Berkeley Oaks Theatre efforts stall in negotiations

A local group spearheaded by Councilman Laurie Capitelli hopes to turn the Oaks Theater into a community arts space. Photo: Oaks Theater Consortium

A local group spearheaded by Councilman Laurie Capitelli hopes to turn the Oaks Theatre into a community arts space. Photo: Oaks Theatre Consortium

[Editor’s note: This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. with additional information from Councilman Laurie Capitelli.]

A local consortium’s attempts to come to an agreement to use North Berkeley’s Oaks Theatre on Solano Avenue and convert it into a community arts performance space have thus far been unsuccessful, reports Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who has spearheaded those efforts.

Capitelli provided an update to his constituents via email Friday. He thanked those who had expressed support for the venture, which kicked off last fall.

Last year, Capitelli, along with the Youth Musical Theater Company, formed a task force — the Oaks Theater Consortium — to spearhead the campaign to renovate the auditorium to remove the wall that separates the two theaters, take out several hundred seats from the balcony, and rebuild the main stage as a single performance space. The idea would be to bring together a group of anchor tenants from a range of arts organizations, and also potentially to offer simulcast viewings of special events like the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl, as well as host film festivals or smaller symposiums or panels.

He wrote: “The consortium of local performing arts groups has been so far unable to negotiate a business agreement with the Oaks Theatre owner that will insure a sustainable plan moving forward. We will continue to look at all reasonable possibilities including purchase and work to finding the right proposal at the right time for all concerned.”

The landlord and property owner of the theater is John Gordon.

Reached by phone shortly after 1 p.m., Capitelli said his group had asked Gordon to make improvements to the building, which is in rather “dilapidated” shape, and had been trying to agree on a rental price that would work for both parties. But they were unable to reach a consensus.

“We will continue to try and pursue the Oaks but, at this point, we’re pretty far apart, so we might try to look at purchase,” Capitelli said. “We couldn’t really come to agreement on either of those two areas.”

He added: “The price that the property owner was asking was beyond our budget.”

Visions of how Solano Avenue's Oaks Theater could one day look. Illustration: Miguel Lievano

Visions of how Solano Avenue’s Oaks Theatre could one day look. Illustration: Miguel Lievano

Despite the lack of progress Capitelli added, in his email, “what we have learned over the past year is that there is a significant need in this community for a permanent home for our rich and varied nonprofit performing arts groups. More importantly, there is a willingness amongst a strong core of groups to form a consortium to fill that need in a cooperative and collaborative fashion.”

The project could take at least $400,000 to retrofit, said Jane Tierney, president of the Thousand Oaks association board, who attended a community meeting about the project in October. A number of ownership ideas, such as a non-profit charter, were discussed at the meeting as a possible financial solution; the non-profit would seek a range of funding sources, including from the public, to accomplish the necessary changes.

Capitelli wrote Friday that the consortium’s steering committee “is pledged to continue this process to a successful conclusion. Though we are disappointed that we haven’t been able to date to bring a performing arts center to the heart of north Berkeley, we are still committed to finding a home for our nomadic cultural assets.”

He said, by phone, that the group is also looking into other locations in Berkeley and North Oakland that might be a better fit, though no specific location has been identified.

In late October, Capitelli wrapped up a public survey that drew responses from more than 1,300 people. The campaign drummed up pledges of financial support to the tune of more than $125,000 after an outreach effort during the 2013 Solano Stroll.

The Oaks Theatre was, for many years, an anchor site on Solano Avenue. It was built as a single-screen theater in 1925 and upgraded to two screens in 1973. Renaissance Rialto Theaters operated the Oaks between 1994 and 2005, and the Metropolitan Theaters Corporation ran it until 2010. Merriment Media used the theater to show Bollywood flicks for several months in 2010, but the company lost its lease after it failed to pay rent for three months.

Tierney said Berkeley architect Donn Logan, who worked on both Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre and The Freight & Salvage, was involved with the project as of last fall. Tables and comfortable stadium-style seating inside the theater, a concession area in the lobby and dressing rooms in the back are all part of the vision for the project. (Gordon received permission from the city in 2012 to sell beer and wine, as well as quick-service food, at the theater, though the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control does not appear to have an application on file at this time.) Tierney said Capitelli was also in the midst of securing agreements from nearby business owners with large parking lots to let their parking be used for theater-goers.

