Elmwood business quotas may change to help startups

A.G. Ferrari, one of several food businesses in the Elmwood. If adopted, a new proposal would see the current three-tier food quota in the business district collapsed into a single quota. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The decades-old retail and food quotas in Berkeley’s Elmwood commercial district face a potentially dramatic overhaul with Councilmember Gordon Wozniak set to propose a review of the quotas to the Planning Commission at tonight’s City Council meeting. If it’s adopted, Wozniak’s scheme would eliminate retail quotas and collapse the current three-tier food quota into a single quota.

“I want to make it easier for startups, but still maintain the special character of the Elmwood,” Wozniak, who represents most of the Elmwood business district, said. The area is centered on the intersection of Ashby and College Avenues in south Berkeley. “There’s a need to keep the balance between food and retail, but having three distinct categories for food is very destructive and consumes an inordinate amount of staff time.”

Under the current quotas (see table below), there are six distinct retail categories and three food categories — carry out, quick service and full service. Wozniak said that the system can be a “real disincentive for a new business”, because of the cost and time needed for permitting.

Wozniak said the matter came to a head for him over the retail space that now houses A’ Cuppa Tea at 2992 College Avenue. He said several retailers were interested in the space, but they balked at the quota process and ended up opening at other locations. The space was vacant for three years. A’ Cuppa Tea itself faced opposition to its permit, since the food quotas have long been filled.

Wozniak said that a small change in the physical configuration of a store can result in it being reclassified into a different quota category, which is already full, causing the business to be in violation of the quota system. His proposal would keep a maximum number for food businesses, but allow any new retail use.

Among the difficulties in the current system, Wozniak pointed to the new chocolatier, Casa De Chocolates, which plans to open later this year at 2629 Ashby at College. In order to avoid a food classification, the store, which is owned by Cal graduate Arcelia Gallardo, will not be able to sell individual pieces of chocolate. Shoppers will have a minimum purchase of a half dozen. “These are the contorsions that staff go through,” Wozniak said.

“Retail is really struggling,” Wozniak said. “We need to make it easier for them. It’s hard to order food from Amazon.”

Even local merchants who are wary of changes to a system that offers some market protection agree that some reform of the quotas is needed.

“As long as there’s no more food, changes might work,” said John Moriarty, who has run The 14 Karats for 34 years. “[The retail quotas] make it too crazy. I’m totally in favor of that. But if there’s no retail here, people won’t come to buy anything. If there’s nowhere to park, no one will come to the movie theater. You can’t get rid of retail to put more food in.”

“We would support any action that is able to streamline the process,” said Paul Arenstam, one of the chef owners of Summer Kitchen Bake Shop. Summer Kitchen had to pirouette through the quotas when it opened and wanted to add a table and chairs. “Food use is food use. [The quotas] have really been a distraction. We want to concentrate on making our store as great as possible.”

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes some of the Elmwood, is cautious about change.

“I think the devil is in the details,” he said. “The number one reason to make the adjustment is at the time the quotas were created, there were fewer businesses. There are a lot more business spaces now than there were then. I think keeping the same percentages is the idea no one objects to.”

Wozniak’s proposal, if passed by City Council, would be referred to the Planning Commission. A full, public process would precede any revision of the current quotas.

A’ Cuppa Tea move raises issue of Elmwood quotas [07.19.11]
Is it hard to do business in Berkeley [01.20.11]
Summer Kitchen and Elmwood zoning: A follow up [04.22.10]
Wozniak: The key issues for Berkeley [10.19.09]

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  • Jeff Leyser

    Where exactly is the Elmwood District?  That detail is sorely missing from this article — I’ve got no idea where you’re talking about, although the examples given make it clear it’s the general area of College and Ashby.

  • Thanks Jeff for pointing out that omission. We have added a sentence explaining where Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood is for those who are unfamiliar with it.

  • Andrew

    The question in my mind is, why is Elmwood thriving and Solano dying? We were over in Elmwood recently and it was vibrant and bustling. I live near Solano and it just seems tired.

  • resident

    Closer to campus? It’s easy to get there from UCB on the 51 and I see lots of Cal students in Roma and waiting in line at Ici. Plus, there are more student-friendly clothing stores on College–Slash and Jeremy’s come to mind. Just a thought.

  • Gordon Wozniak


    The Zoning Officer proposed the restriction that the retailer would have to sell at least 6 chocolates at a time to ensure that Casa de Chocolates was not conducting a “Food or Beverage for Immediate Consumption”, which requires a Use Permit with a Public Hearing in the Elmwood District. By appealing to the City Manager, my Office was able to get this restriction removed so that they will be able to sell individual pieces of chocolates. However, they will not be able to sell cookies or other baked products, or any beverages such as hot chocolate or coffee because they are considered a Specialized Food Products Store. In addition, no seating is allowed.

