Solano Avenue

Goodwill Industries is planning to open a 5,000 square foot store at the top of Solano Avenue and some area merchants are concerned it will drag down the shopping district’s image.

Goodwill is hoping to move into space formerly occupied by Front Row Video and The World of Dance studio, according to Allen Cain, the director of the Solano Avenue Association. Goodwill would knock out the wall between the spaces to create a large store that will sell used clothing, furniture, and home goods.

The new store would fill two of the 11 vacant storefronts on the two and a half block stretch of Solano that rests in Berkeley. Still, some merchants don’t think a Goodwill store is a good idea.

Carol Fabrietti, owner of Ideas 4 Elements, which has been on Solano Avenue for 22 years, says she does not want Goodwill opening on the avenue.

“We want to bring people back to Solano. But we want to attract upscale customers, and this isn’t the way to do it,” she said.

Alaina Palega, who moved her Solano Kids consignment store into the block near The Alameda just six months ago, is worried that drop-off donations will be unsightly and will mar the street’s image.

“It’s going to cause a lot of junk being left, dropped off in doorways,” said Palega. “It’s just not fitting with the street.”

Palega is also worried that a large Goodwill, which is a non-profit, will squeeze out local antique stores and used clothing stores like hers.

“It’s going to hurt a lot of small businesses that are here,” said Pelaga, who has set out a petition on her counter to protest the Goodwill store. “We have a lot of consignment stores and antique stores. It’s going to kill a lot of small guys. So you are going to trade four or five stores for one big store.”

Hannah Hernandez, who has owned and operated Hannah’s, a kid’s used clothing store for 16 years, is not worried. Goodwill generally just puts its donations on racks and customers have to paw through massive amounts of clothing to find good things. She offers a different experience to her customers.

“The service I provide is culling all the junk,” she said.

Goodwill has had discussions with Berkeley about the new store, but has not yet formally submitted a revised application, according to Claudine Asbagh. (The company had previously applied just to use the World of Dance Space.) But combining two stores will trigger a public review and hearing.

Solano Avenue, long one of Berkeley’s most vibrant shopping districts, is struggling in this depressed economy. Numerous stores, including the Oaks Theatre, have shut down and a few more announced this month that they were going out of business, said Cain.

Part of the problem is the continuing high rents in the area, said Cain. Rents run $2 to $5 a square foot, with the average rent on the east end of Solano running at $3 a square foot.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Cain, who blamed the high rents not on local landlords, but property investment groups and landlords who don’t live nearby. “Downtown San Francisco near Union Square is $5 a square foot, so how can we be charging 75% of (what landlords get) in San Francisco?

Rent is not the only issue. Sarber’s Cameras, which has operated at 1749 Solano for 35 years, is giving up its lease at the end of March. The space is larger than needed and its design makes it difficult to remodel, according to Jessica Sarber, whose family has owned the business for 49 years. The company, which has another branch in Montclair Village in Oakland, is looking for a new space but will not necessarily remain in Berkeley, she said. One of the spaces the company looked at was on the stretch of Solano Avenue in Albany, which seems more active than Berkeley, according to Sarber.

Fabrietti, who owns Shoes on Solano as well as Ideas 4 Elements, is well aware of the malaise that has affected Solano Avenue. She is planning to combat that by closing Ideas 4 Elements and reopening it again in March with a new type of store that will “create curiosity”.

“We had an option to close permanently but we don’t want to add to the number of vacant storefronts,” said Fabrietti. “We want to bring some excitement to the avenue and hope other business owners will put resources towards doing that too. We have a built-in audience for that in this neighborhood where property prices are high.”

Nikki Mercer, one of the sales people at Ideas 4 Elements, said she doesn’t even know what the new concept will be. Fabrietti wants to make it a surprise, which might add to the buzz.

“The reason for our remodel is that business has been so bad,” said Mercer. “People are just not shopping on Solano.”

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 Created California, published in November...