AxeVentures, which is about to open a branch on Telegraph Avenue, is the first business to get an operating permit under new Berkeley zoning codes. Photo: AxeVentures

When Chris Keown and Chris Oey first started looking for a location to open a new business in Berkeley in March 2018, they were discouraged. The entrepreneurs discovered that they would have to go through a lengthy process, including a hearing before the Zoning Adjustments Board, in order to open a hatchet-throwing game venue.

But the two men then learned that Berkeley was redoing its zoning code for small businesses. They decided to hold off looking for space. And, on Feb. 27, their application for a new business, AxeVentures, at 2566 Telegraph Ave., was approved in an over-the-counter transaction. The venue, where people throw tomahawk axes at a target, will open March 22.

“The newer process was great relative to the old process,” said Keown, who started AxeVentures in southern California with his sister, Brandy Yates, and Oey. It has three other locations. The brother and sister also own an escape room business in San Diego called Escape Game SD.

AxeVentures is the first business to get an operating permit under six new modifications to the zoning codes adopted by the City Council in January, according to Jordan Klein, the manager for the office of economic development. The zoning changes, which went into effect Feb. 27, are the result of a two-year process that involved talking to numerous small business owners, including some who left Berkeley because of Byzantine rules, looking at the zoning code for each of the city’s nine commercial zones, and streamlining the review process, while “maintaining sufficient guidelines and discretion over impacts to neighboring commercial enterprises and adjacent residential districts,” according to a city report.

“Berkeley has a reputation for being a tough place to open a new business. This is a huge game changer.” — Stuart Baker

For instance, commercial recreation businesses in the Telegraph District used to require a use permit with a public hearing in order to get land-use approval, said Klein. That could take from six to 12 months. The fees could reach about $4,000. Under the new rules, commercial recreation businesses like AxeVentures can get land-use approval via a zoning certificate. That just takes a few weeks. The fees are just a few hundred dollars, too (not including building permits), said Klein.

“It’s a fabulous development for Berkeley,” said Stuart Baker, the executive director for the Telegraph Business Improvement District. “Berkeley has a reputation for being a tough place to open a new business. This is a huge game changer. To be able to say to a new entity that you can get an over-the-counter approval for something that is not controversial is fabulous.”

The City Council approved six zoning ordinance amendments:

  1. It reduced the amount of parking required for businesses moving into existing commercial spaces.
  2. It simplified food service categories by reducing them from three to one. Previously there were three categories, each with different rules. They included quick-service restaurants, full-serve restaurants and carry-out food stores. Now there are just food-service establishments.
  3. It reduced permitting time and costs for small businesses that request a change of use in existing commercial spaces. “Many uses which would previously have required a use permit with public hearing – which typically takes eight to 15 months and costs a base fee of between $5,215 to $6,595 – can now be approved via an administrative-use permit, which typically takes two to eight months (the wide range depending on the complexity of the project) and costs a base fee of between $970 to $3,270,” Klein said in an email.
  4. It clarified the permit process for new business types that may not be specifically defined in the city’s zoning rules.
  5. It made ‘commercial recreation’ uses (such as bowling alleys, miniature golf courses or ping-pong clubs) easier to permit in commercial districts. “Formerly, commercial recreation uses were prohibited in much of the city; where they were allowed they typically required a use permit with a public hearing,” wrote Klein. “Now, they are allowed in every C-prefixed district. In many districts, they are now allowed via a zoning certificate (the quickest and cheapest way to get zoning approval- typically around $200 and a few business days) or an administrative use permit.”
  6. It streamlined the permit process and provided clear performance standards for restaurants that wish to serve beer and wine. Restaurants used to have to apply for a beer and wine license through an administrative use permit (AUP). That could take from four to six months, said Klein. That process was redundant because the state also vetted new licenses. Now restaurants can get the permit via a zoning certificate, which only takes a few business days. The permit “is accompanied by ‘performance standards’ that ensures that the business serves alcohol responsibly and allows the city to take corrective action if they do not,” wrote Klein.

“This was the no-brainer six [changes]. We need another six. And another six after that.” — Heather Haxo Phillips

Heather Haxo Phillips, the owner of Adeline Yoga Studio and a board member of the Lorin Business Association, said the zoning changes are long overdue. She commended Klein and other city staff members for delving in to find out what obstacles were keeping businesses from succeeding and for examining the “patchwork ways” zoning codes were applied across various commercial districts.

The old laws could be onerous, and prevented businesses from opening or expanding in South Berkeley, a part of town that “is so in need of investment,” said Phillips. She pointed to Gin Thai Canteen at 3278 Adeline St. as an example of the expense and difficulty of doing business in Berkeley under the old codes. The restaurant wanted to expand into a space next door and the permitting process took more than a year, said Phillips. Under the new codes, the process would have been faster and cheaper, she said.

Phillips hopes more changes are coming.

“This was the obvious six (changes),” said Phillips. “This was the no-brainer six. We need another six. And another six after that. These are just the first six. They were exactly what we needed.”

Baker said the new codes puts Berkeley “on par with our neighbors” that had less restrictive zoning codes.

He said he thought AxeVentures would be a great addition to the Telegraph Avenue corridor.

“It’s a fun trend we have seen in other cities. So why not?” said Baker.

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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 Created California, published in November...