New paint on Berkeley Oaks Theatre: What does it mean?

The Oaks Theater has been painted recently. Photo: Mary Flaherty

The Oaks Theatre in North Berkeley has been painted recently, but its reopening remains uncertain. Photo: Mary Flaherty

We’ve heard from some curious readers asking about the new paint job underway in North Berkeley on the façade of the Oaks Theatre, as well as the building it is part of, so Berkeleyside checked in with property owner John Gordon to find out what was happening.

Gordon said the building is being repainted to spruce it up, which could make it more attractive to potential tenants.

The pink and green striping on display earlier this week was simply primer — paint left over from other projects — which will be covered over as the job continues.

Gordon said his company, Gordon Commercial Real Estate, takes painting seriously and has a “very good track record” of making sure the work looks good when it’s done.

The Oaks on Thursday. Photo: Mary Flaherty

The Oaks on Thursday. Photo: Mary Flaherty

He declined to provide an estimate for when the job might be complete, saying he did not want to raise expectations that could lead to disappointment if delays occur.

He also declined to say what color the building will ultimately be, and said that would depend on repairs that need to be done and how the work proceeds. Gordon did say that the plan is to treat the theater marquee as separate from the rest of the building in terms of its final hue.

The original building was constructed in the 1920s, but it was altered 10 years later. The front of the building was “ripped off” and replaced with the art deco-style marquee that remains, Gordon added. He said the new paint job will feature that architectural element as a highlight.

“We’re looking for the marquee to stand out,” he said. “It has a wonderful deco look and we’re trying to enhance the visibility of that.”

Before the paint job (circa 2010). Photo: Jane Tierney

Before the paint job (circa 2010). Photo: Jane Tierney

Gordon says he still hopes to find an operator who will come in and do something with the venue, respecting its original use as an assembly space of some kind, whether that’s for live performances or film screenings, or some other use.

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.

Last year, Berkeley City Councilman Laurie Capitelli said he was trying to drum up support, along with several local performance groups, to raise enough money to take over the space. But that plan, so far, has been unsuccessful.

Gordon said Thursday that his company, which is primarily a commercial brokerage firm, has “done as much as we can as a landlord” to market the vacant theater property at 1875 Solano Ave.

“We’re fixing the building up so it looks nice when someone comes in,” he said of the theater, adding that he has also secured a beer and wine license to allow alcohol sales.

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

Visions of how Solano Avenue’s Oaks Theater could one day look as a performance space. Illustration: Miguel Lievano

According to a notice posted on Gordon’s website as of last October, the Oaks was designed by the Reid Brothers in 1925 in the “modified Moorish” style, was remodeled in the Art Deco style in 1935, and has seating for 1,000 people. The property, which has “historical landmark” status, spans 16,000 square feet and had an asking lease rate at that time of $10,400 per month. (See the notice, dated July 2012.)

Equipment outside the Oaks Theatre recently. Photo: Ira Serkes

Equipment outside the Oaks Theatre. Photo: Ira Serkes

He said he had been “as proactive as possible” to try to find an appropriate tenant.

“We do what we can to polish it and make it look good,” he said. “We haven’t found anybody.”

He said his company has pursued architectural drawings for different ideas, looking at the space as a single theater or investigating what it might take to put in a stage.

“We’ve hired consultants on a variety of things,” Gordon said. “What we really need is an operator who understands there’s a market there.”

Overall, he said, Berkeley commercial real estate prospects have been looking up in recent times. He noted that his company completed 70 transactions in Berkeley last year.

“Berkeley’s a really active market right now,” Gordon said. “We’re getting a lot of tenants interested.”

Update, Sept. 16 And here’s what the building looked like as of September.

The Oaks on Solano, as of September 2014. Photo: Mary Flaherty

The Oaks on Solano, as of September 2014. Photo: Mary Flaherty

Berkeley Oaks Theatre efforts stall in negotiations (01.17.14)
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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  • Eric Panzer

    For some reason, I’m now craving watermelon.

  • Lin Brand

    I wish the Parkway folks would take it.

  • Sure would love to see that neon lit again!


  • Chris J

    Yah, hard to believe its been four years since the place shut down. I wonder how much the rent there is?

    And oh, yeh…watermelon. I get it now.

  • Robertjm

    The final color will be dependent on how much repairs needs to be completed? How does that even make any sense???

  • jjohannson

    How much, if anything, has it cost John Gordon to keep this property closed for five years? What strange brew of local law keeps so many Berkeley commercial properties vacant for years on end? How many millions of dollars of tax revenue has the city forfeited because of multi-year commercial vacancies?

  • Bill N

    Maybe he can’t tear it down but aside from that I doubt there much keeping him from having another theatre, perhaps like the El Cerrito or Parkside in Oakland.

  • BerkeleyMom

    I feel the same way about the empty Black Oaks Books space on Shattuck. Sad to lose our bookstore only to see the storefront empty for years on end. I can only imagine there is some kind of favorable tax write off for the losses.

