The decades-old retail and food quotas in Berkeley’s Elmwood commercial district face a potentially dramatic overhaul with Councilmember Gordon Wozniak set to propose a review of the quotas to the Planning Commission at tonight’s City Council meeting. If it’s adopted, Wozniak’s scheme would eliminate retail quotas and collapse the current three-tier food quota into a single quota.

“I want to make it easier for startups, but still maintain the special character of the Elmwood,” Wozniak, who represents most of the Elmwood business district, said. The area is centered on the intersection of Ashby and College Avenues in south Berkeley. “There’s a need to keep the balance between food and retail, but having three distinct categories for food is very destructive and consumes an inordinate amount of staff time.”

Under the current quotas (see table below), there are six distinct retail categories and three food categories — carry out, quick service and full service. Wozniak said that the system can be a “real disincentive for a new business”, because of the cost and time needed for permitting.

Wozniak said the matter came to a head for him over the retail space that now houses A’ Cuppa Tea at 2992 College Avenue. He said several retailers were interested in the space, but they balked at the quota process and ended up opening at other locations. The space was vacant for three years. A’ Cuppa Tea itself faced opposition to its permit, since the food quotas have long been filled.

Wozniak said that a small change in the physical configuration of a store can result in it being reclassified into a different quota category, which is already full, causing the business to be in violation of the quota system. His proposal would keep a maximum number for food businesses, but allow any new retail use.

Among the difficulties in the current system, Wozniak pointed to the new chocolatier, Casa De Chocolates, which plans to open later this year at 2629 Ashby at College. In order to avoid a food classification, the store, which is owned by Cal graduate Arcelia Gallardo, will not be able to sell individual pieces of chocolate. Shoppers will have a minimum purchase of a half dozen. “These are the contorsions that staff go through,” Wozniak said.

“Retail is really struggling,” Wozniak said. “We need to make it easier for them. It’s hard to order food from Amazon.”

Even local merchants who are wary of changes to a system that offers some market protection agree that some reform of the quotas is needed.

“As long as there’s no more food, changes might work,” said John Moriarty, who has run The 14 Karats for 34 years. “[The retail quotas] make it too crazy. I’m totally in favor of that. But if there’s no retail here, people won’t come to buy anything. If there’s nowhere to park, no one will come to the movie theater. You can’t get rid of retail to put more food in.”

“We would support any action that is able to streamline the process,” said Paul Arenstam, one of the chef owners of Summer Kitchen Bake Shop. Summer Kitchen had to pirouette through the quotas when it opened and wanted to add a table and chairs. “Food use is food use. [The quotas] have really been a distraction. We want to concentrate on making our store as great as possible.”

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes some of the Elmwood, is cautious about change.

“I think the devil is in the details,” he said. “The number one reason to make the adjustment is at the time the quotas were created, there were fewer businesses. There are a lot more business spaces now than there were then. I think keeping the same percentages is the idea no one objects to.”

Wozniak’s proposal, if passed by City Council, would be referred to the Planning Commission. A full, public process would precede any revision of the current quotas.

A’ Cuppa Tea move raises issue of Elmwood quotas [07.19.11]
Is it hard to do business in Berkeley [01.20.11]
Summer Kitchen and Elmwood zoning: A follow up [04.22.10]
Wozniak: The key issues for Berkeley [10.19.09]

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...