A local group spearheaded by Councilman Laurie Capitelli hopes to turn the Oaks Theater into a community arts space. Photo: Oaks Theater Consortium
A local group spearheaded by Councilman Laurie Capitelli hopes to turn the Oaks Theatre into a community arts space. Photo: Oaks Theatre Consortium

[Editor’s note: This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. with additional information from Councilman Laurie Capitelli.]

A local consortium’s attempts to come to an agreement to use North Berkeley’s Oaks Theatre on Solano Avenue and convert it into a community arts performance space have thus far been unsuccessful, reports Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who has spearheaded those efforts.

Capitelli provided an update to his constituents via email Friday. He thanked those who had expressed support for the venture, which kicked off last fall.

Last year, Capitelli, along with the Youth Musical Theater Company, formed a task force — the Oaks Theater Consortium — to spearhead the campaign to renovate the auditorium to remove the wall that separates the two theaters, take out several hundred seats from the balcony, and rebuild the main stage as a single performance space. The idea would be to bring together a group of anchor tenants from a range of arts organizations, and also potentially to offer simulcast viewings of special events like the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl, as well as host film festivals or smaller symposiums or panels.

He wrote: “The consortium of local performing arts groups has been so far unable to negotiate a business agreement with the Oaks Theatre owner that will insure a sustainable plan moving forward. We will continue to look at all reasonable possibilities including purchase and work to finding the right proposal at the right time for all concerned.”

The landlord and property owner of the theater is John Gordon.

Reached by phone shortly after 1 p.m., Capitelli said his group had asked Gordon to make improvements to the building, which is in rather “dilapidated” shape, and had been trying to agree on a rental price that would work for both parties. But they were unable to reach a consensus.

“We will continue to try and pursue the Oaks but, at this point, we’re pretty far apart, so we might try to look at purchase,” Capitelli said. “We couldn’t really come to agreement on either of those two areas.”

He added: “The price that the property owner was asking was beyond our budget.”

Visions of how Solano Avenue’s Oaks Theater could one day look. Illustration: Miguel Lievano

Despite the lack of progress Capitelli added, in his email, “what we have learned over the past year is that there is a significant need in this community for a permanent home for our rich and varied nonprofit performing arts groups. More importantly, there is a willingness amongst a strong core of groups to form a consortium to fill that need in a cooperative and collaborative fashion.”

The project could take at least $400,000 to retrofit, said Jane Tierney, president of the Thousand Oaks association board, who attended a community meeting about the project in October. A number of ownership ideas, such as a non-profit charter, were discussed at the meeting as a possible financial solution; the non-profit would seek a range of funding sources, including from the public, to accomplish the necessary changes.

Capitelli wrote Friday that the consortium’s steering committee “is pledged to continue this process to a successful conclusion. Though we are disappointed that we haven’t been able to date to bring a performing arts center to the heart of north Berkeley, we are still committed to finding a home for our nomadic cultural assets.”

He said, by phone, that the group is also looking into other locations in Berkeley and North Oakland that might be a better fit, though no specific location has been identified.

In late October, Capitelli wrapped up a public survey that drew responses from more than 1,300 people. The campaign drummed up pledges of financial support to the tune of more than $125,000 after an outreach effort during the 2013 Solano Stroll.

The Oaks Theatre was, for many years, an anchor site on Solano Avenue. It was built as a single-screen theater in 1925 and upgraded to two screens in 1973. Renaissance Rialto Theaters operated the Oaks between 1994 and 2005, and the Metropolitan Theaters Corporation ran it until 2010. Merriment Media used the theater to show Bollywood flicks for several months in 2010, but the company lost its lease after it failed to pay rent for three months.

Tierney said Berkeley architect Donn Logan, who worked on both Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre and The Freight & Salvage, was involved with the project as of last fall. Tables and comfortable stadium-style seating inside the theater, a concession area in the lobby and dressing rooms in the back are all part of the vision for the project. (Gordon received permission from the city in 2012 to sell beer and wine, as well as quick-service food, at the theater, though the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control does not appear to have an application on file at this time.) Tierney said Capitelli was also in the midst of securing agreements from nearby business owners with large parking lots to let their parking be used for theater-goers.

Capitelli said Friday afternoon that he remains optimistic because so many arts groups have approached the consortium and want to be involved.

“It’s a matter of finding a site that will work financially, but the groups have come together, and I know it will work given the right financial parameters,” he said. “There’s a very broad base of support out there. And each of these theater companies has its own constituency, each of them therefore has financial sources they can go to. It’s not all the same pockets.”

Last chance: Oaks Theatre survey; sketches revealed (10.23.13)
The Oaks Theatre may be reborn as performance space (09.16.13)
Oaks Theatre on Solano closes, future uncertain (01.03.11)
International flavor on the cards for Oaks Theatre (04.29.10)
Thousand Oaks Theatre to reopen with new focus (04.01.10)

Follow Berkeleyside on Twitter and Facebook. Email us at tips@berkeleyside.com. Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.

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...