  • jjohannson

    Absolutely. In one of the most notable business districts in East Bay, within a mile of the university, on a main thoroughfare abutting a residential district with million-dollar homes on either side, this sizable property hasn’t generated a dime of business for five years at least. Who owns it? Why haven’t they filled it? If owning empty commercial property in such a neighborhood makes business sense for the owner, something significant needs fixing. Why zone it commercial when no commerce is taking place?

  • 510Jenn

    I’ve been dreaming for years about turning the Oaks into a family-friendly community center/cinema/performance space combo with on-site childcare (as long as parents remain onsite, no need to fulfill serious childcare requirements). I even started a business plan. But the cinema business is NOT EASY right now (even the Parkway is having problems getting films to show). It may make more sense to be a non-profit arts center that just happens to show old movies to members. I’m not the person to run things (not my expertise at all), but I have an entrepreneurial mind and would be a great team player. Anyone else interested?

  • Guest

    White for stucco repairs, pink for dry rot repairs, green for underlying structural repairs… isn’t that obvious?

  • Guest

    It’s beginning to feel like Detroit.

  • John Freeman

    How much, if anything, has it cost John Gordon to keep this property closed for five years?

    Presumably about $0. He or whoever owns the place gets to just sit at their desk and watch their net worth increase, day after day, even as the property sits vacant. They’ve got theirs, jack, what’s your problem?

    An owner must pay taxes on the property and basic maintenance (like painting!) with or without a tenant. Rent would offset some of that expense. Let’s put this in perspective, though.

    Adding a tenant would both create new revenue, and new expenses / more work. If the expenses are too large then there would be a new net loss. If the revenue is large enough, the owner’s taxes go up as well.

    If a commercial landlord is well enough off that they don’t need the extra revenue and don’t mind paying the property taxes then how should they make the decision to rent or not rent?

    Owners can choose to wait for a dream tenant whose presence will significantly increase the value of the property.

    For a property like this a dream tenant would presumably invest a lot of money up-front to improve the property and get it ready for the new business. In exchange, such a tenant might demand a fairly long-term lease or similar guarantee. Thus, even though the dream tenant is suddenly providing lots of improvements and paying a good rent, still the owner is giving up a lot, too.

    Meanwhile, the value of this and other commercial properties in Berkeley is not exactly falling.

    For the most part those empty storefronts and theaters are making their owners richer every day, just sitting there.

    It’s sort of funny to me (not “funny ha ha”, as they say) when some Berkeleyans assume the long vacancies are mainly caused by supposed over-regulation of business in Berkeley.

    On the contrary, if the rentiers really needed the cash flow those places would be rented out right quick.

  • Guest

    Think about this… for my daughter’s dance recitals we go to the amazing theater at El Cerrito High School, for birthday parties and summer camps we go to the amazing El Cerrito pool… and to Berkeley we go for…? still thinking… thinking…

    I love this town, but in some ways it really lets me down. In some ways it seems stuck, unable to reinvigorate itself as it evolves. Stasis.

  • Iris Fleur

    We need a good brewery/ sports bar in that area.

  • guest

    Most small theaters aren’t moneymakers. Remember the original El Cerrito/Parkway owners went bankrupt. This building probably needs significant renovations to make it ready to reopen for business which would be extremely expensive since I’m sure it has landmark status. Even then it would be difficult to find an operator because there just isn’t much market for arthouse theaters and residents would doubtless complain (BUT THE PARKING!!!) if they tried to have it be a music venue or something.

  • Bill N

    Just dreaming. As John Freeman said earlier, the owner can just sit on it and “wait for a dream tenant whose presence will significantly increase the value of the property.”

  • bfg

    There are three a few blocks down on San Pablo and there’s Pyramid Brewery on Gilman, not far away.

  • Berkeley often paves the streets so they can draw straight lines to show where to dig the street up a few weeks later.

    Same system


  • I’m taking a risk breaking Omertà by telling you … but here’s the code as I understand it. It’s more about Berkeley Politics than repairs ….

    White for the color of the protestors’ hair

    Pink for Red Diaper Babies

    Green for the commercial property owners who have figured out how to lose money every month by keeping stores vacant, but make it up on volume.


  • guest

    There are a large number of people in Berkeley who are so convinced change will result in the loss of something precious they can’t recognize the harm they are doing to our community by forcing the stasis. In fairness, that doesn’t seem to be the problem here, at least not directly. But there is no question Berkeley is hostile toward those who would invest in it. It’s sad.

  • EBGuy

    Ruegg and Ellsworth own the 1495 Shattuck parcel. You might recognize the name; they also are co-owners of the Spengers parking lot that was featured this past week in Berkeleyside. They pay a little over $26k per year in taxes on the 1495 Shattuck parcel (6750 sq.ft. per city of Berkeley).

  • Robertjm

    I’m failing to understand how paving streets has to do with painting buildings.

