Berkeley’s retail vacancy rates remain high

Gerard Ortiz

Find out which stores have opened, closed or moved and what’s new in Berkeley’s small-business communities. If you have Berkeley business updates to share, send an email to [email protected].

In the Spotlight 

New reports show that storefront vacancy rates remain high in Berkeley

A slew of empty storefronts on San Pablo Avenue, which has one of the highest vacancy rates in the city. Credit: Joanne Furio

Two new reports from Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development confirm what most residents see with their own eyes: Berkeley’s business sector has more than recovered from the pandemic, but many of the city’s 5,000 brick-and-mortar ground-floor storefronts remain empty when compared with pre-pandemic levels. 

Total retail sales tax revenues exceeded $2 million for the first time in 2022, but vacancy rates increased in many parts of the city even as tonier neighborhoods saw a retail resurgence. 

The commercial zones of University Avenue, South Berkeley and San Pablo Avenue saw rising vacancy rates while Elmwood and Solano Avenue saw an increase in the number of ground-floor storefronts being filled. In downtown rates fell steeply since 2021 but remain elevated from the pre-pandemic era.

The city’s overall vacancy rate was 8.4{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} last year, just .1 percentage point higher than in 2021 and 3 percentage points higher than in 2019. According to the OED, a 4-8{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} vacancy rate is “typical.” 

Citywide, the lowest vacancy rates of all in 2022 came from the small commercial strips the OED calls “neighborhood commercial” and which includes the cluster of retail found in the vicinity of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dwight ways. 

A longtime empty storefront on University Avenue, another district with high vacancy rates. Credit: Joanne Furio

The OED does not explore why some neighborhoods do better than others, but does recognize that the pandemic caused many businesses to not renew their leases. 

Eleanor Hollander, the head of the city’s OED, declined to speak on the record for this story, but councilmember Terry Taplin, whose district covers parts of two of the hardest hit areas, University Avenue and San Pablo, offered some theories. 

As San Pablo Avenue is redeveloped, he said, it is shifting from being anchored by automotive businesses to more home improvement businesses and restaurants. The avenue’s South Berkeley portion, he said, has less foot traffic and acts more as a vehicular thoroughfare to Emeryville and Oakland. 

It’s the city’s job to “retain and attract operators for our vacant parcels and foster a healthy commercial corridor along San Pablo,” he said. “Creating more pedestrian destinations and working with the merchants to foster this sense of identity will be important moving forward.”

Here’s a neighborhood-by-neighborhood look at the vacancy rates:

Downtown, the city’s core commercial district and a major transportation hub, includes the largest number of arts and entertainment venues like Berkeley Repertory Theater, which occupy almost 16{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} of ground-floor commercial spaces. It had an 11.9{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} rate, which is still one of the highest in the city, but that also represents a decrease from the high of 15.7{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} in 2021. In 2018, downtown had a 3.1{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} vacancy rate.

Elmwood, whose College Avenue continues through Oakland’s Rockridge, is an upscale district with the biggest share of ground- floor commercial space dominated by food and beverage purveyors, which make up 28.4{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} of its businesses. Elmwood’s vacancy rates dropped to 7.7{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} in 2022, down from a high of 10.9{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} in 2020 and 2021. But that rate is still higher than the 5.4{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} rate of 2017. 

North Shattuck: This neighborhood of pedigreed eateries (think: Chez Panisse) saw a slight dip in sales tax revenue from retail, due to empty storefronts, while sales tax from the food and beverage sector increased by 42{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63}. This neighborhood had the steadiest vacancy rate: 4.3{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63}, which it’s maintained since 2020. In 2017 it boasted the lowest vacancy rate of all the districts within the 2017-2022 period: .4{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63}. 

San Pablo Avenue is Berkeley’s largest commercial corridor, running the entire north-south length of the city. This is the city’s trade hub, represented by 15.1{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} of businesses, including more than 50 auto repair companies. First-floor offices and non-retail space make up 22.8{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} of businesses. Because the street acts as a major thoroughfare, it has fewer dining establishments (7.1{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} of all businesses). A strip undergoing a major transition, the district saw an increase in its 2022 vacancy rate (10.8{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63}), up from 7.9{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} in 2021. 

Solano Avenue, the shopping area for the surrounding neighborhoods of single-family homes, has lots of restaurant options, which increased by 16{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} in 2022. It also has one of the city’s lowest vacancy rates — at 3.7{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63}, doing better than the year before, 2021. While that’s one of the lowest in the city, it had a 2.6{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} vacancy rate back in 2019. The upcoming conversion of the former Oaks Theatre into a climbing gym could decrease the avenue’s low rate even further. 

