by Ken Katz
As noted in last month’s article detailing the extent to which my East Piedmont Heights residential neighborhood has evolved over the past 120 years, change over time is inevitable. The same applies to the Grand Lake shopping district. Originally, circa 1915, Lakeshore between Lake Park and Mandana was also residential, as evidenced in small part by the two side-by-side apartment buildings still visible behind what is now Center Stage West Salon and Good Vibrations.
By the time we moved into the neighborhood in the early 1970s, anchor tenants on Lakeshore included Dime and Dollar, the Little Daisy, Stier’s Drugs, See’s Candies, and lots more. By the mid 1990s, those businesses were all past history, and a multitude of storefronts lay vacant. This prompted a coalition of concerned neighbors led by Sally Ackerly and the Greater Mandana Action Committee to successfully lobby Noah’s and Starbucks to open on Lakeshore. Ironically, it was a discussion about Starbucks’s recent closure on the Oakland Now Facebook page that prompted Naomi Schiff (a former Chair of the Oakland Heritage Alliance) to share an April 6, 1996 article in the SF Chronicle detailing what they accomplished and how. Not resting on their laurels, the same group of activists shortly thereafter convinced Arizmendi to choose Lakeshore over Piedmont Avenue. The arrival of Trader Joe’s in 2006 was another major community-driven coup that helped bring shoppers back in droves.
Unfortunately, the arrival of internet shopping has since posed a new, ongoing challenge to the in-person marketplace. In a 2017 Splash Pad News article titled “It Takes a Collage,” Keila Diehl documented the changing environment that resulted in Collage’s closure. Over time, other shops that couldn’t compete with internet sales also closed. Most of those spaces were repurposed fairly quickly, however, as when Sway was replaced by the European Wax Studio, to cite just one example.
Then came the pandemic that totally upended our lives. Despite quarantines and a host of other challenges, Grand Lake District businesses mostly survived. Part of the credit for this resilience goes to those landlords who reduced or, in some cases, temporarily ceased collecting rent. In addition, restaurants switched to take-out and delivery services, while Shakewell, Oakland Kosher, and five establishments on Grand built parklets. Some shops began taking orders online; others depended on the generosity of a loyal customer base. This was case with The Alley and Walden Pond Books — both of which received in excess of $100,000 through fund-raising campaigns. Three businesses were victims of the Covid downturn: Rolling Dunes almost immediately after the quarantine was instituted; Aisle 5 about a year later; and Knimble late last year. Aisle 5 was subsequently leased by M2 and Knimble by ReLove, but the Rolling Dunes space remains vacant — one of a total of twelve Lakeshore Avenue ground-floor businesses that currently lack tenants or thirteen if you count Eye Care for You on Lakeshore, which was heavily damaged by fire.
Yet, there is some good news to report. George’s Cleaners, which closed just before the onset of the pandemic, has been leased by Every Table. Converting it into a restaurant space is costly and time-consuming, but retrofitting is already underway. Down the block, the Flavors of India space apparently had been leased as a pizzeria, but construction is temporarily halted while the terms are being renegotiated. And, according to Abebe Lemma (the Lakeshore security guard) the space formerly occupied by Urban Indigo, which closed six months ago, has just been leased and will resume operating as a gift shop. For the record, Urban Indigo’s closure wasn’t due to Covid but rather to the misery inflicted on them by a homeless individual who camped in their doorway nightly. To round out the good news, Holy Land restaurant, which closed in July after 33 years as reported in a J Magazine article by Alix Wall, has already (in record time) reopened as a vegan version of Rico Rico Taco.
Now for the bad news. As mentioned above, Rolling Dunes, which closed three years ago, had a prospective tenant but, by some accounts, they backed out due to long delays in the permitting process and additional Planning Department requirements. We’re not currently aware of any prospective tenants for the three businesses that have closed most recently: Studios (3319 Lakeshore), Merritt Bakery, and Starbucks.
Ditto for the specialized sneaker shop Ten/11, which gave up after multiple break-ins. Thanks to the graffiti-covered security door at Footlocker, which closed four years ago, it gets tagged (pun intended) as the most unsightly vacancy, while the Fast Print location, which has been dormant for approximately six years, has the distinction of being the longest. Around the corner in the same building, Dynasty Cleaners and Hair Merritt have also closed. According to our sources, the property owner has made no effort to lease the Fast Print space and is using it instead as a business write-off.
