Lynn and Lee Vu at A'Cuppa Tea: "completely mom and pop". Photo: Lance Knobel

Update, 9:50pm: At its meeting tonight, the Berkeley City Council upheld the ZAB decision to give a use permit to A’Cuppa Tea in the Elmwood.


At tonight’s City Council meeting, the 36th item on the agenda is an appeal against a decision of the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) to allow A’Cuppa Tea to move to a vacant site on College Avenue in the Elmwood. Why would a unanimous decision of the ZAB on a zoning adjustment for a business to move two blocks by a City Council matter? It’s the vexed issue of neighborhood business quotas.

The Elmwood Commercial District is one of several in Berkeley with quotas for different kinds of businesses. In the Elmwood, only seven so-called quick-service food establishments are allowed in the quotas, but there are currently eight operating, and licenses have been issued for 10.

A’Cuppa Tea is currently on the corner of College and Alcatraz, but plans to move to 2992 College, just north of Webster in to space formerly occupied by H. Tulanian & Sons Oriental Rug Cleaning & Repair– about four-tenths of a mile. Its current site, however, is outside the Elmwood quotas. 

In May, the ZAB held a public hearing on the proposed adjustment. The board voted 8-0, with one abstention, to allow A’Cuppa Tea’s use permit. But the decision has been appealed by the Elmwood Merchants Association and the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association. At tonight’s meeting, the City Council can either decide to schedule a public hearing on the appeal, affirm the ZAB’s decision, or send the issue back to ZAB for reconsideration.

“Unanimous ZAB decisions are fairly rare,” said councilmember Gordon Wozniak, whose district shares the Elmwood with councilmember Kriss Worthington. Wozniak said the council sometimes overturns ZAB decisions, but it’s infrequent. City staff have recommended denying the appeal and affirming the ZAB decision.

For Lee Vu, owner of A’Cuppa Tea, the delays are puzzling, particularly after the ZAB public hearing and unanimous decision.

“If people aren’t happy, they should have gone to the hearing before,” he said. The move, Vu said, is dictated by the landlord’s decision not to renew his lease. He is determined to stay in roughly the same neighborhood.

“We are completely mom and pop,” Vu said. “I enjoy Berkeley. People have said we should move to the Oakland side of College, but I want to stay in Berkeley. It’s a unique town.”

The quota in the zoning ordinance can be exceeded when “the exception shall result in the positive enhancement of the purposes of the District, as evidenced by neighborhood resident and merchant support and marketing surveys or other information indicating probable substantial patronage by surrounding residents”. A’Cuppa Tea submitted over 500 signatures supporting their move to the ZAB.

Wozniak posted the issue on Open Town Hall, a site that gathers opinions on local government issues, and it generated 103 responses, most in favor of the ZAB decision. Among the supporters of the use permit for A’Cuppa Tea was Charlene Reis, co-owner of Summer Kitchen, a quick-service food store in the Elmwood. Reis’ supporting statement says that even though her business is a member of the Elmwood Merchants Association, she had not been consulted about the group’s opposition to the use permit.

“I have not come forth before because I have feared retribution from the Elmwood Merchants Association but have decided to come forth now because I feel that my silence in this matter would be taken as implied consent,” Reis wrote.

In contrast, the Elmwood Merchants Association and the the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association oppose the use permit on three major grounds: that a higher standard of community support needs to be shown than signed petitions, that there not be a domination of one use type over others, and that there were irregularities in the notice of the ZAB public hearing.

The staff recommendation to the City Council rejects all three arguments.

If A’Cuppa Tea is given the go-ahead tonight, Vu said he plans to be open sometime in September.

“My contractors say, ‘We will work hard for you,’” he said. “We might be a little behind, but I think we can make it.”

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...