Merchants Attempt to Revive Solano Avenue Amid High Vacancy Rate

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday April 01, 2009 - 09:22:00 PM
Antonio Robles arranges hand-crafted lilies from Guanajuato at Casa Oaxaca, which sells arts, crafts and jewelry from Mexico.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Antonio Robles arranges hand-crafted lilies from Guanajuato at Casa Oaxaca, which sells arts, crafts and jewelry from Mexico.
Pennie Opal Plant of Gathering Tribes on Solano hangs up dream catchers made by two Ojibway sisters who live across the border in Canada.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Pennie Opal Plant of Gathering Tribes on Solano hangs up dream catchers made by two Ojibway sisters who live across the border in Canada.

Rather than wait for the government to jump-start a struggling economy, a group of merchants on Solano Avenue have decided to take matters into their own hands. 

The first Friday of every month will see art galleries, curio shops, restaurants and a smattering of other retail businesses keep their doors open until 9 p.m., a rarity on Solano, to promote themselves and encourage patrons to shop locally. 

Since its debut on March 6, Art Attack has grown from six businesses to 11, with others expressing interest every day. 

“Business has been down for many merchants on Solano,” said Serena Leung Baker, who launched the art walk along with several other businesses. “The shops and restaurants have been suffering because not as many people have been shopping or eating out. We felt that an art walk would lift everyone’s spirit a bit and make them feel good about shopping. Even if they just buy a small card or a trinket, it helps the local economy a lot—it’s a way of giving back to the community.” 

Hope springs eternal on this two-mile stretch in Berkeley and Albany, which is one of the main shopping arteries in the area, attracting visitors from all over the region. 

Leung Baker, who grew up in El Sobrante, gave up her corporate event planning job to start A Different Day Gallery on Solano Avenue two years ago. 

Her gallery, which sells everything from $5 original folk cards to $2,000 paintings, saw a 50 percent decline in sales compared with the same time last year. 

“Sadly, art is not a necessity,” Leung Baker said. “People are thinking a lot longer before purchasing paintings now. It’s been a lot slower for us and we are trying to figure out a new business model.” 

Leung Baker said the art walk was in step with a buy-local campaign Solano Avenue merchants had started last year, encouraging area residents to spend their money in independent specialty stores. 

“It puts a little life on the street past 6 p.m.,” she said, referring to the average closing time for most stores on Solano. “We had a couple come on their third date who were so happy they had something to do past 9 o’clock. Also, in these times, when you are broke and you can’t go anywhere, it’s nice to have a free event to go to.” 

On a recent Monday evening, Pennie Opal Plant, who owns Gathering Tribes on Solano, was planning the next first Friday artwalk in April. 

Plant, who has been on Solano since 1991, moved to a more prominent location in January. 

“I am taking part in Art Attack because it is a way to build a sense of community in this challenging economy,” said Plant, whose store features Native American handicrafts. 

As a small business owner, Plant has survived two recessions, the dot-com bust and 9/11. 

“My store is the kind of place people want to come to when the world is a little chaotic,” she said. “The first art walk was wildly successful. The neighbors had a place to come to instead of having to drive somewhere on Friday night.” 

Red lights on storefronts guide visitors to the stores taking part in the art walk, which have wine, chocolates, guest speakers and in-house artists entertaining for a good part of the evening. 

The event exceeded Plant’s expectations, with the store making more profit in two hours than the rest of the day. 

Three blocks down, at Casa Oaxaca, Antonio Robles was displaying psychedelic tin masks from Guanajuato, Mexico, something he said had been a big draw at the art walk. 

“We had over a hundred people,” said Robles, who manages the store along with his brother Guillermo, a retired Berkeley police officer. “Business is slow but we hope this will pep things up a bit.” 

Berkeley City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, who represents a part of Solano Avenue, praised the group for their efforts. 

“It’s good they are being proactive,” said Capitelli, who has a real estate business on Solano. “We, as a group of merchants on Solano, need to be proactive. We need to spend money locally instead of on Amazon.com, Cosco and Target. Our motto should be ‘buy little and buy local.’” 

Berkeley city officials said that although quite a few shops have closed down on Solano over the past three months, vacancy rates were far better as compared to the city’s downtown district. 

“Downtown has much more serious problems than Solano,” said Dave Fogarty, the city’s acting economic development manager. “Vacancies are larger. The problems are more long-standing and difficult to resolve downtown than Solano. We’d have to write a book to explain it. In short, Solano is easily accessible to affluent residents who live nearby and gets visitors whereas affluent people tend not to come downtown—they come to the arts district but don’t shop at the stores. The city has not succeeded in revitalizing the downtown as a shopping area yet.” 

Solano Avenue in Berkeley reported a 5.35 percent vacancy rate for the third quarter of 2008, which translates to 9,931 square feet out of a total of 185,000 square feet. 

“It’s a little bit higher than what you would expect it to be during these economic times,” said Fogarty. “Zero vacancy is impossible. Renovations and property transfers after deaths always result in a certain amount of vacancy.” 

Third quarter figures for 2008 show that the avenue’s Berkeley inventory includes 101 ground-floor commercial spaces representing around 152,808 square feet. 

At 44 percent, retail makes up the biggest chunk of business on the strip, with food and beverage taking up 26 percent, and arts occupying about 8 percent of the space. 

Offices make up about 3 percent and other services 11 percent. 

Allen Cain, executive director of the Solano Avenue Association, said vacancy rates for the entire avenue in Albany and Berkeley were hovering between 6 and 7 percent, the highest it has ever been. 

Cain said that 15 stores had closed down so far, “the highest number ever.” 

Jamba Juice, Ritz Camera, Papillon Homes, a Child’s Place—one of the neighborhood’s prime locations—and O! Babybaby have all moved away from the avenue, with the space for Jamba Juice lying vacant for six months. 

“It’s very unusual for an empty food location to stay vacant for that long,” Cain said. “There’s always a yogurt person or a coffee guy who moves in. Right now, there’s no place to buy a smoothie on Solano.” 

The country’s uncertain economic future, as Cain put it, was making it more and more difficult “to pull in that casual browser.” 

“The economy is weak but part of it is competition with other commercial districts such as Fourth Street, which is thriving,” he said. “Also, the rents on Solano Avenue are inordinately high. Small businesses were already being challenged by being small businesses ... At the same time the street is clean, businesses are expanding and a couple of new stores have opened up. It’s not entirely a grim picture.” 



6-9 p.m., Friday, April 3, on Solano Avenue. Red lights and signs on the windows signify participating shops. For more information, call Serena Leung Baker at A Different Day Gallery, 868-4904.1