Business

Solano Avenue: The pressure is on for North Berkeley shopping district to up its game

The Oaks on Solano, as of September 2014. Photo: Mary Flaherty
The Oaks Theater on Solano Avenue, photographed in September 2014. The Oaks was for decades an anchor tenant for the avenue, but it has sat empty for nearly five years. Photo: Mary Flaherty

By Gill South

When French-style bakery La Farine abruptly closed up shop on Berkeley’s Solano Avenue this summer, there was an outcry from local residents. Its departure also created another empty storefront on a street that has its fair share of them, particularly in its easternmost stretch, near The Alameda.

But La Farine owner Jeff Dodge said he misses the North Berkeley commercial district and is actively looking for a way to return there. And Gina Gould, the landlord of the building Dodge vacated, at 1820 Solano, said she’s confident she will sign up a new, likely food-related, business for the space before Christmas.

The new store will join a cluster of new businesses that have opened, or are about to, on the wide shopping street that stretches 2 miles east to west through Albany and Berkeley.


Will they bring new energy to a street that is known for its gigantic annual Solano Stroll event, but which, unlike Berkeley’s Elmwood or Gourmet Ghetto neighborhoods, retains a slightly folksy feel?

Local observers certainly believe it’s time for Solano to up its game. With the emergence of the Gilman District, a dynamic new commercial district to the southwest anchored by a gleaming new Whole Foods, and the continuing growth of the upscale Fourth Street area as a shopping destination, the pressure is on Solano to buck up.

The neighborhood needs to be open to newcomers and to take steps to remain competitive, said Allen Cain, executive director of the Solano Avenue Association.

Read more about Solano Avenue on Berkeleyside.

Citing the recent resistance from locals to the idea of a new Walgreens opening on Solano Avenue, Cain said: “If you keep saying: ‘No, let’s fight,’ as happened with Walgreens, then you stop giving people a reason to come. Now that Gilman is coming online, it’s even more important that we reinforce our end.”


Cain said Apple looked at opening its Berkeley store on Solano before choosing Fourth Street in 2011. What a difference that would have made, he remarked wistfully.

New hair salon “a potential game changer”

Grove Salon. Photo: P A U L E T T T A G G A R T A R C H I T E CTS
Grove Salon: seen by Solano Avenue Association’s Allen Cain as “a potential game changer.” Photo: Paulett  Taggart Architects

However, Cain sees signs for optimism. He describes a new hair salon that opened this summer at Solano and Santa Fe Avenue as “a potential game changer.”

Local hairstylist Christina Lameraner, formerly of Hair Solano and Festoon, opened Grove Salon with her husband Chris Speer after buying the building at 1483 Solano in Albany. They hired architect Eric Robinson of Paulett Taggart Architects to oversee a substantial renovation.

“Watching my parents in the retail business all these years in high-demand areas, I saw many times where they were more than at the mercy of their landlords,” said Lameraner. “Chris and I decided to really commit fully to being and staying here on Solano. We love the community here. When you come see us at Grove, you will see it was designed not only as a hair salon, but a space for the community to share and enjoy.”

Grove has an outdoor space at the back for clients, who are mainly local, and an area in front that might become a mini-boutique. The salon has eight chairs and, at the moment, there is just one other stylist besides Lameraner. She said she will be boosting staff numbers in the next few months and plans to run a training program.


Lameraner said she has been getting a lot of business from Naveana, the nail and waxing salon next door, which she has gone to for years.

“It attracts women who take care of themselves,” she said.

New energy: Boss Burger, Little Star expansion, new café-bar

Boss Burger opened on Nov. 19. Photo: Steve L.
Boss Burger opened on Nov. 19. Photo: Steve L.

Also on the Albany side, Little Star Pizza restaurateur Jon Guhl and business partner, chef Ryan Murff, opened the doors to Boss Burger at 1187 Solano on Nov. 19. The restaurant is described as “an ode to the classic American burger joint,” and early reviews on Yelp are almost all positive.

At the same time, Guhl told Berkeleyside he is moving his Little Star pizza restaurant into new premises almost twice the size of its current space at 1175 Solano. The new location, at 1181 Solano, is under construction and Guhl hopes to open next July. Meanwhile a new concept café-bar, inspired by the food of Murff’s childhood in Eugene, Oregon, is slated to go into the current Little Star space.

Guhl, who also owns Little Star Pizza in the Mission but lives in El Cerrito, said he likes Albany as a location.

