Working to strengthen the Grand Lake neighborhood

This month, I had the opportunity to interview the key figures behind two influential business organizations in Oakland—Carol Knight, administrator of the Lakeshore Avenue Business Improvement District (LABID), and Anthony Bennett, President of the Grand Avenue Business Association (GABA). Despite their structural differences, these organizations share a common objective: to foster a thriving business district for shop owners, property owners, and the community at large. My interviews with Anthony, conducted over Zoom just before he had to rush off to a meeting, and Carol, held at Peet’s shortly after she helped a UPS driver apprehend a package thief, shed light on the essential work being done by these individuals.

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The Grand Avenue Business Association

Grand Avenue, a cherished part of Oakland’s history, is one of the oldest retail corridors in the city. Lakeview Elementary School, albeit with a new purpose now, is 111 years old; the iconic Grand Lake Theater is approaching its 100th year; the Alley turns 90 this year; and Walden Pond Books celebrated its 50th Anniversary last year. Despite the natural ebb and flow of businesses, several other establishments have been serving the community for more than 30 years.

Anthony Bennett became President of GABA after attending his first meeting in 2018. He had just opened Collected at Four 32, an antique shop on Santa Clara just off Grand, and wanted to meet the other business owners in the area. At the end of that meeting, the previous President announced her resignation, and Anthony, who wasn’t afraid to ask lots of questions, was recruited by some crafty board members.

He came to the position after 18 years of military service ranging from being a helicopter mechanic to administration and logistics to serving as a public liaison for a general. As a civilian, he did some work in human resources and eventually came to open the antique store, which he maintains with appointment-only hours while also selling online. The work for GABA is a volunteer position, and he also manages four Grand Avenue properties for ZML Company.

When he came to GABA, few businesses were active in the association. “When I started, I was lucky if I could get two people to talk to me on a regular basis. And now we have 20-30 businesses that are actively involved, coming to meetings and communicating with each other.”  But with 200 businesses on the blocks from MacArthur to the Piedmont border, Anthony recognizes the challenges of representing property owners, business owners, and the community.

Unlike LABID, which has a funding stream from property owners, GABA is a voluntary association. Anthony is working to reintroduce merchant dues as a revenue stream and to recruit a fiscal sponsor that would enable the group to get more grants, such as the one they received for holiday security patrols.

For Anthony and GABA, the primary focus is on addressing crime and public safety, which includes pedestrian safety, security patrols, improved street signage and lighting, and police presence. The organization has worked to establish a Community Resource Office for OPD to enhance police visibility and presence in the community.

Community involvement is at the core of GABA’s mission. Efforts include reviving events on the Avenue, updating the Business Directory at the Walker parking lot, and strengthening the Board of Directors and organization through merchant mixers. Anthony is also fostering collaboration between GABA, the LGBTQ+ Cultural District, and nearby business associations to speak to city council reps, police reps, and city agency reps with a unified voice.

Lastly, the beautification of Grand Avenue involves activities such as power washing the streets, maintaining the planters, and ensuring the trees are pruned. The goal is to create a more welcoming and safer community for everyone

The Lakeshore Avenue Business Improvement District (LABID)

LABID is 32 years old and one of the first BIDs in Oakland. A BID is funded by a self-imposed tax on the district’s property owners, in this case, the 48 properties running from Mandana to Lake Park and across Lake Park to the Starbucks on Walker. This funding enables the organization to hire part-time staff for administration and promotions, as well as pay for private security and street cleaning.

Carol Knight is the Administrator for LABID. She owned a jewelry store in the Wells Fargo Building for 28 years and continued attending monthly merchant meetings after she closed the shop. When the previous administrator, Pamela Drake, left about six years ago, Carol was asked to step in. When asked what she loves about Lakeshore Avenue, she had two words: “It’s home.”

Carol’s top priorities for LABID mirror Anthony’s: preventing crime, keeping streets and sidewalks clean and inviting, and building community through events. “We have full-time private security with Abebe Lemma. He plays an important role as an ambassador; he’s not a cop and doesn’t carry a gun, but his role is to observe and report and be seen on the street.” Whenever the opportunity arises, LABID advocates for a beat cop to regularly be a presence on the Avenue.

As for keeping the streets and sidewalks clean, LABID pays for quarterly cleanings, but is looking to make that a monthly service. “I wouldn’t want to go to a place that’s dirty and smells.” Part of Carol’s job is keeping an eye out for the 3-5 unhoused people who make Lakeshore their home. “I work with MACRO to try and get them the help and support they need, but unfortunately, MACRO rarely has a place to take them. It’s a huge challenge.”

As for the community, LABID sponsors four big events a year. “We have Halloween, Easter, the Spring Fling, and a Christmas event. We reach out to all the merchants to create a special day or evening. The Easter event is our longest running — about 40 years now,” Carol adds.

While it’s not in her job description, Carol says that she’d love to see all the storefronts filled with shops. “It’s expensive to open a shop, and if you’re bringing in food, the permits are crazy; Philz was supposed to open five months ago, and that was going from a coffee shop to a coffee shop!” Some shops are vacant because the property owner is holding out for a national chain that they can charge more money to. “I’ve been talking with Jeff Myers from the LGBTQ+ Cultural District about how to work together to recruit more LGBTQ+-owned businesses. Hopefully, we can make some headway to fill the shops.”

On June 24, LABID held its annual meeting at the Lakeshore Baptist Church to elect the board and discuss priority issues. When I saw on the agenda that Mayor Thao had been invited, my first thought was that this was only a few hours after her press conference, and she wouldn’t be coming. But I was wrong.

Mayor Thao spent about a half hour reviewing a range of public safety issues, underscoring that she and the new police commissioner are focused on getting released from federal oversight of OPD. With the budget deficit looming, she’s also working to condense city departments to reduce duplication. She admitted that the previous week, with the recall election announcement, the Juneteenth shooting, and then the FBI raid was a particularly difficult week for her and for the city. But, she added, “We are one team, and we have to work together.”

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There are 11 BIDs in Oakland, and probably many more merchant associations. Many thanks to the members and leadership of GABA and LABID, who work to keep our business district clean and thriving. While each interest group—property owners, business owners, and residents—may not always be on the same page, I, for one, appreciate the effort to work together to strengthen the Grand Lake neighborhood.


By debra chaplan

Debra Chaplan became the publisher of the Splashpad News in February 2024. She’s lived in the Grand Lake neighborhood for 30 years. With a career doing communications and educational programming for several unions, she’s pleased to use those skills for the neighborhood and city that she loves.


Note: The Alley photo above was taken by Rechee Jozil. We expect to use more of his photos in future issues.


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Comments

2 responses to “Working to strengthen the Grand Lake neighborhood”

  1. Anita Tenley Avatar
    Anita Tenley

    Very informative article detailing the differences between Lakeshore and Grand Avenue business associations. I’m glad to hear that Grand Avenue merchants are making more efforts to band together to make improvements. I wish more Grand Avenue merchants would get involved, especially with regard to cleaning up the sidewalks in front of their businesses. Safeway could definitely do a better job!

  2. WLADIMIR WLASSOWSKY Avatar
    WLADIMIR WLASSOWSKY

    Nice article, and underscores the importance of listening to the stories of how our small businesses contribute greatly to the creation of a community. Our former Mayor Elihu Harris said that Oakland is a city of neighborhoods, and that may seem trite, but it is so true. Keep up the great work and reporting! thankyou

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