Before we start talking about root causes and possible solutions, we have to note that Grand Avenue business seems to be on the upswing, despite the lack of the services like security, part-time administrative staffing, and daily clean-up services provided by the Lakeshore BID. There are currently four vacancies on Grand: Connie’s Cantina, Brite Cleaners, Swann Nails, and Smitty’s Bar, plus two on Santa Clara (Pitts’ Martial Arts and Total Tan). Thursday afternoon, we noted heavy construction inside the Brite Cleaners space, suggesting that it has been leased. The nail salon directly across the street has been upgraded with new interior paint and flooring — but that’s no guarantee that it has been leased.
What’s most encouraging, however, is the number and quality of the new businesses that have opened in the past three years, including the hugely successful Bake Sum, Megadeluxe Custom Caps, Rad Bird, TwoTwo, 8 AM Fashion & Tailor, Red Bay Coffee, Studio FitLife, Bay Functional Fitness, and the aforementioned M2 and ReLove. We attribute this apparent disparity, in part, to the fact that the spaces on Grand are mostly smaller, with lower rent per square foot and therefore far more affordable. We also suspect that Grand feels more “homey” due to the almost total absence of chain stores (Domino’s Pizza being the one exception). Small, independently-owned business owners are also more likely to cooperate with one another and be part of the decision-making process. Anthony Bennett taking on the role of Grand Avenue Business Association (GABA) President has also been a major factor.
Getting back to root causes and possible solutions, that mid-1990s neighborhood alliance that brought us Noah’s, Starbucks, Arizmendi, and eventually Trader Joe’s illustrates the path forward. We suggest that, if a similar coalition emerges, the initial focus should be on a campaign to prevent additional closures by actively supporting the locally-owned businesses that we’re so lucky to have in the neighborhood.
Longer-term, we need to address social issues that have seriously impacted Lakeshore and, to a lesser extent, Grand Avenue. High on that list is crime like car break-ins, which are off the chart. Simply put: if people do not feel safe on Lakeshore or Grand, they are less likely to shop and/or dine in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, some businesses (restaurants in particular) have suffered a double-whammy thanks to middle of the night break-ins resulting in thousands of dollars in damages. One way or the other, we need more security services and, although the City Council has approved an additional fifteen walking beat officers, there’s no guarantee that one will be assigned to the Grand Lake District.
The other social issue that’s negatively impacting business is homelessness, and especially those individuals who are severely mentally ill. As we’ve reported on numerous occasions over the past several years, Alameda County Mental Health Services hasn’t been sufficiently responsive and also lacks adequate resources. The neighborhood coalition that we’re proposing needs to insist that the county assign more outreach workers to Oakland while also lobbying the legislature to come up with funding for more assessment and treatment beds — as well as assisted living facilities.
The coalition should also be lobbying property owners (beginning with the individual who owns the Fast Print building) to bend over backwards to bring in new tenants. If they are legitimately having problems doing so, they should be considering various options, including property upgrades or reduced rents or agreeing to short-term popups — an innovative solution that turned out to be a huge success in downtown Oakland as reported in this 2012 Next City article.
One of the group’s most crucial initiatives would be a neighborhood survey asking participants to rate the Grand Lake commercial district on various measures and ask for suggestions for new businesses — preferably ones that provide merchandise and/or a special experience that one can’t find online. To take advantage of Oakland’s wealth of musical and artistic talent, how about reviving the live entertainment scene that used to exist in the Grand Lake District, with Dave Brubeck performing at what’s now the Cat House and the blues being played at what used to be the Serenader (now Heart & Dagger)? As a last minute addendum, thanks to today’s Lakeshore BID blog, we can report that Caña is starting a first Friday jazz night session on April 7th with music by Daria Niles and friends beginning at 7 pm.
As for locally made arts and crafts, Bay-Made is a huge asset, and Panorama Framing always has a nice selection of artwork by Bay Area artists, but there’s certainly room for a more formal art gallery.
One last point, although it may seem trivial in comparison with other needs, we vividly remember responses to a previous Grand Lake Neighbors survey in which multiple individuals conveyed that they liked Lakeshore because it was lined by street trees. Year after year, that’s becoming less and less true. Hats off to property owner Steve Banker for just planting a replacement street tree in front of Gymboree, filling the void created when the City reduced staffing in the Tree Department by 50% years ago.
In conclusion, this is merely the first volley in what we hope will evolve into a vigorous campaign to reinvigorate Lakeshore Avenue in particular, and the Grand Lake District as a whole. Please add your comments below.