“There are a lot of young families moving in here, the schools are good and the rents are reasonable,” he said.

His relationship with Solano Group landlord Tony Kershaw has also been instrumental in his decision to expand into its other properties.

“Solano Group has been helping me,” he said. “To get a good property owner is so, so rare.”

Guhl said he would like to see more retailers join him in his part of Solano Avenue, but there are few leasing opportunities in the western end of the avenue at the moment.

“It would be nice to see some higher end retail — get something a little more upscale, not quite Fourth Street,” he said.

Berkeley food business may take over old La Farine location

The retail space at xxxx Solano Ave. that, until July, housed La Farine, is likely to have a new food tenant soon. Photo: Trachtenberg Architects
The retail space at 1820 Solano Ave. that, until July, housed La Farine, is likely to have a new food tenant soon. Photo: Trachtenberg Architects

Up the street in Berkeley, La Farine’s former landlord Gould, who co-owns the David Trachtenberg-designed building at 1820 Solano, said she is hoping to sign a tenant in the next couple of months. She warned it was not likely to be a bakery, despite diligent approaches to bakeries all over the Bay Area.

Gould is in advanced talks with two potential tenants, she said.

“Both have had food businesses in Berkeley and we will ask them for a big emphasis on bakery goods — pies, cakes and baked goods,” she said.

Number one on her list is a Berkeley food business that closed and that locals raised a petition to bring back. She is hoping to have something signed by Christmas. (She declined to name the business as negotiations are still underway.)

“We are part of the neighborhood and part of the system. With the way we look at it, it has to be a win for everybody,” she said.

Gould said she had had strong interest from numerous pizza eateries but, after talking to the CEO of Zachary’s Chicago Pizza, decided against it: “We don’t think it would be very neighborly to try and compete with Zachary’s when Zachary’s has been here for 20 or 30 years,” she said.

As well as the 1,600-square-foot former bakery space, Gould is leasing a retail unit next door that is close to 1,000 square feet. Asking rents are between $2.60 and $3 per square foot.

Other news for Solano is that Safeway is staying put. Rumors had been doing the rounds that the grocery store at 1500 Solano might be on the move. However Keith Turner — director of public and government affairs for Safeway’s Northern California Division — told Berkeleyside the company remained “bullish” on the area and would be in fact be making improvement plans public soon.

Vacant storefronts remain at eastern end of Solano

By Hand
By Hand on Solano at Ensanada, next door to Pharmaca, is closing in March. Photo: Google Images

There is plenty of work that still needs to be done to improve the blocks at the eastern end of Solano, near The Alameda. A handful of large and small unit vacancies are currently preventing that end of the street from thriving.

The largest space available to lease at the eastern end of Solano, apart from the Oaks Theatre being marketed by John Gordon, is the By Hand store next to Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy at 1746 Solano. This 2,500-square-foot unit, with its lease ending in March, has so far attracted serious interest from a food services company and a spa operator, according to Red Oak Realty broker Patrick Leaper, who started marketing it in mid-October.

Leaper said he is trying to interest La Farine in the space, which is a bit larger than the bakery is looking for but would not cost much more than its rent in its former Solano premises.

La Farine’s Dodge said he is actively looking for a suitable location of around 1,600 to 2,000 square feet, but hadn’t found anything to date: “We loved Solano, we really miss the community,” he said recently.

Local 123 owner looking for second location on Solano Avenue

Local 123 at Flowerland. Photo: Local 123
Local 123 at Flowerland at 1330 Solano. The coffee shop’s owner is looking to open a new spot on the avenue. Photo: Local 123

Frieda Hoffman, owner of the Local 123 café and coffee roaster, which has its main location on San Pablo Avenue near University Avenue, and runs a busy café trailer within the popular Flowerland nursery at 1330 Solano in Albany, is also looking for more space on Solano, but said she is finding the rents too high. She has looked at the former Fickle Bag space at 1885 Solano in the Berkeley stretch, next to Noah’s Bagels, among others.

“We looked at upper Solano but it’s a really tricky environment. A lot of the spaces that are small enough to be a manageable property for us, the rents are very high,” she said.

Hoffman has relished the Local 123 trailer café site at Flowerland, where its house-roasted coffee and baked goods are drawing in regulars. Its second year there was better than its first, she said.

“Flowerland and Local 123 are very likeminded businesses,” she said, adding that Solano is quite different from San Pablo Avenue.

