Waiting in line on Telegraph Avenue, May 2013. Photo: George Kelly
Waiting in line on Telegraph Avenue, May 2013. Photo: George Kelly

The city of Berkeley is considering relaxing commercial quotas on Telegraph Avenue for three years to let market forces play more of a role in what businesses open on the avenue.

Advocates for the change say it will breathe new life into the street, which has struggled in recent years. Opponents say the shift could threaten existing independent mom-and-pop businesses, many of which are minority-owned.

A Berkeley City Council majority voted Tuesday night to ask the city’s Planning Commission to take stock of the current situation on Telegraph and report back later this year.

(Councilman Max Anderson abstained from the vote, and council members Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín voted against the motion.)

A recent staff report noted the neighborhood’s 48% decline in retail sales since 1990, an “increasingly edgy street scene,” 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%.

There are currently both numerical and size limitations on the number of barber and beauty shops, food service establishments, and gift and novelty shops that can open in the Telegraph Avenue Commercial District. Businesses in the categories limited by quotas can still open if granted a special permit or through a public hearing; if quotas are relaxed, those steps would not be needed.

Councilman Kriss Worthington, who represents the Telegraph district, said many changes are already underway, and officials should wait to reform the quota system until they see how the other adjustments will affect the avenue.The city is working 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.

Worthington said many of his constituents, residents and business owners alike, have asked the city to leave the quotas alone. He called the potential change “extraordinarily insulting” and “disrespectful” to the neighborhood.

“It’s pretty guaranteed to drive some of our businesses out of business,” he said Tuesday night. “They don’t want this done and we should not take this punitive action.”

During a public comment period at a City Council meeting March 30, several Telegraph Avenue restaurant owners expressed their opposition to the proposed relaxing of quotas, saying it would saturate the market and put restaurants out of business.

Linda Gilman, who owns Crêpes-a-Go-Go at 2334 Telegraph, said she didn’t know whether she would renew her lease if the plan is implemented.

“Within the past five years, lots of clothing stores have been taken over by food businesses,” she said. “When I opened, the rents were high but I knew there was a quota system. The pie is getting thinner and thinner.”

And Alex Popov, who runs Pappy’s Grill & Sports Bar at 2367 Telegraph, said he had recently counted 74 quick-service restaurants in the area, 95 in total, with six vacant restaurants. “How are we going to survive if this passes?” he asked.

One member of the public who addressed the council at this week’s meeting said she feared relaxing the quotas would turn Telegraph Avenue into the city’s “food court” and drive many mom-and-pop businesses out of the area.

Councilman Gordon Wozniak said the quotas have been in existence for 25 years and haven’t served to help the neighborhood thrive. He said the changing economics on the avenue demand a new approach to revitalization, and that the city needs a better understanding of the current situation and business landscape.

The council voted to ask the Planning Commission to study the existing situation on Telegraph to get a better sense of the numbers and types of each business that currently exist.

The staff report did not include any information about the current breakdown of businesses, and numbers recently provided by staff were questioned by members of the business community who said they weren’t accurate.

The staff report prepared for Tuesday night’s meeting did say the council had temporarily stopped quota limitations on Solano Avenue which “has resulted in new businesses being established.” Also, in 2009, the council voted to end a moratorium on restaurant uses on University Avenue from Oxford Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Way, which “created a tremendous amount of new activity along University Avenue allowing properties that were vacant for many years to be put back into productive use.”

Worthington said, rather than build the neighborhood’s economy by bringing in more restaurants, relaxing the quotas would likely drive many area restaurants out.

“This is not a solution. This is a hatchet to the heart and the soul of what is the single most successful part of Telegraph,” he said. “Why don’t we fix the things that are broken instead of damaging the single part of the economy that is doing the best?”

Arreguín said that, though the motion was only to recommend studying the status quo, it would “lay the foundation” for broader changes in the future.

“Let’s be real,” he said. “The Planning Commission majority supports eliminating quotas. We know what’s going to happen. They’re likely to say, ‘Get rid of quotas.’ They’ve been talking about it for years.”

Wooing larger stores may be key to Telegraph’s success [05.24.13]
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...