An artist’s rendering of “Fourth & Spenger” at 1901 and 1919 Fourth St. Image: Abrams/Millikan
An artist’s rendering of “Fourth & Spenger” at 1901 and 1919 Fourth St. Image: Abrams/Millikan

Citing the need to revitalize a business that’s been on the decline for decades, a developer is seeking to make major changes to the West Berkeley block where Spenger’s Fish Grotto has operated since 1933.

Berkeley’s Abrams/Millikan, an architecture and design firm, has big plans for the Fourth Street property, which include the creation of a new beer garden, and the addition of retail shops, office space and parking. The existing restaurant use will remain, but on a smaller scale.

The city’s Design Review Committee took a look at those plans last week, but Abrams/Millkan — working with San Francisco-based Jamestown Properties — held a community meeting in June to provide an overview of the project. According to developers, about 20 people attended, and seven people signed a petition in support of the project, which is called “Fourth & Spenger.” The project was submitted to the city by Elliott Abrams later that month.

Read more about development in Berkeley.

In total, developers plan to add just 10,000 square feet of structure to the property. But some existing buildings on the block are set to be demolished and replaced with new uses, including about 3,500 feet for the beer garden and adjacent patio, nearly 18,000 square feet of new retail shops — on the corners of both Fourth and Fifth streets at Hearst Avenue — and 1,900 square feet for a new fish market next to the restaurant.

The layout planned at Fourth & Spenger, at 1901 and 1919 Fourth St. Source: Abrams/Millikan

Spenger’s, which has landmark status in Berkeley, is slated to be remodeled, dropping from 25,000 to nearly 16,000 square feet. The Anthropologie and Paper Source shops are expected to remain, for the most part, as is, though the stationery shop is set to lose nearly 900 square feet from its 3,800-square-foot footprint.

To be demolished is the existing “metal shed” building on Fifth — which was Zentrum Furniture until 2012 — to make way for a larger, consolidated parking lot on the block. Approximately 33 parking spaces are set to be added to the lot on Fifth and University, bringing total parking on site to 110 spaces. Bicycle racks for 36, four low-emission vehicle spaces, and three public electric vehicle charging stations are also part of the plan. The lot will be screened and landscaped, and include a bioswale for water filtration.

The original family cottage — which is mid-block with a gable-roof, adjacent to the Spenger’s sign — dates back to 1892 and will not be affected by the project. All the historically protected signs will also remain on the property. Landscaping, including street trees on all four sides of the block, “is an integral part of the Fourth Street pedestrian experience,” which developers plan to continue, in line with a Bay-friendly approach to plantings.

The largest structure proposed on the block is a new 2-story building — not more than 31 feet tall — at Fourth and Hearst, to include ground-floor retail and second-story office space.

What Fourth and Hearst could one day look like. Source: Abrams/Millikan

“Buildings are low in scale, maximizing views of sky and sun,” according to the application. “The new building continues the street wall of small storefronts with parking in back of buildings and the pedestrian rhythm. All these elements respect the land marked [sic] Spenger building and bring Fourth Street to this next block.”

Denny Abrams and Richard Millikan developed the original Fourth Street shopping district — the area bound by Cedar Street, Sixth Street, University Avenue and Frontage Road — kickstarting it with the opening of the Fourth Street Grill restaurant in the late 1970s.

Part of the plan is to add a “paseo,” or commercial walkway for strolling and shopping, that developers hope will “generate major pedestrian activity” and bring the old and new buildings together. There’s also the possibility of a “movie wall” as well as consideration of the potential for nighttime music and dancing. The paseo will concentrate activity in the middle of the block.

Developers hope to draw more of the busy foot traffic of Fourth Street north of Hearst into the new complex. They also hope to draw from 250 new units they say will be built near Fourth and University in the next 18 months: “Thus, this project creates the linkage for two West Berkeley neighborhoods, Fourth Street North and Fourth Street South.” (Read about that project, where Grocery Outlet is located, on Berkeleyside.)

