Whatever became of Berkeley's neighborhood-serving retail?

Becky O'Malley
Friday August 11, 2017 - 03:36:00 PM

Having lived in university towns for all of my adult life, I am very conscious of the difference in atmosphere when most of the students go home for summer vacation. One obvious benefit is that parking becomes infinitely easier. Yes, yes, I know that we’re not supposed to be driving, even those of us who are over 75 and a bit arthritic. Yes, I know that students never drive any more—well,hardly ever. It must be just a coincidence that many, many cars disappear from Berkeley streets in the summer—surely it’s not because the students are gone.

In the time I’ve been in Berkeley, off and on since 1958, most of the full-time residents have gotten out of the habit of shopping here, so the lack of parking is not much of a problem. There was a time, maybe in the ‘80s or ‘90s, when women of a certain age bemoaned the absence of anywhere to buy underwear in downtown Berkeley, but now they have surely figured out Amazon, or in a true emergency Target in Oakland. On the other hand, if they should need a tattoo or phony fingernails, Berkeley’s their place.

Am I the only person to notice the enormous number of commercial vacancies in what used to be neighborhood shopping streets? When I first lived in the Elmwood neighborhood, College Avenue boasted a real hardware store, at least two general bookstores, a “dry goods” store which sold both baby clothes and the now-lamented underwear selection, two “drug stores” and a “dime store” with one of almost anything you wanted. Now there are several Tibetan curio establishments and other gifte shoppes, lots and lots of restaurants, plus laptop study-hall cafes galore, but not a lot more. In particular, the two anchor corners at Ashby, north-west and south-east, stand vacant.

Neighborhood commercial districts like Elmwood are given high marks for supposed walkability, especially if they still also boast a bus route like the 51. But if there’s nowhere to buy laundry detergent or screwdrivers or toilet paper, neighborhood residents, especially those getting provisions for multi-person households, will inevitably be driving or ordering online.  

Why are there so many vacancies in ground floor retail buildings these days? It’s not just Berkeley—I see the same thing on commercial streets in other towns, and also in the many strip malls in places as diverse as El Cerrito and Santa Cruz. Even the mega-malls like Richmond’s Hilltop Mall are plagued with empty stores.  

There are two popular explanations for why this is so. 

One, obviously, is internet commerce. It’s just a whole lot easier, if you know what you’re looking for, to find it online and order it, often with the ability to compare prices to advantage. Old-style “Shopping”, the leisurely examination of a variety of offerings with the luxury of choice, has become more and more a recreational activity and less and less a practical strategy. 

The other villain, popular especially in left circles, is high rents. This kind of analysis is often coupled with criticism of a tax code which lets commercial landlords use the loss of phantom high profits on vacant stores to balance profits elsewhere. I’ve yet to see 100% convincing proof of this, but it seems plausible. 

Since much of the fabric of urban life is supposed to be woven around walking to local merchants, this is becoming a serious problem. Neighborhood-serving commercial blocks pockmarked with empty windows create their own feedback loop with more and more vacancies to be expected. 

Some new models for using these spaces show promise. I recently attended an evening meeting in a pleasant storefront space which serves as a childcare center convenient to offices in the daytime. Yoga, dance and martial arts studios seem to flourish in former retail localities. 

Cities like Berkeley support well-funded economic development departments which are supposed to take care of such problems. Unfortunately, most of what they are able to do is earnest exhortation—they have little real power. From the COB Economic Development department’s web page: 

“The Office of Economic Development has contracted with Buy Local Berkeley to conduct a niche marketing campaign to promote local, independent businesses. Buy Local Berkeley is a collaborative of merchant associations and individual small business owners in Berkeley. We educate about the cultural, environmental, community and economic benefits of shopping at locally owned and operated businesses. Our goal is to inspire people to shift their spending to Berkeley businesses whenever possible.” 

It will take more than inspiration to overcome what’s going wrong with small businesses in downtown Berkeley. They are getting evicted to make room for developments aimed at BART commuters to San Francisco, who will most likely do most of their purchasing in The City, and by UC offices for employees who drive in from distant suburbs with big box stores. 

University Hardware, a stalwart for many years, was pushed or jumped from its wonderful location on University, complete with parking lot, to a dark and dreary car-free location on a side street. Now to add insult to injury the new store has lost access even for customers' curbside pick-ups of large purchases to the city’s poorly conceptualized new bicycle routing.  

There’s a host of similar examples of local businesses done wrong which give the lie to the perpetual myth of a Downtown Berkeley renaissance. Among other things, it’s past time to re-think Berkeley’s downtown area plan, which was jammed through by the previous city administration for the exclusive benefit of developers of mega apartment blocks for well-off consumers who’ll make their purchases elsewhere. A new and better plan would give much more respect to neighborhood-serving businesses and much less latitude to the smash-and-grab crowd who covet our downtown as potential building sites for commuter condos.  

And don’t get me started on the way the University of California is sucking up downtown Berkeley as lebensraum for offices which don't even pay property taxes. That’s a rant all its own, for another day.