Vacant Shops Cast Shadow on Local Festival

Increased Store Vacancy Rates Failed to Prevent Thousands From Going to Annual Solano Stroll

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Solano Stroll

City News Editor Amy Brooks talks to Erika Oblea about the Solano Avenue Stroll on Sunday and the status of the local businesses in the area.

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Organizers estimated more than 300,000 people came out to this year's Solano Stroll to enjoy the food booths, games, rides and live entertainers, but as locals participated in the festivities, they also passed the vacant storefronts that line the street.

Solano Stroll, a mile-long street festival held every year between the cities of Berkeley and Albany, has attracted visitors to the Solano Avenue business community for 35 years.

This year's street fair seemed more important than ever in light of the street's higher-than-usual vacancy rates, said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli.

According to Capitelli, whose district includes Solano Avenue, there are currently 17 vacancies within the upper two blocks of the street. He said this is the highest vacancy rate during his forty years working in the area.

Though Capitelli attributes the empty storefronts to the area's high rent, he added the economic downturn-and an increase in online shopping that deprives local retailers of business-has caused most people to be hesitant to purchase properties at this time.

"It's mainly the economy, but people, particularly students, are doing a lot of their shopping online," he said.

While most business owners said they cannot pinpoint the exact causes behind the vacancies, they said they can still feel the economic effects of their empty business neighbors.

Sue Johnson owns the lamp store Sue Johnson Custom Lamps & Shades, located beside an empty store that has been vacant for nearly two years. As a Solano Avenue business owner for 37 years, Johnson expressed frustration over the reduction of foot traffic because of high vacancy levels in the area.

"We benefit from other businesses when they have a sale," she said as she stood below the hanging lamps in her shop. "Their customers will also come to our store. The store next door has been vacant for more than two years. We don't get any benefit from that."

Yet despite the emptiness that pervaded the buildings behind the Solano Stroll booths, there was still activity occurring on the street.

According to Robert Cheasty, former president of the Solano Avenue Association, this year's fair-themed "Come Together"-featured more than 88 performance acts, 500 organizational booths and 150 food booths. New to the event this year were rides located on the lower part of the street, according to Cheasty.

"We're trying to do new things, and we have some new surprises on lower Solano this year," said Harry Pruyn, current president of the Solano Avenue Association. "That's what (Solano Stroll) is about. It's ultimately here to promote the avenue and increase business."

However, Johnson feels that there will have to more than just festivals to bring businesses to the area again.

"The city should contact landlords and possibly have a meeting with them about the vacancies," Johnson said.

Capitelli claimed that addressing the vacancies will involve making the permit process more efficient in the city, namely by eliminating the long public hearing process that is required when a new business wants to open.

"We need to streamline (the permit process)," he said. "Make it quicker."

While Pruyn said the business association strives to keep the streets clean and hold more events similar to Solano Stroll, he said the association believes the city can encourage businesses in the area by lessening parking restrictions.

"I realize that extending the parking paying times-that's hurting everybody it's going to drive customers away from going to restaurants," he said.

Nevertheless, as Negar Souza, a co-owner of Shoes on Solano and Ideas 4 Elements, helped her customers find shoes and shirts in her street booth, she said the vacancy next to her shop does not significantly affect her business.

"The vacancy affects us to only a degree," she said. "We've been here 22 years. We're an established business."

As Berkeley resident Judy Kennedy roamed the street fair after finishing her Thai food, she said she enjoys the crowds and atmosphere but can still notice the vacancies.

"There's a sadness that you feel when businesses don't make it," she said.


Erika Oblea covers local business. Contact her at [email protected]

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