  • Restoration Headware

    For stucco repairs a high quality primer made of 100% acrylic resins is recommended. Primer is tinted only a small fraction of the final color because adding tint weakens the paints bond. Using left over paint as a primer is only acceptable over interior drywall.

    The application of left over deep base colors as a primer, as shown in the pictures saves money, and does a poor job.

  • Guest explained the concept

    “White for stucco repairs, pink for dry rot repairs, green for underlying structural repairs… isn’t that obvious?”

    It tells the workers what to take out. It’s the modern version of Paint By Numbers.


  • guest

    If you’ve got it all figured out, why not go into the business for yourself?

    The implication that Berkeley isn’t over-regulated and anti-business compared to our neighbors is easily disproved by modern history.

  • jjohannson

    Do you have a readily available link for that information? It would be tremendously helpful! Tx…

  • jjohannson

    Tx, Ira, for that last link. Good backgrounder.

  • Chris J

    Sports bar? Bah!

  • guest

    I believe the 1495 Shattuck site will have a 4 to 5 story residential over retail building in a few years

  • guest

    A “few blocks down”? “Not far away”?

  • I really have seen it … I recall it was Colusa north of Solano

  • Cat Monkeywoman

    A killer jazz lounge would be awesome. Something less stuffy than Yoshi’s. More Gatsby-ish in style, with amazing live music, overstuffed couches, mood lighting, dancing… ahhh I can dream.

  • Iceland_1622

    What Gordon could never ever divulge, not could, is really pretty simple to understand and fortunately even he was left of of the loop on this issue for his own protection. These special paints and colors, which will soon be covered and colored are a ‘DLM pattern’ or “Designated Location Marker” that is or can be very easily read by US Military spy satellites in high earth orbit even with very dense cloud cover. Additionally, or secondarily, they are to be used or will be by an upcoming nation wide network of military and third party drone operators to locate and orient to or with during future flight tests planned for mid to late 2015. It’s just part of a somewhat primitive and yet effective redundant back-up subsystem if the military GPS guidance systems are rendered inoperable at any time during future test exercises or a real civil emergency.

  • Flash?

  • guest

    The neighborhood already has a community space with on-site childcare. It’s called the Cactus Taqueria.

    An adult-friendly burrito joint, on the other hand, would be a welcome addition.

  • kwyet_guy

    try vanessas or khana peena or britt-marie or fonda or……?

  • guest

    Those are all nice places, but not really bars per se (although Fonda comes close, in an upscale Cesar kind of way).

    But bfg was clearly responding in a truer sense- thinking of real breweries or bars that could hold a hundred or more folks. And for that, you have to go, what, 15 blocks to San Pablo and then a few more to get to the Mallard, or another mile to Pyramid?

    Which is why “few” is an odd word for the number of blocks to San Pablo, and “not far away” is a bizarre description of the distance to Pyramid. By car, maybe, but by bike or foot those are so far away as to be out of the question for drinkers.

    The closest obvious option is the Westbrae beer garden, which, as has been noted, is instantly liked enough that neighbors are complaining and occupancy limits are being pushed.

    Why not something like the WBG on Solano? Something folks can walk to and home from? Heck, put it at the gas station site on Colusa if the theater isn’t a good fit. You don’t think a Jupiter or Triple Rock would do well there?

  • 510Jenn

    Hear hear!

  • Guest

    Maybe they should make it illegal to hire low skilled workers at a market clearing wage. That should do it.

  • Gusted

    Maybe they are dressing it up in hopes of finding a tenant, or at least not making the neighborhood not look “blighted.” Nah, a landlord wouldn’t do that.

  • A brew pub atop whatever-goes-in-there?

  • Eric – I smile everytime I see this! Thanks

  • emraguso

    We got the following note from Cy Silver, who shared some reflections about his family’s history and more. His father’s dry cleaning shop, Toggery Cleaners, was in the Oaks Theater building from the 1930s to the 1950s, where the copy shop is now.

    “My dad’s shop was Toggery Cleaners; you can see the sign in photos at the time that include the Oaks Theater Building.

    “The Oaks was part of a small local movie theater chain, Blumenfeld Theaters. That chain included the Oaks, and among others the Berkeley Theater (downtown Berkeley, on the east side of Shattuck betw. Bancroft and Durant) and a drive-in in Richmond where the Hilltop Shopping Center is now located. Blume Drive at Hilltop takes its name from the theater chain.”

    We had this photo on Berkeleyside on a past story — and you can definitely see the shop:

  • I took a bunch of photos of Solano before they repaved it … at that time, the concrete clearly showed the curved streetcar path … time to do an archeological drive dig.

    Just last night was looking over old USGS maps … you can clearly see this wye just west of the Arlington Circle .. USGS Map from 1915.


  • emraguso

    Just posted a photograph on the bottom of the story of what the Oaks looks like now. Like it?

  • 510Jenn

    No “team” now. Just me and my big dreams (and desire for family-friendly employment close to home!). Coffee some time? Call me at 510.717.1853