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Vivarium May Quit City Over Development, Parking Woes

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday May 01, 2008 - 09:40:00 AM
East Bay Vivarium owner Owen Maercks hugs 8-year old Taz, the store’s resident 7-foot-long Asian Water Monitor.
By Riya Bhattacharjee
East Bay Vivarium owner Owen Maercks hugs 8-year old Taz, the store’s resident 7-foot-long Asian Water Monitor.

It’s the only place in Berkeley where you can pet a Komodo dragon. And if you are lucky, watch in bug-eyed wonder as tarantulas perform handstands and Burmese Albino pythons bask in the afternoon sun. 

For some, the East Bay Vivarium on 1827 Fifth St. is a Berkeley gem. For others, a living, breathing nightmare. 

Whatever your qualms about all things coldblooded, the city might lose the 20-year-old gallery and reptile house, touted as the nation’s largest and oldest, to the age-old problem—parking. 

Sporting a boa constrictor print on his T-shirt, vivarium owner Owen Maercks appeared before the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board last week trying to stop a 22-unit three-story mixed-use project totaling 20,820 square feet at 1819 Fifth St., next to his business. 

Maercks’ argument: The proposed development, which would include 22 parking spaces, would push his business out of Berkeley. 

“When we came here 20 years ago, there was a parking problem,” he said. “We have been losing business over the years, but parking is worse than ever today. A 22-unit project will be the final straw.” 

Applicant Tim Rempel said the vivarium—housed on a 6,500 lot—should provide 15 to 20 parking spots for its customers, instead of the current five. 

“I think it’s a valuable business, but it’s in a building difficult to have a business out of,” he said. “Our project is modest and sustainable.” 

Maercks continued his pitch. He quoted from a March 30 New York Times article, “36 Hours in Berkeley, Calif.,” which lists the East Bay Vivarium and Moe’s Books as the city’s only two commercial businesses under its “must- 


“We have 4.5 stars out of 5 on Yelp,” he pointed out, referring to the local user-generated review website. “The store attracts visitors not only from the Bay Area but from all over the world.” 

Finding no fault with the development, or its parking requirements, the zoning board approved Rempel’s project, emphasizing that the City Council and the Planning Department should step in to address the parking concerns. 

“The issue of parking is not going to go away, whether this particular project is prevented or not,” said zoning commissioner Terry Doran. “Existing businesses will have to co-exist with new businesses.” 

Zoning officials agreed. 

“It’s pretty obvious that there’s not a lot of parking on that street,” zoning secretary Steve Ross told the Planet Wednesday. “Existing parking problems are not something you can force a new project to solve.” 

Most of the surrounding businesses or residences, including the East Bay Vivarium, Ross said, had limited or no parking, since they were built decades ago. 

“It would require a survey to reveal the real deficit, to know what the code requires versus what the buildings provide,” he said. 

The city’s zoning ordinance for mixed-use residences on Fifth Street mandates quick-service cafes to provide one parking spot for every 300 square feet. Live/work spaces have to provide one parking space each and manufacturing units must have one parking spot for every 1000 square feet. 

Remple—who plans to have a 600-square-foot cafe, nine live/work units, three commercial units, and 10 light industrial units as part of his development—abides by all the parking requirements. 

“The minute he drops his shovel I have to start looking for a new place,” Maercks told the Planet on Wednesday, standing on his store’s driveway, which was packed with cars even as late as 7 p.m. “When we moved here, the corner house was a farm. At least three of the houses across the street did not exist. The parking problem has reached critical mass today. Berkeley has this crazy notion that making parking difficult will dissuade people from using their cars and make them ride bikes. But it doesn’t work that way.” 

Vivarium reviews on Yelp are dotted with complaints about parking. 

“One star gone for the hard parking around 5th street,” said one user from San Jose in her post mortem. 

Another Hayward resident elaborated: “There is nowhere to park. Fifth Street is obviously the next street down from the legendary Fourth Street in Berkeley and so there are always a lot of people around. A lot of people means a lot of cars.” 

Maercks said that parking from Fouth Street spilled onto Fifth Street from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 

“My customers are not the kind who can park elsewhere,” he said. “They come here to purchase large pieces of furniture ... You can’t lug that down the street. Last year our revenue was down by 20 percent, our lowest ever. What that means is that not only do my partner and I make no money, but the business loses money. I can deal with it one year, but I can’t deal with it every year.” 

Maercks’ said he lobbied to get two-hour parking zones in front of the store when he first moved in. 

“I am not saying we have adequate on-site parking, but we have been here for 20 years something should be grandfathered in. I don’t want to leave Berkeley, but I can’t afford the rent here.” 

A similar-sized rental space in the city, Maercks said, came with a $9,000 to $15,000 price tag—twice the amount of money he pays his current landlord. 

At last week’s meeting, Zoning Board Vice-Chair Bob Allen suggested the possibility of the public utilizing the parking lot at Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto and Restaurant on Fourth Street a bit more. 

“Most people think it’s only for the restaurants’ customers,” Maercks’ said. “But the reality is, you can pay to park there. It needs to open up access from Fourth and Hearst streets. Right now you can only access it directly from the restaurant.” 

Other zoning commissioners wondered whether mediation would do the trick. 

“It’s not like he (Rempel) is building extra parking space I could lease,” Maercks’ said. “He’s providing what is legally required but not enough.” 

Calls to Rempel for comment were not returned.