Climbing company to buy Berkeley’s Oaks Theatre and turn it into gym

A mock-up of what the Oaks Theatre on Solano Avenue will look like if it is converted into a Touchstone climbing facility. Photo: Treve Johnson Photography

Update, Aug. 18: There will be a community meeting to discuss Touchstone’s plans for the Oaks Theatre on Wednesday, Aug. 23. The meeting, organized by Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, is at Haver Hall, Northbrae Community Church, 941 The Alameda, Berkeley, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.

Original storyTouchstone Climbing, the company behind Ironworks and other gyms around California, plans to purchase the Oaks Theatre in Berkeley and turn it into a climbing facility.

Touchstone’s plans, which must still be approved by Berkeley, call for leaving the Oaks marquee and entrance intact, as well as the five retail spaces fronting Solano Avenue, according to Mailee Hung, Touchstone’s director of outreach and communications.

The 21,575-square-foot interior will be transformed into a large bouldering facility, said Hung. Other spaces will include workout rooms and a yoga studio, she said.


“We love buildings with lots of history and character,” said Hung. “We want to maintain the integrity of the building.”

Bouldering at a Touchstone gym. The new Oaks gym will focus on bouldering, which is climbing on rocks without the use of ropes or harnesses. Photo: Touchstone Climbing

The owners of Touchstone Climbing, Mark and Debra Melvin, have always had a fondness for the area.

“I got my start rock climbing in the neighborhood 39 years ago,” Mark Melvin said in a statement. “I was attending Cal in 1978 when I first learned about Indian Rock, a stone’s throw uphill from the Oaks Theater. I hadn’t even heard about rock climbing before that. I used to run from my dorm room to Indian Rock to boulder. Within a few months, I met Debra there, she having graduated from Oakland’s CCA. We’ve been climbing together ever since. We both have roots in the Berkeley Hills. Who doesn’t define Solano Avenue without a mention of the Oaks?”

Mark Melvin later told Berkeleyside, “It’s an awesome location.”

Touchstone Climbing plans to submit its plans to Berkeley this week. It will also hold meetings with neighbors soon to tell them about the plans, said Hung.

It could take four to six months to get a use permit and another few months to get a building permit, said Melvin. If all goes well and the neighborhood likes the idea, the gym could open in a year to 18 months.

“If there is opposition, we won’t build the building,” said Melvin.

Sophie Hahn, the city councilwoman who represents the area, said she is “absolutely delighted with the idea of a climbing gym for the Oaks Theatre.”  While she knows that some of her constituents were hoping to see a performing arts venue in the space, she said it will be good to have a new business like a climbing gym that draws a large number of people to the top of Solano. They will visit nearby restaurants, cafes, and shops, she said.

Some residents might raise concerns about the impact of the gym on the community, such as traffic, though, said Hahn. Those are issues that can be explored in the permit process and in neighborhood hearings.

“A climbing gym has the advantage, as opposed to a performance-type venue, of not having one time when huge numbers of people come,” said Hahn. “A climbing gym has a steady stream of people. I am sure they have peak times, but it is not like everyone arrives at once. I think it may have the ability to bring people to Solano all day and evening, which will be fantastic for the local businesses.”

The Oaks Theatre, at 1861-1877 Solano Ave. near The Alameda, has sat vacant for six years. After hoping that some community groups would band together and lease it out for a community performance space, the owner, John Gordon, put it on the market in May for $4,250,000. The building sold for close to its asking price, said Melvin.

Mark Melvin said he has been eyeing the building but held back making an offer because of the interest of theater groups.

“A few years ago I looked into it but there was hope a theater group would go into the building,” said Marks. “I didn’t want to go against that hope.”

The theater is well-suited for a gym because its ceilings are almost 40 feet high.

“It’s a tall space, which is needed for high-qualityy indoor rock climbing,” said Melvin. “That’s really hard to find.”

The Melvins started Touchstone Climbing in 1995 with the opening of Mission Cliffs, a climbing facility in San Francisco’s Mission district. The company now has 11 facilities around the state, including Berkeley’s other gym, Ironworks, on Potter Street. Touchstone frequently repositions large abandoned spaces into indoor climbing facilities, such as an old movie theater in San Jose and a former steam generation plant in Oakland.Touchstone has about 30,000 members, and around 1.5 million members and non-members visit its facilities every year, said Melvin. Touchstone is the largest indoor gym climbing company in the world, he said.

No name has been selected yet for the new facility, but it will have the word “Oaks” in it, said Melvin. It could be just “Oaks,” or “The Oaks,” he said. Touchstone generally chooses names that reflect the neighborhood or structure, said Hung. Their Uptown Oakland location, for example, located in a former power plant, is called Great Western Power Company.