“The people are very different. There is a different level of appreciation for what we are doing. There are other retailers who are coming in too — Chloe’s Closet, Therapy, it’s very nice to see.” Kids’ consignment store Chloe’s Closet is at 1545 Solano, and women’s clothing and accessories chain Therapy is at 1575 Solano, both in Berkeley.

Like Grove, the owners of Therapy opted to avoid landlords and rents by buying their building. Wayne Whelan and his wife Jing Chen bought the store and offices at 1575 Solano last year.

They chose Solano because they wanted to be among neighborhood stores that are part of a community, said Whelan: “My wife and I don’t want to grow for growth’s sake, but to build a generational business that will last longer than we will.”

“We want to be able to give money to school teachers, we want to give back to the communities that we are in,” he said.

Even though business at the store has been challenging since its arrival late in 2013, Whelan said he is happy with his long-term decision to come to the area. He recommends the French food business La Bedaine nearby, as well as The Bone Room next door.

“Ron’s Bone Room, what a great neighborhood store. I miss him already,” he said. “It’s things like that that make places interesting.” (The Bone Room’s founder Ron Cauble died in July.)

Therapy also has a store in the Elmwood, which, Whelan said, is “a lot more cyclical” than the Solano location. People shop on Solano in a more “destination-led” manner, he said.

As to ways forward for the street, there is no shortage of ideas.

“Solano has four micro-districts — each has its own personality and its own demographic,” said Cain. Just back from a trip to Holland, he said Solano could use more outdoor seating and more live music.

Eric Panzer, an urban planner and chair of non-profit organization Livable Berkeley, said he would like to see more mixed retail/residential developments built along the street to bring more life to it. This greater population would bring it more on par with shopping districts like Elmwood and Shattuck Avenue, he said. However, after the local reaction to a Walgreens on Solano, he said he is not holding his breath.

“Even putting something like a 3- or 4-story building, retail (on the ground) with apartments above, there would be a strong resistance process. Look at the proposal of Walgreens, there was so much resistance.”

There are also other things that hold Solano back, he said. It does not benefit from the anchors that the Elmwood has, such as UC Berkeley to the north and Rockridge to the south, which also includes a BART station.

“The population density of Elmwood is twice to four times that of Solano, so there is more foot traffic. Elmwood also has more of a mixed population with a lot more students,” he said.

Architect Eric Robinson, who rehabbed the new Grove Salon and is a Berkeley resident, is watching the street’s development with interest.

“I think Solano is in an interesting transition phase with residual long-term businesses that don’t have much energy, and then you have a handful of businesses springing up like Grove,” he said.

He said he thought Flowerland is another business helping to reinforce the community. And he mentioned William Stout, a world-renowned publishing business, that picked Solano Avenue for a small outpost. It must have seen the potential, he said.

Question mark over future of 76 gas station site

Walgreens 3
A rendering of a Walgreens’ proposed store for Solano Avenue on the site of a 76 gas station. The store is unlikely to be built following a change in zoning law. Image: Kahn Design Associates

As ideas for Solano Avenue’s improvement continue to flow, a question mark hangs over what will happen in place of Solano 76, the gas station site on the east corner of Colusa and Solano Avenue. The proposed Walgreens store has sunk without trace after an ordinance from the Berkeley City Council in June that requires a distance of 1,000 feet between large pharmacies.

Eric Angstadt, city of Berkeley Director of Planning and Development, said: “The city of Berkeley sent a letter to the project applicants on Aug. 4 withdrawing the application due to inactivity.”

Read more about the Walgreens project on Berkeleyside.

The 76 gas station operator is rumored to be leaving the site at the end of December. There was no one available to confirm this before press time.

Meanwhile, finding a tenant for the venerable Oaks Theatre, once an anchor tenant on the avenue but vacant for nearly five years, remains a challenge for owner John Gordon of Gordon Commercial Real Estate. Gordon recently received permission from the city of Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to make improvements to bring the five retail units on either side of the theater into keeping with its original façade, which dates back to the 1860s.

The situation with tenants for the theater is “status quo” said Kevin Gordon, from Gordon Commercial Real Estate. “We have some options but would still like to keep it in the theater market,” he said.

Read more Berkeleyside coverage of the Solano Avenue commercial district.

Related:
La Farine on Solano Avenue in Berkeley closes abruptly (07.01.14)
Commission votes to restrict large new drugstores in Berkeley (03.21.14)
Berkeley Oaks Theater efforts stall in negotiations (01.17.14)

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