South Berkeley includes the Lorin District, the Sacramento corridor and South Shattuck area. Here’s where you’ll find the city’s high concentration of personal services businesses in the city (18.8{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} versus 7{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} in the city overall), yet not too many bars and restaurants, which make up only 4.4{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} of ground-floor commercial spaces. Its 11.8{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} vacancy rate is higher than 2021’s 8.8{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} rate and the 7.6{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} rate in pre-pandemic 2019. 

Telegraph Avenue’s food and beverage businesses make up 29.4{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} of its ground-floor commercial spaces in a district heavily trodden by hungry students. Its vacancy rates are on the decline, dropping from 12.6{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} in 2021 to 8.5{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} last year. The OED credits that partly to eight new housing developments on the avenue. Now that students have returned fully to campus, retail and food establishments are back to 2020 levels, according to the report.

University Avenue, from Martin Luther King Jr. Way to the waterfront, courses through many neighborhoods and acts as the gateway to the UC Berkeley campus. Though this corridor has the city’s highest vacancy rate, of 12.8{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63}, up from 9.1{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} in 2021, it includes lots of dining options, so its food and beverage generated the most sales tax revenue in the district in 2022, increasing from around $730,000 in 2021 to almost $1.1 million in 2022. 

West Berkeley, covering all commercial spaces west of San Pablo Avenue, includes the upscale Fourth Street shopping area and the Gilman District. Retail makes up almost half (47.3{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63}) of the ground-floor commercial spaces, ranging from upscale chain stores to indie boutiques. This district also includes a higher percentage of non-retail commercial uses, like manufacturing and warehousing. Overall, only 5.2{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} of ground-floor commercial spaces were vacant in 2022, a small increase over 2021’s 4.7{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63}.

Open Berkeley Marina

Another school sails into the Berkeley Marina

Sailing Portal students with instructor Michael Arntz on a recent lesson. Courtesy: Sailing Portal

From the ashes of the OCSC Sailing school at the Berkeley Marina, which did not make it through the pandemic, rose another new school, Sailing Portal, which opened in 2021, attracting some of OCSC’s students and instructors. 

Sailing Portal became a nonprofit in August 2022 and is accredited by US Sailing, the governing body for the Olympics. 

The new school joins two others at the marina: Modern Sailing (formerly Inspire Sailing), accredited by the American Sailing Association, and the Cal Sailing Club, a lower-cost option that is volunteer run and not accredited with a national sailing organization. 

Modern Sailing took over the OCSC’s offices last year, but Sailing Portal has forgone an office at the marina, said Karen Lile, one of Sailing Portal’s founders. 

“We wanted to have less overhead and put more money towards the instructors so they could do better,” Lile said. 

Lile describes herself as being “extremely well connected with sailing.” She is the host of Sail on Sports Byline, an internationally syndicated sailing talk show. She had sailed with instructors from the OCSC, which was also a client of hers. She used to handle the logistics and connections for the OCSC’s Tanzania trips. 

When OCSC closed, she and the two other founders decided to “form a sailing school on a smaller scale,” she said. “I was doing it for friends and people I really care about.” 

Sailing Portal’s other founders are Michael Arntz and Jim Wong. Arntz is the school’s head instructor, a US Sailing-certified instructor and a Coast Guard-licensed captain. He is also a US Sailing Adaptive Sailing Instructor, which allows him to make accommodations for sailors with disabilities. 

Sailing Portal students on the waters of the San Francisco Bay. Courtesy: Sailing Portal

Wong is a Bay Area real estate agent and boat owner who has been sailing in the San Francisco Bay since 2006.

Tuition ranges from $550 to challenge a course (proving you have the skills and knowledge for a course), to $1,395 for the full, 32-hour certification program. Membership costs $250 a year, which includes up to $600 in course discounts. The school has 24-foot and 36-foot sloop keelboats. 

The lack of a marina office doesn’t mean the school doesn’t have a community. It does have a sailing club with about 20 boats that meets every month and sails to Bay Area yacht clubs. On April 16, it’s heading to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Yacht Club.

“So it’s not just the lessons but the social life that goes with it,” Lile said of the school, “and the connections you make.”