Capitelli said Friday afternoon that he remains optimistic because so many arts groups have approached the consortium and want to be involved.

“It’s a matter of finding a site that will work financially, but the groups have come together, and I know it will work given the right financial parameters,” he said. “There’s a very broad base of support out there. And each of these theater companies has its own constituency, each of them therefore has financial sources they can go to. It’s not all the same pockets.”

Last chance: Oaks Theatre survey; sketches revealed (10.23.13)
The Oaks Theatre may be reborn as performance space (09.16.13)
Oaks Theatre on Solano closes, future uncertain (01.03.11)
International flavor on the cards for Oaks Theatre (04.29.10)
Thousand Oaks Theatre to reopen with new focus (04.01.10)

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  • angry_moderate

    John Gordon sure seems to own a lot of the blight in Berkeley.

  • Chris in Berkeley

    It would be an awesome site for an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema like the open about to open in San Francisco.

  • Chris in Berkeley

    Oops. Make that “ the one about to open…”

  • bgal4

    If Berkeley voters woke up from the one party slate card election system than candidates interested in public safety improvements i.e. Dmitri Belzer director of Ed Roberts Campus would be elected. Instead Nancy Carleton and Kris Worthington endorse Max Anderson who has a record of protecting thugs from accountability and blocked city action against the nearby liquor store busted for selling stolen phones.

  • Guest

    Max Anderson who has a record of protecting thugs from accountability
    and blocked city action against the nearby liquor store busted for
    selling stolen phones.

    How, in your view, did Max Anderson “block city action against the nearby liquor store”? Council members simply do not have that authority.

  • John Freeman

    I think you meant your comment for a different thread. This one is about the Oak Theater.

  • Adrian Reynolds

    Seen so many great movies at the Oaks, well not all great, but a lot of nostalgia. Zelig, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty In Pink, Roxanne, Excalibur.

  • jjohannson

    Would berkeleyside be able to put together an inventory of prominent properties owned by John Gordon that have been vacant for over two years? Generally speaking, I’d love to know who owns Berkeley’s vacant lots and long-empty commercial properties. Time to light a fire under their a**es.

  • guest

    It will likely become 4 stories of housing over ground floor retail. The same fate as the gas station if the anti-Walgreens block that project.

  • e.n. bishop

    I think it should be demolished and replaced with a 20 story high density apartment building completely out of character with the rest of the neighborhood. And make sure the rent’s around $4,000 a month so anyone can live there.

  • iamanonymous

    Seems like eminent domain seizure of this property would be a good start to ending Gordon’s practice of asking outrageously high rents and leaving properties empty for years on end. Alternatively, Berkeley could write a squatter’s right law that would let people take over vacant, blighted properties until the owner submits a plan to use the property.

  • disqus_S1ql48Vi9i

    The Parkway and now the New Parkway has been doing this for YEARS people

  • guest

    The “New Parkway” isn’t a real theater though. Just some sofas and a projector in a dingy warehouse. Not the same thing.

  • Mbfarrel

    Sounds like a plan for much of Berkeley Flatlands to be seized by eminent domain to build more tax- lucrative uses.

  • Mbfarrel

    Why hasn’t the subject of parking come up yet? Well it’s not in my neighborhood so I don’t really care about that.

  • Chris J

    Fwiw, when I was managing the defunct Comic Relief Bookstore on Shattuck, John Gordon, while certainly a tough businessman, wanted us to stay in that spot. Our rent was several months in arrears by the time I came on yet he was willing to work with us to keep us in place. I wouldn’t say he bent over backwards but he was accommodating.

    Just my 2c worth.

  • disqus_S1ql48Vi9i

    ^^ Has never been there

  • Mr. Grumpy

    Indeed. Who are these “nearby business owners with large parking lots”? I can’t think of any except Andronico’s — and I seriously doubt they would want to allow parking before they close at night. I guess there’s a little bit behind Northbrae Community Church, but, apart from that? Zilch.