by Ken Katz
In case you haven’t been paying attention, twelve ground-floor spaces on Lakeshore and Lake Park are currently vacant. That list includes the former locations of Sprint, Namaste Yoga, George’s Laundry, KFC, CVS, Flavors of India, Hair Merritt, Dynasty Cleaners, Footlocker, Izek Day Spa Salon, and Greetings.
The closure this past month of the Sprint store likely had little to do with the COVID-19 virus and everything to do with their merger with T-Mobile. For Greetings, the pandemic was the last straw as it was for Namaste as well. This past August, owner Kimberly Leo closed her Namaste Studio in Berkeley which she’d operated for seventeen years due to the “stresses and increased costs of running a small business in the Bay Area.”
According to this May 14 ABC News report, Kimberly agonized over the decision to close her remaining two studios including the location on Lakeshore that she’d operated for nearly ten years and finally concluded:
I’ve had to just basically surrender to what’s happening. I looked at a hybrid, in-person and virtual model and the expenses associated with that. None of it pencils out. We come together in a room and obviously we’re very close together and that’s not going to happen. Teachers here depend on how large their classes are and they can’t survive with a class that is 20% of what it used to be.
What’s really worrisome is that the other nine vacancies pre-date the COVID-19 shelter in place orders that have crippled the economy and will almost certainly (despite our best efforts) lead to bankruptcies and more permanent closures as time passes. Those vacancies are attributable to a variety of reasons.
George’s Laundry and Dry Cleaners had been under the same ownership for over twenty years, Owner Liza Flores was more than ready to retire but couldn’t find anyone interested in buying her business. I’m convinced that the KFC around the corner couldn’t survive all their terrible Yelp reviews. As for Fast Print, it has been closed for years and the rumor is that the owner, for whatever reason, isn’t entertaining offers.
In the case of CVS and Izek Day Spa Salon, we understand that the increasingly prohibitive cost of rent on Lakeshore was the major reason for their closing. As for the rest, we can’t say definitively one way or the other but do think it was likely a contributing factor. One indication of that being the case is that Grand Avenue, which has lower rents since they have far less pedestrian traffic and aren’t, for the time being, attracting deep-pocket chain stores, currently has no vacancies that we’re aware of.
Neighborhood old-timers like David Flack, Eric Hughes, and Rev. Jim Hopkins will tell you, “Been There! Done That!” Circa 1995, there was a similar number of vacancies on Lakeshore and the avenue was actually looking a bit blighted, which motivated the Greater Mandana Action Committee to solicit new tenants. David Flack kindly shared a letter to Noah’s Bagels—an excerpt from which includes mention of the Cheeseboard in Berkeley which was already focused on Piedmont Avenue until the GMAC convinced them to open ARIZMENDI on Lakeshore instead:
On behalf of the Greater Mandana Action Committee I want to let you know how delighted we are to hear that you are considering Lakeshore Avenue as a location for a Noah’s Bagels store.
The Greater Mandana Action Committee (GMAC) is a community organization that is committed to improving the quality of life in the Lakeshore / Mandana area. Our top priority for 1996 is the transformation of the Lakeshore commercial strip into a more vibrant, thriving neighborhood shopping district. The addition of a Noah’s would be a major accomplishment in that effort.
In association with Lakeshore Homes, we have conducted several surveys in recent years asking neighbors what types of businesses they would like to see on Lakeshore. Noah’s is always in the top five. There is unquestionably a large, hungry group of bagel lovers in our neighborhood that rarely shop at Noah’s because there is no store nearby.
GMAC is also in discussions with the Cheeseboard (currently on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley) about expanding to Lakeshore Avenue. We think that Noah’s and the Cheeseboard serve a similar customer profile and would make an excellent combination on the street.
We’ve already talked about the likely reasons so many businesses are now closed but haven’t discussed the reasons that the vacancies were difficult to fill even before the pandemic became a major factor. The reality is that high rental prices are only part of the equation. Keila Diehl’s article, “It Takes a Collage” in the January 30, 2017 Splash Pad News pointed out what is, by now, painfully obvious. It’s become difficult, if not impossible, for retail storefronts to survive in an age when you can order just about anything online. That applies equally to everything from Collage Clothing Lounge to massive chains like Macy’s. As for restaurants, they have their own unique challenges in addition to high rent. The passage of Oakland’s minimum wage law (which was necessary and long overdue) raised menu prices, but the bigger problem is that the incredible increases in the cost of rental housing has made living here prohibitively expensive for low-wage earners for sure and even a stretch for professionals like teachers.
The solution, if there is one, is for us to do whatever we can NOW to help locally-owned businesses survive through our patronage. And for restaurants, in particular, if it is practical, offer to pick up – rather than using any of the delivery services which all charge a commission on sale.
In the short term, we should be exploring the opportunities presented by the Flex Streets Initiative recently approved by the City of Oakland. Conveniently, there are already plans drawn up for a parklet in front of Arizmendi/Footlocker and more immediate, less costly projects on Lakeshore and Grand should be on the table as well.
Longer term, the community should be following GMAC’s pro-active lead. In concert with the BID and the property owners, let’s start talking about our vision for the future and how we are going to get there.