Art Displays Help Color Vacant Downtown Stores

Photo: Artwork from the Berkeley Potters Guild is featured in the store windows of what was formerly Shoe Pavilion on Shattuck Avenue in an effort to positively employ empty space.
Emma Lantos/Photo
Artwork from the Berkeley Potters Guild is featured in the store windows of what was formerly Shoe Pavilion on Shattuck Avenue in an effort to positively employ empty space.

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Rather than standing as emblems of the deepening recession, the growing number of vacant storefronts in Downtown Berkeley are being used as exhibition spaces for local artists.

The first exhibit of the new Downtown Berkeley Art in Storefronts Project opened in March on Shattuck Avenue after a year-long discussion between the city of Berkeley's Office of Economic Development and the Downtown Berkeley Association.

"We really wanted to bring the community into the Downtown," said the association's Marketing Manager Katherine Scherbel, who coordinated the project. "We wanted to make it fun and bright, celebrating the Downtown instead of letting it feel dismal and empty."

Displays that include art from the Habitot Children's Museum, Berkeley High School seniors and Berkeley Potters Guild are showcased in spaces formerly leased to Shoe Pavillion and Cody's Books.

City officials and organizers at the association pushed the project forward after the amount of empty commercial spaces in the area rose to 15.1 percent in the first quarter of 2009, according to Dave Fogarty, the city's economic development project coordinator.

Fogarty said the city has a relatively strong retail sector, but might experience more shop closures as the economic downturn worsens. The city's retail job market plunged 16 percent between 2001 and 2008, he said.

"I think that the project is a good idea," Fogarty said. "It doesn't solve the problem, but it's definitely a worthwhile thing to do."

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who represents the Downtown district, said the project is part of a larger discussion of policy changes designed to fix the empty storefront problem. Other changes include measures to streamline the permit process and zoning reforms.

"(Vacancies are) a loss of business license revenue and sales tax revenue, money we could otherwise be gaining," he said. "Especially with the declining economy, we really need revenue to continue to fund the services the city provides."

The project gained wide support in the city's office of economic development because it has broad benefits, according to Mary Ann Merker, coordinator of the city's Civic Arts Commission, a partner in the project.

"Berkeley has a huge, huge artist population, so it's a nice way for them to show themselves," she said. "It's also good for the landlords because it makes their shops more attractive."

Merker said a new exhibition by UC Berkeley photography students would be up at Cody's Books within two weeks and that other artists were being contacted to help fill other vacant spaces.

Rikki Gill, an artist and board member of the guild, said the project has brought needed attention to the guild's gallery, which is only open on Saturdays.

"As potters, we have a rather limited budget," she said. "We thought it might be a good way to let people see our work, and it would be helpful to the city."

Tags: DOWNTOWN BERKELEY ASSOCIATION, DOWNTOWN BERKELEY


Contact Katie Meyer at [email protected]



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