The theater closed nearly nine years ago, in 2011. After efforts to relaunch the venue as a performance space failed, Touchstone bought the gym in 2017. The focus of the new gym is a type of climbing called bouldering, which involves climbing without ropes or harnesses.
“The Oaks will be our first bouldering-only gym in the East Bay, and we’re excited to bring the world-class climbing that Berkeley deserves,” Touchstone said this week in a prepared statement in response to a Berkeleyside inquiry. “We’ll have a variety of terrain, from Yosemite slabs to steep overhangs and all sorts of fun angles in between.”
Touchstone is working with a Bulgarian company called Walltopia to create the climbing gym inside the historic theater. Walltopia describes itself on its website as “the world’s biggest manufacturer of artificial climbing structures.” Touchstone and Walltopia have worked together since 2012.
The city of Berkeley approved Touchstone’s building permit in late October, but the permit did not become active until mid-November when Touchstone picked it up. Touchstone said the project has “taken us a bit longer than expected,” but the permit means construction on the new space can finally begin.
“While we’ve been itching to get our hands dirty on construction, you can bet we’ve been hard at work with wall design,” Touchstone said in its statement. “Our priority will be … climbing space, but we hope to bring some great fitness options to the neighborhood too.”
The 21,575-square-foot interior will be transformed into a large bouldering facility, Touchstone told Berkeleyside previously. Workout rooms and a yoga studio have been part of the plans, too. The site also includes five retail spaces fronting Solano Avenue.
One Touchstone employee who is familiar with the project said the community would “see a lot of action” at the gym in the coming months as work gets underway. Outside, there won’t ultimately be any changes, however, due to the landmarked status of the building.
“We can’t change anything — nor would we want to,” he said. (Berkeleyside did not name the employee because he is not authorized to speak with the media.)
He said Touchstone is excited to have a location in North Berkeley and that the space will work well for climbing because it has so much room inside.
The Oaks Climbing Gym will provide a “relief valve” for Berkeley Ironworks, Touchstone’s other climbing gym in Berkeley, he said. The project team has already gutted the inside of the theater, but is now moving into the phase where Touchstone can build out the new gym facility and prepare the space for climbing walls, locker rooms and a reception area.
“It’s a tricky project,” he said, because the work involves removing the roof from the front part of the building to expand. It could take nine months to a year to be completed, he estimated.
Councilwoman Sophie Hahn told Berkeleyside in November that the project has been of significant interest in the neighborhood. In recent months, she said, she had gotten “more outreach about it than I have about anything else.” Community members have emailed her to ask for project updates and, when she runs into them in the street, she said, the topic also comes up.
For the most part, she said, people have primarily wanted to confirm that the project was still moving forward. That’s because there had previously been work trucks and activity at the site, but then it appeared to lay dormant for some time.
“They hadn’t see anything going on for awhile,” Hahn said. “They were just worried. And they’re worried because people are so excited to have this come to the community.”
Local merchants in particular, she said, are “waiting with great anticipation” for the increased foot traffic the gym is likely to bring to North Berkeley.
Hahn said she has regularly asked the city for updates about the project, in part because she wanted to be certain staffers were doing all they could to move the project forward. She said Touchstone has had a number of projects underway so it has taken the company some time to make headway with The Oaks.
“The city worked expeditiously,” Hahn said. “These things are long and complicated.”
The gym is not required to provide any vehicle parking — and will not have any — but Hahn said she’s already gotten funding from the city for a visioning process for Solano Avenue that will include a parking and traffic assessment. She said many of Touchstone’s customers ride their bikes to the gym, and that the city may look at whether putting a bike-share station nearby would make sense.
Hahn said she hadn’t wanted to ask the city to study potential parking impacts while Touchstone’s plans were underway because it might have slowed down the project. But she said the city will definitely be assessing the situation after the gym opens to see what sort of changes might be needed. In addition, she said, the city has found that parking on Solano isn’t actually as bad as it seems.
“A lot of people think that parking on Solano is very, very difficult,” Hahn said. But much of the highest demand clusters around certain times of day, she added. “For much of the day, parking is available.”