New Elmwood restaurant seeks city approval tonight

A “very preliminary” rendering of the restaurant being proposed for 2635 Ashby Ave. (at College) by the owners of downtown’s Comal. Image: Abueg Morris Architects

Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board will tonight consider the application by the owners of Comal in downtown Berkeley to open a second restaurant in the old Wright’s Garage space at 2635 Ashby Ave. (at College) in the Elmwood.

City planners are recommending that ZAB approve the proposal, which would entail granting an exception to the Elmwood quota system and agreeing to a midnight closing time on Fridays and Saturdays (an extension from 11:00 p.m.).

Many in the community support the plan, although there are also local residents who oppose it, principally on the grounds that it would cause parking headaches in the neighborhood.

Comal owners John Paluska and Andrew Hoffman envision that the yet-to-be-named spot would serve Northern Californian cuisine and have a full bar, including a menu of craft cocktails. The restaurant would be open for lunch and dinner. The atmosphere, energy and design would likely be similar to Comal, Paluska told Berkeleyside when we broke the news of the plan in June.

The space at 2635 Ashby Ave. in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood where the Comal owners want to open a second restaurant.

The space at 2635 Ashby Ave. in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood where the Comal owners want to open a second restaurant.

Since then, Paluska and Hoffman, whose company is called Belts and Suspenders, have engaged in concerted community outreach — holding meetings with local residents and Elmwood merchants and soliciting support via email.

The property owner, John Gordon, commissioned a parking study and a traffic impact analysis report, both conducted by engineering firm Omni Means.

The parking analysis calculated that the restaurant would generate a peak parking demand for 37 spaces on a Saturday and 34 spaces on the highest weekday during its peak hour (7:00-8:00 pm). The peak demand was also applied to the lunch period to remain conservative. Parking demand would range from 22-36 spaces at the other surveyed times of the day.

The report concluded that “parking demand prompted by restaurant customers would be accommodated within the supply of available spaces in its study area, with a surplus of 74 spaces remaining available during the peak time period on Saturday evening.” (Read the full report.)

The traffic report concluded that the new restaurant could be expected to add approximately 100-120 daily trips divided to the east and west on Ashby Avenue, and 80-100 trips divided to the north and south on College Avenue near the site of the new restaurant. This translates as approximately 0.5% or less to daily volumes. (Read the full report.)

Joshua Sperry, an Elmwood resident, launched an online petition in support of the new restaurant soon after the plan came to light, which, at the time of writing, had 138 supporters. Sperry does not envisage the new place having a big impact on parking. “People driving to the area for dinner wouldn’t be parking overnight, and we don’t see one more restaurant adding a lot of extra cars to our streets,” he wrote on the online petition site. He hopes that many of the restaurant’s customers won’t be driving at all. “People already walk and bike to the Elmwood, and hopefully this would be another good reason to do that.”


A petition in support of a new restaurant at 2635 Ashby says a full bar serving craft cocktails would be welcome. Here: the bar at Comal, whose owners are behind the Elmwood proposal. Photo: Postcard PR

He also expressed enthusiasm for the restaurant’s proposed bar. “If there is one thing that Elmwood currently lacks, it is a place where adults can go and have a good cocktail. With the growing craft cocktail trend as part of the “slow food” movement, and more types of liquor being produced locally, we would really like to see a full service bar within walking distance,” he said.

Local residents’ group CENA (Claremont and Elmwood Neighborhood Association) has not taken a position in support or in opposition to the restaurant. A straw poll among its members conducted a couple of months ago indicated support, although concerns were raised to do with parking, trash and extended hours.

Paluska and Hoffman opened Comal at 2020 Shattuck Ave. in May 2012. It was the first restaurant for Paluska, who formerly was the manager of the popular band Phish. Comal is seen to have revived a formerly lackluster part of downtown Berkeley.

This is not the first time someone has tried to open a restaurant in this Elmwood location. In 2007, a group called the Elmwood Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit against commercial realtor John Gordon and Berkeley after the Council had given its approval for a  5,000 sq ft restaurant in the same building. The lawsuit was settled in February 2008. The neighborhood group contended that the city had not put the project through the proper environmental review before issuing a permit, and that the restaurant-bar would bring undue traffic and noise to the neighborhood.

The Zoning Adjustments Board meets tonight at 7:00 p.m. in Council Chambers at Old City Hall, Second Floor, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The Ashby restaurant is item 2 on the agenda.

Comal owners plan to open new Berkeley restaurant (06.25.13)
Nosh Talk: Comal chef Matt Gandin (11.14.12)
Bauer waxes lyrical about Comal: A magnificent package (07.16.13)
Comal: New restaurant takes a bet on downtown Berkeley (04.30.12)

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  • Andrew D

    I would just like to take this opportunity to give a big thank you to BerkeleySide for announcing the pending ZAB discussion along with background on the topic. This is a perfect example of the type of community journalism that is vital to an informed city and was sourly lacking before your arrival to most folks who were not dialed in to various city commissions or boards. Thanks for what you do.

  • wooliemonster

    This type of licensing system is absurd to me. I’m still trying to wrap my head around a quota system for something as simple as restaurants. Maybe I’ll assimilate at some point and it will be obvious and natural.

  • Faded_seaside

    It’s a satirical account.

  • DK

    Let’s hope this goes through. This would really fill a need in the neighborhood.

  • David D.

    Don’t count on it. I’ve lived in Berkeley for more than 5 years and still can’t figure out why there are certain kinds of quotas and limits to opening hours. As long as Berkeley keeps up with the quotas and limits, I’ll be spending my money in Oakland instead…not because I’m mean spirited but because I *CAN’T* spend it here.

  • Doc

    Agreed. We are all better off as new restaurants open and give more choices. If they offer a better meal at an agreeable price, they will do fine.

  • anon

    I fully support ths venture. The city and it’s residents need to understand that there are high demands for restaurants and bars which are open later. Otherwise residents are traveling to Oakland and San Francisco. Let’s keep Berkeley thriving.

  • a neighbor

    No, there is nothing similar in the area. Paluska offers a higher quality venue than we have ever seen. I do hope the plan is approved.

  • Thanks for saying that Andrew D.! We endeavor to be helpful. It’s always gratifying to hear positive feedback.

  • Heather_W_62

    Haha, I’ve lived here for 50 years, and I still can’t figure it out.

  • It’s simple, really. If you have lots of restaurants and no retail, there is less reason to shop in that area, and all of the businesses suffer, including the restaurants. If you look at the ratio of retail to food in Union Square, or any mall, there is lots of retail. The problem in Berkeley is that every time a retail store closes, John Gordon turns the property into a restaurant, because he can charge more rent. And no matter how much extra red tape Berkeley has, what John Gorden wants, John Gordon gets. Don’t get me wrong, I want to see a business open in that spot. I was just hoping for something I could actually afford to patronize.

  • gary

    Let’s hope that the new restaurant has the revolutionary Meyer Sound system that makes it possible to hear each other at Comal.

  • Chris J

    Good one.

  • Ashley B.

    Soo… what happened?!

  • Mbfarrel

    The quotas were put in place to benefit then existing businesses and stop change. Berkeley was perfect then and we must preserve that perfection.