The old CP Shades store on Solano Avenue is now one of that street's many vacancies. Photo: Tracey Taylor

During the month of February, there were 11 vacant storefronts along the top stretch of Solano Avenue, giving the shopping district a slightly beleaguered air.

While the soft economy accounts for some of that vacant frontage, City Councilmember Jesse Arreguín suspects some landlords in Berkeley are keeping rents artificially high, making it difficult for small business owners to find suitable retail space.

Arreguín thinks that Berkeley could minimize the number of vacant storefronts by charging landlords a fee when buildings lie fallow for an extended period of time. He will ask the City Council tonight to send a directive to the city manager’s office to study the issue.

Landlords “have the right to rent their space to anyone they want,” said Arreguín. “My concern, and the concern I have heard from others, is that holding out for that ideal tenant and then leaving the space vacant for six months to a year or even longer – that decision has a cost to the community, making commercial districts look like they are in decline and creating the appearance of an unsafe area. It definitely has an impact.”

Arreguín thinks imposing a vacancy registration fee will give landlords the incentive to find new tenants quickly. Although his idea is only conceptual at this point, he has suggested a $180 registration fee that escalates to $300 for every six months the property remains vacant. A new law could also impose cleanliness standards on vacant property, such as requiring it be kept clear of graffiti, weeds, and litter.

Landlords would have a grace period of up to six months to try and rent their property, said Arreguín. There would be exemptions for buildings being renovated or landlords who are suffering financial hardship.

The City Council has been grappling with the issue of vacant storefronts for almost a year. In December 2010, it passed the “Encouraging Economic Development and Increasing City Revenue from Business Activity” plan. The council asked the Planning Commission to look into “providing incentives to property owners to encourage leasing and establish disincentives to motivate property owners not to leave their properties vacant.”

But one commercial realtor says that Arreguín’s assumptions about why there are so many vacant storefronts in Berkeley are wrong – and that a fee is not the way to solve the problem.

While years ago people used to get dressed up and head downtown to shop for shoes, clothes, or consumer electronics, they now head for malls or superstores like Costco, said Michael Korman of Korman and Ng.

Those kinds of businesses don’t exist in Berkeley. Instead, most of the retail space for rent is in older buildings where the space tends to be very deep. The stores were designed that way because decades ago store owners needed a lot of storage space in the back to keep their goods. Nowadays, store owners don’t need a store 50 feet deep because they can get goods delivered overnight, said Korman. They mostly just want the six feet of window space fronting the street. But they still have to pay for the larger and deeper space.

Parking is also an issue, said Korman. He said one reason why the Elmwood shopping district is flourishing is because they city owns a small parking lot behind the stores on College Avenue.

“That is a lifeline to those businesses,” said Korman. “You can go in for an hour and have lunch. If the city really wanted to help, they would provide little parking lots. If the city had the courage – and the will – they would do that.”

Korman did not agree with Arreguín’s conclusion that many landlords are holding out for higher rents. While he could understand assessing a fee on dilapidated buildings, he can’t see the reasoning behind a fee on those that are merely vacant.

“There might be a penalty on egregious blight, but a vacant store is not blight, especially when you have hard economic times,” said Korman. “Hard economic times are all over.”

Other cities in the Bay Area assess a fee on vacant properties, but usually when they are blighted by graffiti and weeds, not just sitting empty. San Jose used to just impose a fee on blighted residential property, but added retail and commercial buildings a year ago, said Mike Hannon, a code enforcement official. If an inspector notices a building that is neglected, the city will issue a warning that gives property owners 30 days to clean up the site. If repairs are not made, the property is put into a registration program where it must remain for at least three quarters. The owner has to pay $460 a quarter, as well as other fines.

There are about 108 residential properties in the registration program and three commercial properties, said Hannon. There are not many retail buildings because landlords usually take care of the property.

“Most property owners are maintaining [their building] because they want to get it rented out,” said Hannon.

Arreguín said he had not done any formal study on why some landlord’s spaces have remained vacant for so long. He has looked at listings in Berkeley and compared the rents to those in other cities, he said. He has had conversations with shop owners and heard anecdotal information about the push to keep rents high.

“Most commercial property owners aren’t problem property owners,” said Arreguín. “They keep up their properties. But we have out-of-town owners who aren’t all that interested in keeping up their properties.”

“The ultimate goal is we want these spaces to be filled,” he said.

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...