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Elmwood Hardware to Close for Remodel, Might Not Reopen

By Richard Brenneman
Friday August 24, 2007

Elmwood Hardware, a fixture-selling fixture of the Berkeley scene for 84 years, will close next month for extensive remodeling, said owner Tad Laird. 

Whether it will reopen remains in question, he said. 

Bolfing’s Elmwood Hardware, at 2951 College Ave., first opened its doors in 1923 and has served the neighborhood continuously ever since. 

“We have to empty the store to do our remodeling. While we will keep our fingers crossed, there’s no guaranteeing that we will reopen as a hardware store,” Laird said. 

The space now occupied by the store will be subdivided into two commercial spaces, “and we hope to be able to get one of them open by Christmas,” he said. 

Whatever happens, the change is good news for Johnny Williams, who owns the building’s other tenant, Boss Robot Hobby at 2953 College. 

“He’s told us that we’ll be getting half the hardware store space, and we can really use it,” said Williams. “We’ve outgrown this space several times over. So at least some good will come out of it.” 

The hardware store is a popular neighborhood institution, but Laird has said the relatively small size of the store and a lack of in-house warehouse space has made business difficult. 

One possible clue to the store’s fate was posted on the store’s front window along with “sale” signs Wednesday night, a SPACE FOR LEASE sign advertising 1,550 square feet of prime retail space. 

The hardware store has to vacate before the first phase of work can begin, which will see the removal of hazardous building materials such as asbestos and possible lead-based paint. 

“We hope to have all the merchandise out by the middle of September, and though I may be overly optimistic, we’d like to be open again by Christmas.” 

But just who will occupy the hardware store’s remaining half of the space remains in question. 

The building’s other tenant, Elmwood Stationers, will remain in its current space at 2947 College to the north of the hardware store. 

The potential closing of one of the avenue’s last neighborhood-serving businesses may mark the end of an era, said one nearby merchant. 

Storefronts that once accommodated cobblers, a drug store, and other merchants and services that catered to those within walking distance have become the home to restaurants and upscale vendors serving a regional clientele.  


Expansion plans shot down 

At Laird’s own request, Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) declared the building at 2947-53 College Ave. a city landmark 13 months ago. 

During the same session, he presented commissioners with his plans to raise the building to three floors, adding office and warehouse space and four units of senior-oriented housing. 

Commissioners praised his proposal, which includes the restoration of the storefront to its original design, but his proposal ran aground over the housing when city planning department staff turned thumbs down. 

“They said they could not support variances needed for the project, but they said wished us all the best,” said Laird. “But I’ve talked with people at city hall who said this is just the kind of project the city needs.” 

The problem? His proposal called for too much building for the size of the site. 

Laird and his architects, Charles Kahn and Todd Poliskin of Kahn Design Associates of Berkeley, had worked closely with an LPC subcommittee to fine-tune their plans before submitting them to the city for permits. 

“The main goal is to design this with a public-space focus,” said Laird when he presented his plans to the LPC last year. “It’s an important building in the heart of the neighborhood and we are posting all the designs and drawings on the Kitchen Democracy website because it has been our intention from the start to get as much feedback and comment from the public as possible.” 

The question put to Kitchen Democracy participants was “Should Elmwood Hardware renovate the store and build four housing units?” 

But the project ran up against the Elmwood’s zoning regulations, the city’s strictest in their limits on mandated maximum floor space areas of commercial buildings. 

Elmwood codes restrict commercial buildings to floor space that occupies no more the 80 percent of the total lot area—except for corner lots, where total coverage is allowed. 

By contrast, Laird’s project calls for 180 percent coverage (100 percent on one floor, 80 percent on the other), which means that the structure could only be built if the Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB) voted to grant a variance. 

ZAB would have to approve another variance because the building’s 19.5-foot height is 18 inches more than the codes allow, and yet another to permit a third floor where the codes allow only two. 

Laird put the proposal to participants in Kitchen Democracy, an online interactive website devoted to community issues, and received an overwhelming endorsement.  

Of the 406 responses from individuals who had registered with the site, 377 voted their support, with only 14 opposed, 13 voting “maybe” and a lone responder declaring neutrality. 


The ‘other’ project 

Laird points to the Kitchen Democracy numbers generated by his project in comparison with another variance-needing project that did win staff support and ZAB—and City Council—approval, John Gordon’s Wright’s Garage at 2629-2936 Ashby Ave. 

Gordon’s project also survived an appeal to the City Council, which rankled the Elmwood Merchant’s Association because of the variances ZAB granted increasing the number of restaurants and clothing stores permitted above the commercial neighborhood’s already overstrained quota system. 

Merchants also worried that customers drawn to the restaurant and exercise club proposed as two of the building’s tenants would compound an already vexing neighborhood parking problem. 

Kitchen Democracy responders also got to weigh in on Gordon’s project, and while their votes amounted to just more than half of those who expressed their opinion’s on Laird’s project, the renovated garage also emerged with a resounding set of upthrusting thumbs—173 yes to 20 negatives, 23 maybes and a single neutrally disposed voter. 

“That project could get approved with all its impacts on the neighborhood, but when you try to put in four units of housing and preserve an 84-year-old family business, you get shot down,” he said. 

Laird said he’s also frustrated that his city councilmember can’t offer support. Gordon Wozniak had been forced to recuse himself from voting an appeal of Gordon’s project to the council by members of the merchant’s group and the Elmwood Neighborhood Association, and he had also expressed a positive opinion about Laird’s project on the same website. 

“Can you imagine if members of Congress couldn’t speak out on projects they supported?” asked Laird. 

The vote to hear the appeal of Gordon’s project failed 4-2-2, with five votes needed for the hearing, with Councilmember Darryl Moore absent and Betty Olds and Mayor Tom Bates voting for approval without a hearing.  

But the store owner said he plans to move ahead with the remodeling of his commercial space with the hope that the city will eventually look more favorably on the larger project. 

Meanwhile, Laird said he’ll build what he can and hope for the best.  

Hobby store owner Williams is the one person who’s thoroughly delighted. 

“We’re eager to get more space, and we love this neighborhood,” he said. “We live here, too. It’s our fourth year.”