    Gordon Wozniak
    Berkeley City Council

  • Anonymous

    Better cell phone reception?? I get zero bars with AT&T anytime I’m on Solano…

  • Completely Serious

    So the Berkeley City Council knows better what businesses will thrive in Elmwood?  Whose judgment do you trust, the Council, or anyone else on the planet with a pulse?  Me, I’m more inclined to let a Tilden migrating newt manage my property.  But that’s just me.

  • Andrew

    Hot chocolate is not chocolate? And no brownies or chocolate chip cookies? And why are individual chocolates a “specialized food product” and hot chocolate is not? Are Hershey bars a “specialized food product”?

    Why not let the customer decide? Why not allow the new place to make a better hot chocolate than the place down the street?

  • Anonymous

    I assume you mean this sentence: “The area is centered around the intersection of Ashby and College Avenues in south Berkeley. ”

    “Centered around” is an unfortunate (and unfortunately common) error of usage, in which “center on” and “revolve around” are combined in a way that does violence to both.  If you’re in the center, you’re not “around” (i.e. on the perimeter).  Sorry, pet peeve.

  • Andrew

    Indeed! The cellular dead zone…

  • Duly noted. And corrected :)

  • Anonymous

    I guess the counter staff will need the ability to navigate these tortured ontological classifications, creating a microboom in demand for workers with degrees in philosophy. *smile*

  • EBGuy

    One factor, I think, is population density.  The  2010 Census Demographic Profiles don’t seem to have density info readily available on the maps, but it does report total population.  If you drill down to the census tract level (I know, this is a hack), you can see that tracts along College Ave support a population (~30k people) nearly twice that of the tracts along Solano Ave (~15k people).  In addition, some of the student population is less mobile (read: no cars) and you have a more vibrant commercial district.

  • Alan Saldich

    I’m shocked… shocked(!), that only two “magnetic disk reproduction” stores are allowed by this wise quota system. The city council should have allowed at least four. And by the way, why no “IBM punch card sorting” facilities, saddle repair shops or typewriter repair stores? We must protect these essential categories from the encroaching “horseless carriage” and “personal computer” which threatens to put these valuable retail stores out of business.

    My real question is “Why does John Moriarty think there should be no more food?” Is he the all-knowing arbiter of how much food people want to buy, should buy, or that should be sold as opposed to other goods? It seems just a silly as me saying there should be no more jewelry stores because simply because I think people wear too much gold & platinum. If people want to buy more food than jewelry, so be it – I have no problem with it. 

    As for parking, it’s tough in many neighborhoods, and has been difficult in the Elmwood forever, yet as one reader points out, despite this alleged obstacle the neighborhood is thriving.

    To me, the more foot traffic the better, for all the shops, 14 Karats included. I’d like to hear from John specifically why he thinks the city should be making these micro-managed retail allocation decisions at all. I guess I look at cities that are packed wall to wall with cafes and restaurants (New York, Paris, San Francisco, etc…) and it seems to me that people like hanging around drinking coffee & eating – and occasionally they get up out of their seats, walk by a jewelry store and wander in. What’s wrong with that? I’d rather have another food shop than an empty storefront. Let people start a business and try to grow it.

    And lastly, how did that palm reader near the post office get established – I don’t see “Palm Readers / Fortune Tellers” on the quota list. ;)

  • guest

    Yeah, but if you look more closely at where on Solano the vacancies are clustered, you see that it’s the Berkeley end that’s deserted, not the Albany end, while the population density is the same top to bottom.

  • EBGuy

    I think being near a well trafficked corridor like San Pablo Ave gives the Albany side an advantage.

  • Bruce Love

    If you thinking zoning for those “magnetic disk reproduction” quotas is weird….

    Well, you’ll also be amazed to learn that peddling ice on the streets of Berkeley requires no permit (9.40.020, 1958), that the drain for your (horse) carriage wash must be connected to an easily cleanable sand trap before it connects to the main sewer (10.12.190, 1918), a lawyer soliciting his services to someone with a civil claim can get 6 months in jail (13.12.020, 1934), and City Council will only be permitted to meet any other place than City Hall if the city remembers to post a sign to that effect on the door of the council chamber (2.04.010, 1925 and 1951).

    (The main ostensible concerns behind the quota systems are market failures and home-rule.   Market failures can occur when higher margin businesses (like many food businesses) drive up rents and crowd out other forms of retail — only to over-supply the market and collapse, leaving many vacancies.   Home rule fails when a residential neighborhood hosts a small commercial district but neighborhood-serving businesses are driven away in the boom and bust cycle of higher margin businesses.   A realpolitik way to understand why this makes some sense, even if the city is not an economic super-genius that can always “perfect” quotas, is that the merchants of any of these commercial districts utterly rely on the good will of the majority of the residential neighborhood that surrounds them.   That’s why (in my read of things) Wozniak’s and Worthington’s suggested reforms are pretty mild (one might even say, “conservative”).

    What I’ve heard from people in retail is that many of the vacancies in Berkeley are not kept vacant by obstacles the city throws up nearly so much as they are kept vacant by a small number of landlords, who control a large number of the vacancies, and who are making enough money that they are perfectly willing to sit on the vacancies for years at a time.)

