Public Comment

A New Paradigm for Downtown Berkeley's Retail Spaces?

By Thomas Lord
Tuesday September 20, 2011 - 11:49:00 AM

In their article about a proposed vacancy fee for retail spaces, Berkeleyside presents some insights from Michael Korman of Korman and Ng. They write:

"Those kinds of businesses don’t exist in Berkeley. Instead, most of the retail space for rent is in older buildings where the space tends to be very deep. The stores were designed that way because decades ago store owners needed a lot of storage space in the back to keep their goods. Nowadays, store owners don’t need a store 50 feet deep because they can get goods delivered overnight, said Korman. They mostly just want the six feet of window space fronting the street. But they still have to pay for the larger and deeper space."

Mr. Korman has brilliantly cut to the heart of the matter, and this is a good starting point for developing public policy. To his insight about the changed nature of retail we can add observations about the changing nature of high tech businesses and culture businesses, and the restrictions imposed by Berkeley's zoning of commercial districts:

A 50 foot deep space in a desirable urban commercial district may no longer be suitable for typical retail use, but it would be ideal as an office space for many kinds of Internet-based high tech companies. Companies that run web sites or develop "apps" for smart phones start comfortably in spaces of this size and some can stay that size for long periods of time. They need space for desks and chairs and a network connection. Preferably, because these businesses often seek to attract young professionals, these offices should be located in stimulating urban environments - like Berkeley. The catch is that in our retail districts, zoning rules typically don't allow retail spaces to be converted to use by businesses that don't maintain a storefront open to the public. 

On the other hand, as the experience of San Francisco has shown, there is pent up demand for new forms of cultural space in urban environments: unconventional galleries and performance spaces, for example. The catch is that without financial support, cultural businesses are difficult to make viable in high rent districts. 

The two modes of use, offices for young urban professionals and exciting cultural spaces in an urban environment, are complementary. Cultural businesses make a location more attractive to high tech start-ups. High tech start-ups provide a core constituency for new cultural experiments. 

Rather than trying to find sketchy ways to penalize owners for vacancies, perhaps public policy would be better served by trying to enable a careful adjustment to zoning, and a new business development policy. 

Picture a 50 foot deep retail space, now vacant. In the back (which need not be walled off), what used to be for inventory storage can be converted to office use. In the front, the lobbies of these new ventures, space can be sublet to cultural businesses. 

There has been much clamor by some to convert our West Berkeley industrial zone to office park use with the hope of attracting and retaining start-ups. This is a bit of a pipe dream because businesses at that scale can find much less expensive space elsewhere in the Bay Area, and if shoved into West Berkeley would not directly enjoy the benefits of our urban environments. 

Perhaps it turns out that our "office park" already exists, right under our noses. It's been here all the while in the form of vacancies in our retail districts. We can zone to allow "offices in the back, culture up front". We can advertise and offer light incentives to venture capitalists and entrepreneurs -- as well as artists -- to begin to take up the offer.