The Oaks Theatre, which has been vacant since 2011, is for sale. Photo: Ira Serkes

The Oaks Theatre at the top of Solano Avenue has sat vacant for six years despite a number of attempts to turn the historic movie theater in a site for community productions.

Now John Gordon, the owner of the theater, a realtor, commercial property developer, and one of Berkeley’s larger property owners, has put the building up for sale rather than just offering it for lease. The hope is that a nonprofit that might have been intimidated by raising funds to refurbish a leased property will be more interested if it can own the building.

“We still think it’s a very valuable asset to the community and the right group will come along and re-invent it,” said Kevin Gordon, John’s nephew and an agent for Gordon Commercial Real Estate Services.

The building — with 1,000 seats, two screens, an ornate entry, ticket booth, concession stand and antique projector on display — also has five upstairs offices and five retail spaces along Solano Avenue. In addition, AT&T rents space on the building’s roof for cell antennas. The listing price is $4.25 million.

While the retail outlook on upper Solano is fairly rosy — the vacancy rate is 7.5%, not including the theater — a thriving building would certainly enliven the area, said Jordan Klein, Berkeley’s acting director of economic development.

“If the Oaks Theatre was activated it would be a huge benefit to the shops and restaurants up there,” said Klein. “It would bring a lot of activity. It would bring people from around the city and, potentially, from around the East Bay.”

Oaks Theatre (historic). Photo: Courtesy of Berkeley historians Richard Schwartz and Jack Tillmany

The Oaks opened in 1925 and was designed by Reid Brothers, who also designed Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater, as well as the Cliff House and the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Originally, a small operating chain, Blumenfeld Theaters, ran the theater. In 1973, the theater was divided into two screens. Renaissance Rialto Theaters ran the Oaks’ operations from 1994 until 2005, when Metropolitan Theaters Corporation of Los Angeles took it over. That company declined to renew its lease in 2010. Merriment Media used the theater to show Bollywood films for several months in 2010, but the company lost its lease after it failed to pay rent for three months.

John Gordon has been trying since then to lease the building, but he has never held out hope that it would necessarily remain a movie venue. “The Oaks Theatre doesn’t have a lot of interest from movie operators,” Gordon told Berkeleyside in 2013. “It’s kind of a dinosaur.”

Since then, Gordon acquired a quick-serve license for the space to improve its marketability. The building is now permitted to house a restaurant that serves wine and beer. Gordon also hired architectural consultants to draw up various plans showing ways the theater could be transformed, including converting the space into a four-screen theater.

The theater also needs millions of dollars in work, however. There is no heating or cooling, the theater seats are old, the bathrooms are circa the 1930s, and there is no modern projection equipment, according to two people who have toured the space.

There have been at least two previous attempts to raise funds to convert the theater into a community arts space; neither have succeeded so far.  In 2013, then-City Councilman Laurie Capitelli joined forces with the Youth Musical Theater Company to launch the Oaks Theater Consortium to transform the theater into a multi-use venue. The idea was to bring together a group of anchor tenants from a range of arts organizations and potentially 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.

But by January 2014, talks with Gordon had bogged down, according to a letter Capitelli sent out.

“The consortium of local performing arts groups has been so far unable to negotiate a business agreement with the Oaks Theatre owner that will ensure a sustainable plan moving forward,” wrote Capitelli.

In 2015, Jim Whitty, a Berkeley local, and his non-profit group, From Little Acorns Grow, started to work with Gordon. He hoped to raise $1.2 million in a capital fundraising campaign to transform the theater and planned to ask Gordon to invest $1 million in improvements. Whitty also had hopes that his friends, the owners of Bakesale Betty’s in Oakland, would open a café in the space. Nothing has yet come of that venture.

Many assume Gordon owns all the buildings that bear his signs

Gordon Commercial Real Estate Services is one of the largest real-estate companies in Berkeley. It recently brokered a deal for the city of Berkeley to buy the old Premier Cru complex at 1011 University Ave. for $6.65 million. The company’s signs are seen on numerous vacant buildings throughout Berkeley, leading many to assume John Gordon owns all those buildings. He does not, although he and his wife, Janis Mitchell, are among the city’s largest property owners. They have a particular interest in rehabbing historic buildings and repurposing them for housing or retail spaces.

In 2015, Gordon and Mitchell refurbished two historic homes with a combined age of 263 years and offered them for rent. The couple purchased the old John Woolley House, first built on Telegraph Avenue in 1876, and the Ellen Blood House, constructed on Durant Avenue in 1891, for $1 each and moved them to Dwight Way and Regent Street. Daniella Thompson, a preservationist and a former president of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, called the renovations “fabulous.”

Retail in Berkeley is facing many challenges and the Gordons, other landlords and store owners have felt the sting. More consumers are buying their goods online and shoppers are seeking out “experiential” stores that offer things in addition to goods. Increasing rents and rising labor costs have also made it more difficult for independent proprietors to survive, said Klein.

In addition to the Oaks, Gordon and Mitchell own the complex at 1952-1966 University Ave., which houses Dora’s, Blue’s Chocolates, the Brazil Café and the soon-to-open Makers Common food hall. The couple renovated those properties and installed an eating area in the back nestled among a rose garden, tended to by Gordon and his father, and other historic buildings.

Empty storefronts in the Elmwood

There are currently many empty storefronts in the Elmwood after businesses like Lululemon and Dijital Fix moved out. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Gordon Commercial owns a number of properties on College Avenue in the Elmwood District, where changes to the retail scene are stark, according to property records. Gordon’s storefronts at 2928-2930 College Ave. are rented out to Goorin Bros. Hats, Papyrus, a stationery store, Cugini Manzoni, a restaurant and Panache on College, a hair salon. The salon, which has been at the spot at 2928 College for 25 years, will soon close after its owner, Yossi Shocron, was unsuccessful in selling the business. One of his staffers will open a new salon nearby in late June.

Three of Gordon’s other properties in the Elmwood are vacant. They include the spaces that formally housed the Advocate restaurant, Lululemon and, most recently, Dijital Fix. Gordon is asking $5 per square foot for some of those storefronts, among the highest in Berkeley. The Elmwood is one of the most desirable retail districts in Berkeley, allowing landlords to command high rents, said Klein.

Property owners are willing to wait to secure high rents in places like the Elmwood where fundamentals are strong, Klein said. “There is a strong demographic in terms of the shoppers who are there. It’s a relatively high-income neighborhood. It’s cute and diverse and it’s got good transit access. The property owners who have vacancies, they are holding out for high rents, which is one of the reasons we are seeing the stores vacant for a little longer.”

Correction: It was originally reported that Gordon Commercial owned the building that housed Jeremy’s on College Avenue. This building is in fact owned by Kidson Land Company.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...