Student shopping and nightlife needs may play a key role in the future of Telegraph Avenue. Photo: kukkurovaca
Student shopping and nightlife needs may play a key role in the future of Telegraph Avenue. Photo: kukkurovaca

Telegraph Avenue could use more large clothing retailers and a grocery store, along with more options for nightlife and buying household goods, if it hopes to grow financially moving forward, city staff said Tuesday as part of a special work session on the avenue.

Some officials said the city needs to take a proactive approach to marketing properties that become available, and perhaps adjust the city’s permitting process to make it easier to attract larger businesses. Others said landlords might take it upon themselves to lower rents for new businesses, so the burden isn’t only on the city.

“I think we have to go out on dates,” said Councilwoman Linda Maio. “I think we have to identify retailers that we want, that we have a space for. I think we have to introduce them to the mayor. I think we have to wine and dine them and bring them into town. I think we have to show them the campus and the enormous potential here. I don’t think it’s going to serve us well to sit back and wait for somebody to come our way.”

City economic development manager Michael Caplan spoke about the importance of packaging the many changes underway on the avenue, along with economic data about “opportunity sectors,” such that they can be presented to potential retailers in a proactive way. (He said the downtown’s business district is in the midst of a similar process, with the help of a retail consultant.)

Staffers noted the neighborhood’s 48% decline in retail sales since 1990, an “increasingly edgy street scene,” a devastating fire in 2011, and a rapid decline in recent years in sales of books and music, which made up 43% of the district’s sales in 2007 and now make up just 21%. The area primarily under discussion was Telegraph Avenue from Bancroft Way south to Parker Street.

Click the chart to see a full overview on Telegraph's economic situation, which was presented Tuesday by Berkeley city staff.
Click the chart to see a full overview on Telegraph’s economic situation, which was presented Tuesday by Berkeley city staff.
Click the chart to see a full overview on Telegraph’s economic situation, which was presented Tuesday by Berkeley city staff.

In Tuesday night’s special work session, City Manager Christine Daniel asked for guidance from the Berkeley City Council on whether the city is heading in the right direction for the future of the avenue.

Mayor Tom Bates thanked staff for their in-depth analysis, and pointed out other city efforts underway to fix street lighting, allow upper-floor office use, allow Sunday street celebrations and change traffic patterns on Bancroft and Durant, all of which are designed to tackle the neighborhood’s challenges. Still to be determined, however, is how to resolve the reason many say they stay off the avenue.

“One of the reasons people don’t go there is because of the street behavior, and we have to face that,” said Bates. “Unless the street behavior gets modified in some way and people feel comfortable going, all our efforts are going to be reduced, let’s just put it that way.”

The restaurant sector is one of Telegraph’s dominant economic drivers, with a large chunk of the roughly 1,250 jobs on the avenue in food service. About 40% of the avenue’s total taxable sales are food related; citywide, restaurants generate closer to 20%. Clothing sales generate another 22% of the district’s taxable sales, making it the strongest “retail sub-sector” on the avenue.

Caplan said a key consideration going forward would be to consider the interests of the nearly 5,000 students who live on campus or in UC-owned residences nearby. From the staff report: “Another important point here is that even though the campus’ student population shows little formal income, its buying power is significant and represents a customer opportunity that has not been fully tapped.” (Read the full report.)

Dave Fogarty, from the city’s Office of Economic Development, said another 9,150 people live within a quarter-mile of campus, and that 51,000 people live within a mile.

Staffers referenced a study that found that most student spending takes place outside Berkeley, and that Telegraph Avenue could benefit from investment by larger “anchor” stores selling clothing or groceries. The closure in 2011 of Andronico’s left a major gap in neighborhood grocery options; Bates said Amoeba Music used to be a grocery store and should perhaps consider one day becoming one again.

Projects in development on Telegraph include, from left, the new Sequoia building; El Jardin and 2501 Haste; and the Mad Monk Center for Anachronistic Media.
Projects in development on Telegraph include, from left, the new Sequoia building; El Jardin at 2501 Haste; and the Mad Monk Center.

Much of the discussion revolved around how to create spaces on Telegraph that would be attractive to large retailers, especially with several new developments underway, including the new Sequoia buildingEl Jardin at 2501 Hastethe Mad Monk Center; and the Center for Independent Living. The former Ned’s space will also open up once UC’s Lower Sproul project is complete, and the Cal student store moves back to campus.

Three of these projects, at Haste and Telegraph, “offer the possibility of a completely transformed corner – a change from one of the most challenged corners in the City to one of the most dynamic,” according to the staff report.

As part of Tuesday’s report, staff took a look at other “near-to-campus” districts around the country. Many, said Caplan, have “Telegraph-like” atmospheres and also struggle with declining retail sales. One common characteristic was the finding that independent businesses in those neighborhoods often thrive alongside a “common set of national chains,” such as “a Walgreens or CVS pharmacy, Urban Outfitters, Chipotle and often a Jamba Juice or Starbucks.”

Telegraph, however, has less nightlife and fewer options for arts and entertainment than the other neighborhoods: “If the area can address these deficiencies and create more ‘gathering spaces’, it will likely help it attract a greater diversity of people. A study done by the graduate student union two years ago found that many graduate students felt they had to go to Oakland or San Francisco to have a fun date night out. That is clearly a market that Telegraph is in a position to tap.”

Councilman Kriss Worthington — who represents the Telegraph Avenue neighborhood on the council — said parking issues, related to poor signage and parking validation information, and high crime are among the biggest obstacles keeping visitors from the avenue. Joint foot and bike patrols by UC and Berkeley police are a “significant step” in the right direction for safer streets, he said. But more needs to happen.

“Individual people acting out on the street can cause problems,” he said, “and, while we don’t want to criminalize the homeless or poor people as a class, we do want to be able to address people who are acting negatively toward residents or people who work there or shop there.”

Worthington said he’d like to see the Telegraph Business Improvement District identify and monitor “hot spots” on the avenue — to help the city prioritize staff resources — to try to cut down on problems.

“I think the mayor is right,” said Worthington. “If we ignore this, our other efforts are going to be far less effective.”

Tackling Telegraph Avenue: Is this time different? [03.01.13]
Can Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue get it mojo back? [04.18.12]
Telegraph site owner plans for temporary resurrection [02.06.12]
Imagining a future for Telegraph Avenue without blinders [04.11.12]
Urban think tank: Student visions for blighted Telegraph lot [10.03.11]
City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot [09.07.11]
What about that vacant lot on Haste and Telegraph? [08.11.11]
Berkeley students want better stores, fewer street people [05.31.11]
City says it is addressing Telegraph Avenue rats problem [02.10.11]

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...