Many local beer drinkers were surprised to learn of the abrupt closure of West Berkeley’s long-running Pyramid Alehouse last month. The closure was part of a consolidation effort on the part of Pyramid’s parent company, North American Breweries, which says it is shifting focus to its Portland and Seattle locations. Now, Retail West Inc., the group behind the Gilman District’s recent spate of development, hopes to transform the 114,000-square-foot building into a “collective campus of makers, food producers, brewers and distillers,” said Matt Holmes, a principal at the firm.
Retail West is collaborating with the Oakland-based real estate group Colliers International on the project, which will potentially divide the building into a series of smaller breweries (with associated tasting rooms), distilleries and retail spaces. Holmes also plans to build out a shared kitchen for up to 40 small food businesses, which could then sell their wares in the retail area. Retail West is currently in talks with two breweries who are interested in leasing part of the space.
Holmes hopes the development will feed off the neighborhood’s growing popularity with active, enthusiastic foodies and beer drinkers. Trumer-Pilsner and Fieldwork Brewing are both within a stone’s throw of the former Pyramid site, and Anvil Brewery is on its way to the area next spring. “Because all of these breweries have taprooms and are in very close proximity to each other, this area is quickly becoming the place for beer-lovers to flock to during the weekends for beer tastings,” he said in a prepared statement.
The plans for the food component of the building are in line with current trends to build shared co-working kitchen spaces for tiny start-up businesses. The Berkeley Kitchens, Uptown Kitchen, Kitchener and The Port Kitchens all operate in more or less the same manner.
A small business-focused development would be a sharp departure from the controversial, corporate-run Pyramid Brewing which, while founded as a smaller-scale brewery in the 1980s in Washington state, was acquired by Rochester, New York-based North American Breweries in 2010. That company was then purchased by Cerveceria Costa Rica in 2012, but is still in operation under its own moniker.
Berkeley’s Alehouse originally opened as a brewery and restaurant in 1997, but had not been brewing in the facility since 2013, when the company closed the brewing portion of the facility for what was supposed to be a temporary cleaning period. The brewery never re-opened, and there was speculation that the closure was a union-busting response on the part of Pyramid.
Indeed, former brewery employee Cat Wiest told the Contra Costa Times in 2013 that she and her co-workers suspected that the closure was actually a response to their efforts to join the Teamsters union. The brewery employees were put on furlough about six weeks after voting to join the union; they were never rehired.
When the Alehouse closed in July, the employees appeared to have been informed of their release on the same day as the announcement. Wiest told NOSH in an email that the employees were asked to sign a “detailed” non-disclosure agreement in order to receive a severance package, according to Wiest in an email. “No one wants to talk about it and I guess legally now no one is able to.”
Construction on the new development is not exactly imminent. The area in which the Pyramid building is located is situated in the portion of West Berkeley currently zoned for mixed use-light manufacturing. While a straight brewery or distillery would fit within the zoning requirements, the amount of retail, customer and restaurant space envisioned by Retail West would require an exemption.
Plus, Holmes says, the types of craft brewers and distillers he hopes to attract will not be operating on a large enough scale to use the Pyramid building effectively on their own. Most of his potential tenants would prefer a smaller space between 8,000 and 30,000 square feet, which led to his desire to divide up the building.
Retail West also anticipates running into opposition from groups that advocate for maintaining West Berkeley’s manufacturing character. Holmes, however, says that with current globalization trends, it is not realistic to continue to pursue manufacturing projects. “It is hard for Berkeley to remain competitive,” he said.
While Holmes and Retail West are currently in conversation with the mayor and city council members to try to “reach a compromise” regarding the development, Holmes did say he may consider a ballot initiative to challenge the zoning if necessary. He hopes construction will be able to begin by the end of 2015.
Berkeley’s Pyramid Alehouse abruptly closes (07.21.15)