Open North Shattuck

A new family business wants to be more convenient than Safeway

Sam Alqublani, the son of Shattuck Convenience’s owner, works at the store. Credit: Joanne Furio

Shattuck Convenience is like a New York bodega without the cat. Or as Sam Alqublani, the son of the owner, put it, “a deli without the kitchen.”

Like a neighborhood bodega or a deli, the store hopes to be a convenient fill-in for nearby residents and students who might need an item or two but don’t have the time or inclination to walk several blocks to Andronico’s or Safeway. 

Alqublani’s father, Zayed, opened the store on Feb. 12. 

Located in a storefront that formerly sold jewelry, the shop just received its sign permit and is waiting for its sign. Otherwise it is fully stocked. There are foodstuffs like spaghetti, Minute Rice, noodles, snacks, ice cream and ready-made sandwiches and salads, along with an assortment of tobacco and health and beauty products.

Alqublani said a website is in the works, so the store can partner with delivery services such as DoorDash and Grubhub that are popular with the college crowd. 

“We look forward,” Alqublani said, “to doing online deliveries” and to the arrival of the store’s sign.

Shattuck Convenience, 1778 Shattuck Ave. (off Francisco Street), Berkeley. Phone: 510-529-4072. Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. during Ramadan; till 9 p.m. otherwise. 

Moved Solano Avenue

A longtime Berkeley hairdresser inspired by Jane Fonda’s big tease returns to her Solano roots

Michelle Dean recently moved her longtime San Pablo salon BarberElla to Solano Avenue. Courtesy: BarberElla

In the cult film Barbarella Jane Fonda’s hair practically has a starring role. It was 1968, the height of high hair. 

“She has iconic hair in that film,” said Michelle Dean. She was so inspired by the film, when she opened her own hair salon at 2442 San Pablo Ave. 21 years ago, she named it BarberElla Beauty Lounge. On March 30 the salon opened in a new Solano Avenue location under the same name.

“It’s a play on words,” she said, combining “barber” with “ella,” the feminine pronoun for “she” in Spanish. 

Dean left her longtime location because her landlords want to turn the building into offices for the Solar Car Wash they are constructing next door. She was sad to leave — “a lot of my customers walked to my shop,” Dean said — but the move will be convenient for her North Berkeley clientele. 

The move signals Dean’s return to Solano Avenue, where she worked at the now defunct Darin David salon for 14 years before venturing out on her own. Some of Dean’s customers have been with her for 35 years. 

BarberElla’s new Solano shop is open but awaiting a new sign. Courtesy: BarberElla

Dean is the shop’s solo stylist. She does cuts ($120), color (starting at $130), three different types of extensions (price TBD after consultation) and keratin smoothing treatments ($175 and up). Consultations are complimentary.  

“It’s half the space,” Dean said, “but it’s really cute.”

BarberElla Beauty Lounge, 1757 Solano Ave. (at Colusa Street) . Phone: (510) 548-3552 Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Connect via Facebook and Instagram

In the Spotlight Downtown Berkeley

In-house attorney named executive director at Earth Island

Sumona Majumdar is the new head of the Earth Island Institute. Courtesy: Earth Island Institute

The search is over at the Earth Island Institute. After its longtime executive director, Dave Phillips, announced in November that he would be stepping down after 40 years, a three-month search led to the hiring of Sumona Majumdar, who started on March 29. 

Majumdar, an Oakland resident, had been Earth Island’s general counsel for more than five years. During that time she led groundbreaking lawsuits against plastic producers, corporate greenwashing and regulatory agencies. Within the organization she handled the institute’s legal, policy and governance matters and helped advance its racial equity and inclusion goals. 

“The work we do at Earth Island is more important now than ever because our environmental challenges can feel overwhelming,” Majumdar said. “By inspiring hope and demonstrating the interconnectedness of our issues, we can empower individuals and communities to take action, which will create the sustainable and resilient future we need for ourselves and future generations.’

Earth Island Institute is one of the leading environmental activist organizations in the U.S. It is a fiscal sponsor to more than 75 projects in the areas of conservation, wildlife protection, climate change solutions, women’s environmental leadership, indigenous communities, sustainable agriculture and more. 

Earth Island Institute, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley. Phone: 510-859-9100. Connect via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

In brief

Biz Buzz: Ohmega Salvage’s final day is next Friday

  • Ohmega Salvage’s last day will be Friday, April 14. All of the items are 50{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} to 75{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} off. What’s left: architectural pieces, lights, hardware and a few doors and windows and high-end tile. “As we get closer to the end the discounts will likely increase,” said longtime store manager Steve Smith. 

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