It took owner Veronica Bradley over seven months to open Amphora Nueva Oil on Domingo Avenue.

On May 5, 2010, Robin Dalrymple walked excitedly into Berkeley’s Planning Department to apply for a use permit. She wanted to convert the vacant Ritz Camera store on Solano Avenue into an ice cream parlor.

Eight months later, her store is still not open.

Veronica Bradley signed a lease in April 2010 to transform what had been Left Coast Cyclery on Domingo Avenue into a store selling olive oil from around the world. After working with five city departments — building and safety, health, zoning, public works and engineering, and fire prevention – she finally got a permit in November. The store opened Dec. 24.

It took Jim Meyers only six weeks to launch his store, Wine Thieves, in Lafayette. It hasn’t been that easy in Berkeley. He has been trying since March to open a branch on Domingo Avenue. He is crossing his fingers that he can open the store next week.

“We have had the most difficult time,” said Bradley, who said she paid more than $50,000 in rent before Amphora Nueva opened.  “We heard this about Berkeley, but we had no idea it would be so challenging. I blame it on the city of Berkeley. Given the vacancies you would think they would do whatever they could to make the process a little less painful, a little less costly. In other parts of the country cities bend over backwards to help business.”

Berkeley has long had a reputation of being a difficult city in which to do business. There are many factors contributing to this perception, including complex zoning laws, neighborhood business quotas, and a 60’s era desire to give neighborhoods, rather than the planning department, discretion in saying what kinds of businesses can move into nearby commercial districts.

The impediments to doing business, and the large number of vacant storefronts, so frustrated City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli that he introduced a number of measures in December to overhaul regulations governing Solano Avenue. The City Council directed city staff to return with a series of recommendations to simplify Berkeley’s zoning ordinances, permit processes, design review and neighborhood quotas. Staff is scheduled to go back to council with a set of ideas in early February.

“If we make some simple tweaks for things that aren’t controversial, we can make a significant difference,” said Michael Caplan, Berkeley’s manager of economic development.

Berkeley is a dense city where neighborhoods abut commercial districts, so Berkeley’s government has always wanted to give residents a say in what happens near them, according to Dave Fogarty, a project coordinator in the economic development department. In the mid-1980s, concerned about rising rents and the spread of cookie-cutter chain stores in commercial districts, Berkeley adopted its first store quotas for the Elmwood District. From 1982 to 1987, the city had commercial rent control, but the state legislature overturned it with a 1988 law.

There have been large economic changes in the world of retail business since then, but many of Berkeley’s laws, like quotas, still reflect those earlier times, said Fogarty. The Elmwood quotas were established in part to protect the Elmwood pharmacy and hardware store. Both those stores have since gone out of business, but due more to the rise of big-box retail stores like Home Depot and Walgreens rather than rising rents.

But Berkeley still has different rules, different quotas, and different standards for different neighborhoods. Practically, this means prospective merchants have to go through numerous city departments, sometimes have multiple public hearings, and follow arcane design rules that aren’t even written down, in order to open a business.

“The residential districts have been framed by history to believe they ought to have a big say in what goes on in commercial districts,” said Fogarty. “Years ago the zoning ordinances were written to make it very discretionary and to allow neighbors to have a say what goes on in their neighborhood. That means the city requires a lot of permits.”

Dalrymple ran into this situation with her plans for iScream, a 1,037 square foot ice cream parlor that will sell artisanal ice cream. Regulations on Solano Avenue permit only 12 restaurants, but the upper part already has 28 food businesses. Since Dalrymple was seeking to convert a camera store into a food store, she had to apply for a use permit. That meant she had to work with the planning department and pay about $4,400 for a public hearing in front of the Zoning Adjustments Board.

Eight months after applying for a first permit the iScream store on Solano is still not open.

As it turned out, that part was relatively easy. While one neighbor expressed concern about smells wafting from iScream into her back yard, ZAB approved the permit in July.

That’s when the troubles began.

The Health Department ordered her to get a bigger water heater. Once she got it installed, she had to wait a week before it was approved and the delay added $1,000 to her costs.

She got a permit to renovate the interior of the store and outfit it with a few tables and install cabinets and sinks. But her plans to put up a black and white awning in the front, a retro/nostalgic look that Dalrymple thought would remind people of the long-gone Ortman’s ice cream store, did not get approval at first from the city.

When a planner working in design review looked at Dalrymple’s plans, she told her she didn’t think a black and white awning would fit in with the neighborhood, said Dalrymple. The planner didn’t give her any specific recommendations for a different color, but just nixed her idea.

“There is nowhere it says you can’t have a striped awning,” said Dalrymple. “I like a striped awning because I thought it would stand out down through the block. That’s what they didn’t like. They don’t want it to stand out. This is my last $100,000 and I need it to stand out.”

Dan Marks,  director of the Planning and Development Department, said that the design requirements for different commercial neighborhoods are not written down anywhere. There are informal codes, however, suggesting what will fit in and what won’t. The planner working with Dalrymple knew the taste of the neighbors on Solano Avenue and thought the black and white awning would provoke a formal challenge to Dalrymple’s plan. That would mean she would have to go through another public hearing.

“Rules aren’t written down anywhere,” said Marks. “But the planner has worked in the neighborhood a long time and she knows what the neighborhood likes. It is her role to guide merchants to something that won’t be challenged. There are not any black and white awnings on Solano so it would be a big change on that street.”

Dalrympole has since gotten the backing of the planner and has a notice on iScream alerting neighbors to her proposed awning design.

New Wine Thieves store on Domingo still has old Red Wagon sign on it.

Jim Meyers has also had to deal with numerous city departments as part of opening Wine Thieves. He took over the space on Domingo Avenue from Red Wagon, a children’s clothing store. Since he was trying to sell alcohol and do tastings at the store, he, too had to apply for a use permit.

At first, the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association objected to the store. They were concerned that Wine Thieves would be more like a bar and bring in traffic and unruly patrons, said Meyers. But the store will just offer wine tasting, not imbibing. After numerous discussions, CENA withdrew its objections and Meyer got a use permit in June, according to city records.

But to offer tastings, the Health Department required that Wine Thieves instill a three-compartment sink, which meant that the store needed a 6-foot drain in the floor. To do that, Meyers had to hire an architect, apply for a building permit, and make sure the store was compliant with regulations from the Americans with Disabilities Act. The process added another five to six months, he said.

“We didn’t really think we would have to pull building permits because we weren’t changing anything structural in there,” said Meyers. “We were just pulling out sales racks. But putting a drain in created the problem. It did take a little jumping through hoops.”

Interested in issues surrounding doing business in Berkeley? Be sure to attend Berkeleyside’s first Local Business Forum on Monday January 24, 7-9pm at the Freight & Salvage. Doors open at 6.30 and it’s free.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...