Oakland Rezoning Could Make Things Easier for Business

Small groceries won't be treated like large supermarkets, and yoga studios and stadiums won't be lumped together.

Zoning is not the sexiest topic in the world. It’s the domain of the wonky world of urban planning, a universe aswim in an inscrutable alphabet soup of land-use designations. So perhaps it’s no surprise that on a recent Wednesday night, fewer than a dozen Dimond district residents gathered at the local library to listen to a presentation on zoning changes to the neighborhood by the city’s planning department. Even boxes of La Farine pastries didn’t bring the crowd.

But new zoning rules could significantly impact future small business owners throughout Oakland. For example, the new zoning will affect how commercial corridors develop by imposing facade requirements and specific height limits on new construction. And due to some policy changes, in some cases “it’ll be easier to open up a business,” said Neil Gray, a planner with the City of Oakland.

With a push from the city council and the mayor’s office, Oakland is being re-zoned to match the city’s master plan, which was developed in 1998. Barry Miller, a city consultant who is working on the zoning update, told the residents at the Dimond district meeting that the underlying philosophy behind the master plan is to “take the development pressure off of the neighborhoods and focus on it on the commercial corridors and the downtown, to concentrate future development on those areas.”

The city has created new zoning categorizations for Oakland neighborhoods, from the purely residential (Elmhurst), to residential-commercial combos (Laurel and Rockridge), to the purely commercial (Hegenberger Road, near the coliseum). Existing businesses, for the most part, will not be affected by the changes, but here’s how the changes could affect future business owners:

Certain zoning categories have been broken up to presumably make it easier for small businesses to open in commercial districts, and they will now be applied to the new zoning maps. For example, restaurants and grocery stores used to fall under a general category called “general food sales.” Now, restaurants, major supermarket chains, and small groceries each have their own categories, and in some zones, only restaurants and major markets will require a conditional use permit (which costs $2,500 and can take two to three months to process). This is also true for so-called “group assembly” businesses (yoga studios are now different from stadiums), as well as handful of other zoning designations.

In residential spaces that have commercial spaces already built into the ground floor, low-impact businesses, such as an accounting or law office, can open up without a conditional use permit.

For new construction along the existing commercial corridors, the ground-floor facade will require a specific level of window transparency, and parking lots will not be allowed in front of the building. There also is a ground-floor height requirement of 15 feet.

The Oakland Heritage Alliance has been vigilant about making sure the city balances historical preservation with the zoning updates. “Our main concern is that a number of historical areas would be affected by zoning changes,” explained Chris Buckley, who is the alliance’s representative on the Commercial Technical Advisory Committee for the city re-zoning project. “Our take is that even though zoning is intended to promote development and investment, sometimes it has the opposite effect.”

For example, Buckley said that if an area is zoned in a way that allows for development outside the current uses, owners of historically significant buildings can find themselves incentivized to demolish the buildings to develop something larger and more lucrative. This, in turn, he said, can make property owners reluctant to enter into long-term leases with merchants, making it unlikely that business owners will invest in improvements to their storefronts.

Still, Buckley acknowledged that the zoning decisions are far from etched in stone. The city is still actively seeking public input by convening community workshops on May 17 and June 10 (more information available at OaklandNet.com/zoningupdate). From there, the zoning proposals will go to the planning department and then to the city council. If all goes according to plan, new base zones could be adopted by 2011.

Shari Godinez, the executive director of the Oakland Merchants Leadership Association and a Dimond district resident, attended the April zoning meeting in her neighborhood and noted that there were a dearth of business owners in attendance. “It’s great that they’re going out into the community and trying to meet up with the residents and the merchants, although there was only one merchant in the room,” she observed. “It’s a great opportunity to give input, and merchants need to take advantage of it.”  

Retail Tour: Old-School Media

For those with a highly developed nostalgia bone, the news is grim. The future of books and journalism are being pinned on Kindles and iPads. Meanwhile, to the detriment of some fine music stores, many kids are going online to download MP3s, and the art of correspondence is lost on a generation that only e-mails, texts and tweets.

But some East Bay businesses owners are fighting the good fight. Issues (20 Glen Ave, Oakland; IssuesShop.com) is a charming shoebox of a newsstand that features some 3,000 magazine, journal, and ‘ zine titles on its shelves (and for good measure, they also sell second-hand books and records). The store was founded in 2007 by Noella Teele and Joe Colley, who harnessed his contacts as a former magazine buyer at Tower Records (R.I.P) to get Issues up and running. In the Tower tradition, the store is known for its eclectic mix of foreign and domestic inventory — which ranges from Oprah, to hard-core political journals like Social Text, and the Middle Eastern art magazine Dune.

Although the owners “follow all of the tech trends,” Teele said, they’re still devotees of the print pub. “Some magazines can’t be looked at on an iPad,” she said. “There’s something about holding a beautifully put-together magazine in your hands that’s made of nice paper and that has beautiful features. Our customers are happy to have a place where they can find these things.”