An aerial view of a project proposed at Fourth south of Hearst. Source: Abrams/Millikan
An aerial view of a project proposed at Fourth south of Hearst. Source: Abrams/Millikan
The “paseo” walkway on Fourth south of Hearst. Source: Abrams/Millikan
The “paseo” walkway on Fourth south of Hearst. Source: Abrams/Millikan

In the end, the project is set to include about 35,000 square feet of retail, nearly 20,000 square feet of restaurant space and 11,000 square feet of office space.

Developers say the only way for Spenger’s to continue will be to forge ahead with this project.

From their use permit application: “The survival of Spengers will depend on generating new customers. At present Spengers stands isolated in a sea of parking with no pedestrian traffic. It is an island to itself. Our goal is to integrate Spengers into the fabric of the pedestrian traffic of Fourth Street.”

According to notes included in the use permit application, developers hopes to be heard by the city in October and November, and would like to break ground in early 2015. Construction is expected to take seven months.

A historical resource assessment included in the project documents found that most of the alterations to the property would take place on the north side of the block, and would not negatively impact landmarked elements on the property: “Interactive Resources, Inc. finds that the proposed project would be beneficial to the property and the surrounding area in terms of viability, aesthetics and historic compatibility, and meets the necessary outlined provision for historic properties.”

Spenger’s, circa 1930. Source: Interactive Resources Project No. 2013-073
Spenger’s, circa 1930. Source: Interactive Resources Project No. 2013-073
Spenger’s, circa 1970. Source: Interactive Resources Project No. 2013-073
Spenger’s, circa 1970. Source: Interactive Resources Project No. 2013-073

According to that assessment, German fisherman Johann Spenger established his grocery store and fish market in a shed near University and Fourth in 1892. In 1933, Spenger’s son Frank converted that store into a seafood restaurant. The family took out a use permit to build a fish market on the north side of the restaurant in 1949, and made a variety of improvements over the years, including a 2-story banquet hall, until the “Oyster Bar” addition to the south was completed in 1975. The family closed the restaurant in 1998, and sold it to national corporation McCormick & Schmick’s.

In 1998, the site was also found by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to be important due to the presence of Strawberry Creek beneath Spenger’s, and the site’s “direct relationship to the bay and maritime history,” according to the assessment.

In August, the city asked for several changes to the proposed project, including the addition of a second story to a building at the northeast corner of the block — to meet minimum zoning requirements — and a report on potential liquefaction hazards. (Abrams responded to that request in writing that he did not believe that height would be appropriate in the area or welcomed by neighbors.) To proceed, the project will require review by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, as well as approval by its Zoning Adjustments Board.

The expansive Spenger’s parking lot, west of Fourth Street, is not part of this proposal. Also according to notes in the application, a community member who attended the June meeting asked what would happen should development take place in that lot. The answer? “They owe us 100 spaces no matter what happens.”

Several people responded to a Facebook post by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, expressing interest in the plans.

Said Randy Waage, “That building is in dire need of a re-model. Sometimes it’s hard to visualize from drawings, but I’d be all for some remodeling of that particular location.”

Added Anjali Sundaram, “On the whole, it looks like an interesting ‘upgrade’ to the site. I would hope as many of the historic elements as possible be retained. Many of us almost literally grew up in Spenger’s.”

Development may come to Spenger’s lot in Berkeley (07.28.14)
Catahoula ‘Kaffeegarten’ hits West Berkeley (09.16.14)
Ruby Livingdesign opens on Berkeley’s Fourth Street (08.29.14)
5-story complex proposed on Grocery Outlet site (08.14.14)
Is the tech boom putting pressure on Berkeley rents? (07.03.14)
A dig in a Berkeley parking lot seeks shellmound answers (02.03.14)
Crab takes center stage at Spenger’s ‘Iron Chef’ contest (09.26.11)

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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...