charged on Telegraph, said Jeff Goldberg, whose business, Framer’s Workshop, has been on The Avenue 30 years.  

“I think the market rate has forced a lot of businesses to go elsewhere or in some cases, not really make it,” said Goldberg whose store is city owned, part of the municipal parking structure. Goldberg says his rent rate is “quite good.” 

While the city has been helpful in some ways, bureaucracy sometimes gets in the way of progress on Telegraph, such as the vacant storefront at Bancroft Way and Telegraph, directly across the street from the university. Councilmember Kriss Worthington said that the owners had brought retrofit plans to the Planning Department four different times; each time the city came up with a new requirement.  

“These people are willing to spend three-quarters of a million dollars to seismically upgrade the building and the city is throwing obstacle after obstacle in their path,” Worthington said. “The city has to get better at telling people what it wants them to do the first time.” 

Reached Wednesday, Planning Director Dan Marks confirmed the problem, but underscored how difficult it is to retrofit a historic building and bring it up to code for disabled access. The city had been working with outside plan checkers and he was only recently informed of the problem, Marks said. 

Now he is bringing the project in-house to speed it along. “It’s complicated. Maybe it should have been in-house earlier,” he said. “We are bending over backwards to get this thing going for them.” 

Dave Fogarty of the city’s economic development division points to changing demographics in Berkeley as one reason for fewer people shopping on The Avenue. The middle class is getting older and more conservative, he said.  

And, there’s been a change in the student body—they’re more interested in computers and technology, Fogarty said: “Telegraph has not adapted.” On Peterson’s wish list is an Apple Store on Telegraph Avenue. 

Fogarty pointed to competition, which has grown over the years—especially Emeryville. He also said he thinks the emergence of other shopping areas has changed how people perceive shopping. In a mall, for example, panhandling can be outlawed. People then become used to shopping in that environment, he said.  

Peterson said Telegraph has missed out by not taking advantage of the 15,000-strong faculty and staff with disposable income. He’d like to see a better mix of businesses, such as a Men’s Warehouse-type store and some slightly higher-priced restaurants—“somewhere between McDonald’s and Chez Panisse,” he said..