The economic downturn and the implosion of the print publishing industry doesn’t make this the best time to run a newsstand, but Issues celebrates its third birthday this year (an anniversary bash at the store is scheduled for June 6). Teele said that customers remain loyal to the store because they offer niche reads for every stripe. “We really try to be as comprehensive as possible, and we try to be welcoming to everybody,” Teele said. “For the customers who have a Kindle or an iPad, we hope we can be a complementary experience. Because the technology is only going to grow and maybe there will be a day when there aren’t any more print magazines. But until that point, we’re here.”

A purveyor and repairer of turntables and other retro stereo equipment since 1974, Rich Crawl of Soundwell (1467 University Ave. Berkeley; TheSoundWell.com/) knows a little something about staying power. “I’ve stuck with it out of love for it,” he said. “There’s nothing else I want to do anymore.”

Although he had to downsize his space last year — now he shares a storefront with Handy’s Electronics — Crawl has stuck with what he knows. “We haven’t evolved, but the market evolved around us,” Crawl said. “Our business still works because we’re selling more specialty things.”

It helps, too, that the vinyl record revival has given Crawl’s business a boost. “If not for turntables, then I’d be doing zero business with people under thirty,” he observed. He’s also streamlining his business by only showing up at the store by appointment, and for three hours on Saturdays, for drop-off and pick-up of repairs and purchases. He makes phone consultations during the week, and spends the rest of the time fixing equipment.

“I’m trying to change the way I do retail,” he said. I want to provide good customer service, but maybe not on the spot. The guy I share space with is always amused. He says that people just walk in and hand me money and walk away, but I spend a lot of time working with them on the phone.”

Crawl said part of his secret for staying in business is that he doesn’t expect to get rich, at least not in terms of cash remuneration. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of it,” he said. “It’s a combination of some interest in electronics and the technical end of it, but it’s more of an interest in the music end of things. And the fact that I can resurrect relatively old pieces of equipment that still work quite well, and being a Berkeley kid, I get some satisfaction out of keeping things out of the landfill.”

Just down the street, Jesse Bañuelos of Berkeley Typewriter & Clark Business Machines (1823 University Ave., Berkeley) also specializes in reviving antiquated machines. He and his brother started up a typewriter repair company 45 years ago (they bought Berkeley Typewriter from the previous owner in 2005), and they’re the go-to fix-its for both well-known local writers and amateur typists from across the country.

Bañuelos learned to clean and fix “little machines” as a high school student in Los Angeles, and he’s been focused on this work ever since. “It takes time,” he said of the repairs. “You have to clean this and that precisely, like a watch. It has to be one piece at a time, detail work. But don’t ask me to clean my car!”

If parts are lost or no longer manufactured, Bañuelos will make the part himself with scavenged typewriter parts and a soldering machine. The store also sells antique typewriters, and they’re currently displaying a pink Smith Corona, a red Royal Aristocrat with green keys, and a mint-colored Helmes 3000.

Bañuelos owns twenty typewriters himself, even though his typing style is mostly hunt-and-peck. “I like typewriters because when you’re typing I like to hear the click,” he explained. “People tell me the feeling of using a typewriter is more romantic — the click, click. It opens your mind. If you type something, you’ll feel better.”

All over the East Bay, old-school media is holding its ground. For records there’s 1-2-3-4 Go! Records (419 40th St. Oakland; 1234GoRecords.com) and Groove Yard (5555 Claremont Ave., Oakland), and CDs aplenty at Amoeba Music (2455 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley; Amoeba.com), Mod Lang (6328 Fairmount Ave., El Cerrito; ModLang.com), and Rasputin Music (2401 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley; 15590 Hesperian Blvd., San Lorenzo; RasputinMusic.com). And Netflix doesn’t have anything over Five Star Video (1501 Solano Ave., Suite B, Albany; 1550 University Ave., Berkeley) or Reel Video (2655 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley).

Retail News

Openings: Beloved Oakland T-shirt designers 5733 (4125 Piedmont Ave., 2nd floor, Oakland; FiftySeven-ThirtyThree.com) open a retail store on May 1 at noon, culminating with a party starting at 7 p.m. … Contemporary art gallery Mercury 20 (475 25th St, Oakland; www.MercuryTwenty.com) reopens in its new digs in May. … Crossroads Trading Co. (5901 College Ave., Oakland; CrossroadsTrading.com) has a new Rockridge location starting May 22, and they’re celebrating with a block party from noon to 3 p.m. … McMullen recently opened a second store in Piedmont (1235 Grand Ave., Oakland; ShopMcMullen.com). Sales: Until June 30, The Craftsman Home (3048 Claremont Ave., Berkeley; CraftsmanHome.com) is having a 60-percent-off sale featuring Warren Hile furniture made of quartersawn American white oak. … Knit-one-one (3360 Adeline St., Berkeley; KnitOneOne.com) has a monthly craft sale on the first Saturday of the month. The May 1 event features the following local crafters: Lemonade Handmade, The Girl and Rhino, Bubbles and Boo, Estudio Martita, AllieBeans, Faerie Mountain Fibers, CCMade, AmaniWorks, 1 by Liz, Super Sugar Ray Ray, and GB Press.

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