  • Chamelean75

    What’s wrong with having more food places?  80-90% of the people who go to Elmwood go there to eat.

  • Berkeley Woman

    Friends, The writing quality on your site is generally poor. The lead on this article, for example, is incomprehensible. Either get better writers or do some serious editing. You might also actively solicit contributions from our city’s many professional writers and former reporters. Otherwise, there’s no way you are going to build a readership!

  • Anonymous

    I think that the traffic is more than just the immediate area. Just stand in the Ici line, or look at La Meditterranee and you will see a wide variety of people, and in my observation, not many students, which make up a big part of that 30k population you mention. Or go to Sweet Dreams, both of which are bustling (Toy and Gift) or the Elmwood Cafe. I think it attracts people from all over because there’s quite a bit to do in that small stretch. I would not be afraid of more food establishments, because I do think it brings folks in to look at the other retail. And, as we are seeing more and more, the retail that survives has to be creative, and either offer high quality, high novelty or cheap, cheap, cheap, and that’s the only thing you don’t see in Elmwood.

  • Heh. There’s just no way Berkeleyside would ever build a readership, says one of, oh, what is it now, 100k unique visitors or something to that effect?

  • eastbayopine

    There are some very well established city planning and zoning reasons why neighborhoods are concerned with limiting food uses. Food uses place strains on parking, especially those that require high volume of patronage. The same is not true of a business that can thrive with fewer customer visits/day. There are also issues of delivery trucks, smells, garbage and finally “The elephant in the room”, restaurants will pay higher rents, which can place upward pressure on rents as a whole in the District and hurt, owner operator mom and pops…

    I am in agreement with simplifying the retail quotas, and also favor giving those who have food permits more latitude in using their space as the economy dictates. However, I also favor the City and the Community being highly sensitive to the downside of increasing the number of food establishments, for the aforementioned reasons. If we make it the “wild west”, there will be a lot of places to eat (more than we can support), and we will lose some of our well established and loved stores.

    We also need to consider the impact on the Elmwood Theater. We need night parking resources, so that people are encouraged to support this vital piece of our community. Yes, let’s make it easier, but let’s not go overboard. There is much to consider.

  • jjohannson

    That entire paragraph, if not satirical, frightens me right down to my socks.  This city needs tax revenue desperately.  When I read this, I wonder whether we need to declare zoning code bankruptcy.

  • guest

    South Berkeley, try East Berkeley. Sacramento Ave and College Ave are worlds apart.

  • Excellent Review

  • Peter

    Not to mention Albany does not have parking meters. How’s that for an advantage.

  • Alan Saldich

    I didn’t have any trouble comprehending the lead. And, just to pick a nit, I don’t think most editors would let you get away with capitalizing “The” when it’s not the first word of a sentence, as in: 

    “Friends, The writing quality on your site is generally poor.”But I’m not a professional writer or reporter :)

  • Zelda Bronstein

    Good point, guest. As a near neighbor to Solano who lives near the top of the Berkeley end of the street, I’ve pondered that disparity myself. I wonder if the difference doesn’t have to do with rents. Does an Albany address have less cachet than one in Berkeley? Or do Albany landlords think it does, and thus charge less than their Berkeley counterparts? As for EBGuy’s supposition about Albany’s proximity to busy San Pablo: another good point, but then, all of Solano is only a block away from Marin, which is filled with cars. Peter remarks that Albany does not have parking meters–another advantage, to be sure. But College Avenue is metered. College must have other pluses that outweigh its demand that people pay to park there.

  • Chris

    Get a life and quit hating!

  • Bola

    My understanding is that Gordon, which seems to own most of the top of Solano, charges outrageous rents and is unreasonable to deal with. (I’m not a shop owner, just a resident of the area.) It’s a shame to have so many empty storefronts, not to mention The Oaks Theater. This area used to be very busy.

  • While John Gordon does own the Oaks Theater and many other properties, he does not own all the buildings that have his sign on them. Gordon is also a commercial real estate agent who represents other property owners in Berkeley.

  • EBGuy

    I was perusing the Interactive Population search at the Census website and it appears that the lively commercial districts (Albany side of Solano and along College) are energized by census tracts with a majority renters.  I’ll leave it to the readers to determine if owner occupied housing leads to the death of commercial districts.

  • Creisbord

    Nah, I have a friend who’s in the Solano Avenue Business Association, and she says potential tenants come looking very specifically for properties below the Berkeley line, and she says they don’t say “Lower Albany rents”, or even “Free Parking”. They say, “Kafka-esque Berkeley Planning/Zoning/Permitting” . Except for a handful of restaurants that turn over frequently, vacancies on the Albany end tend to get leased in weeks, versus properties on the Berkeley end that stay empty for years.

  • Why do we have quota systems like this at all?
    If the business can be successful in the space, why is the City fussing around and telling people what kinds of stores they can or can’t open in particular neighborhoods?

    I get the need for zoning, but quotas like these seem to cause more trouble than they’re worth.