A 15-year-old green building store in Berkeley has shut its doors temporarily after a driver crashed into it early Thursday morning then abandoned a vehicle there.
Ecohome Improvement’s Kitchen and Bath Design Studio, which narrowly escaped damage, remains open. Shop co-owner Taja di Leonardi said police called around 1 a.m. to tell her partner Nina Boeddeker that someone had driven through the front wall of their main shop.
“She almost didn’t answer,” said di Leonardi. “It was 1 in the morning. She thought it was a spammer.”
When the women arrived at 2619 San Pablo Ave. (at Carleton Street) early Thursday, the streets were blocked off to keep traffic out of the area. Ten or so emergency vehicles were on the scene as first responders worked to determine whether anyone was still in the car, which took down a 100-foot pole, shearing it out of the ground, before striking a bolted-down trash can, planter box and tree, then running into the shop itself.
The vehicle came to rest several feet inside Ecohome Improvement, damaging the foundation and knocking merchandise off the shelves and onto the floor. Di Leonardi said a witness saw four people jump out of the vehicle and run off just after the crash.
The collision severely damaged the entire front wall of the Ecohome Improvement building, Boeddeker told Berkeleyside: “We have the front boarded up now and have to remain closed until we rebuild the front of the building and repair the damage inside.”
The building itself has a long history in Berkeley, said di Leonardi. It was a local market during the 1930s and ’40s when it was owned by the father of her current landlord, who is now in her 80s.
When police looked inside the car, they found liquor bottles and blood, di Leonardi said. Police told her the vehicle may have been stolen, but it had not been reported as such at the time of the crash. Authorities told her they had checked local hospitals to see if anyone had come in with injuries that may have been related to the crash, but there hadn’t been any reports.
The vehicle had apparently been northbound on San Pablo, said di Leonardi, before it crashed into Ecohome Improvement, which is on the east side of the street.
BPD told Berkeleyside an unknown driver in a gray Infiniti G35 collided with a light pole in the 2600 block of San Pablo then “continued forward — colliding with the front entrance of 2619 San Pablo Avenue and causing significant damage to the store. The driver of the vehicle fled the scene and has not been located.”
Ecohome Improvement’s design studio, next door at 2617 San Pablo Ave., remains open, di Leonardi said. When the car plowed into the main shop, the 100-foot light pole came just inches from smashing through the studio’s storefront.
Di Leonardi said on Friday that Ecohome Improvement, which opened in November 2005, was the Bay Area’s first green building store. The business sells cabinetry, countertops, flooring, stains and sealers, all of which are eco-friendly and non-toxic, she said.
A number of similar green building shops that opened, from Santa Cruz up to Marin, later closed during the economic downtown that followed, di Leonardi said. Ecohome Improvement persevered.
“We’ve weathered the ups and downs of the economy and we’re a very strong and healthy business. This isn’t going to hold us back,” she said. “We are going to reopen.”
The economic pressures that closed other green building shops in the Bay Area also saw the closure of those stores nationwide, di Leonardi said. There was a “huge boom” in green building before 2005, prompting “heavy hitters” with multiple stores and big investors to get in on the action. But one shop after another shuttered as the recession carried on, she said. Now, Ecohome Improvement is one of the last remaining green building stores in the nation.
The secret to its success, said di Leonardi, is its Bay Area customer base, specifically its shoppers in Berkeley.
“Our customer base in Berkeley is broad, deep and loyal,” she said. “Without the Berkeley consumer — the interest in healthy homes, the interest in green, the interest in shopping local — surely we would have never survived the recession.”
Di Leonardi continued: “We also will depend on the Berkeley consumer to return and remember us when we reopen the doors.”
Ecohome Improvement is now in the process of working with its insurance companies and engineers to assess the damage and determine how to proceed on repairs. Di Leonardi said more information will be available next week. The business plans to post updates on its Facebook page.
Although this is the first time the business has seen significant damage like this, di Leonardi described the San Pablo block where the shop is located as “really active.” People use San Pablo when there’s traffic on the freeway and there aren’t many stop signs nearby, “so people kind of get their momentum up through this part of the corridor,” she said.
“Here on this corner we have had many near misses and accidents with pedestrians and cars,” she said. “We have a lot of movement on the street.”
Di Leonardi said the city might want to take a closer look at possible traffic safety improvements in the area, particularly because there is a crosswalk nearby that has no lighting. In the winter, she said, there have been some safety issues there for pedestrians.
Berkeleyside will share updates about Ecohome Improvement’s reopening as they are available.
It’s actually not the first time this year that someone has crashed a vehicle into a West Berkeley building, then abandoned it. Multiple readers told Berkeleyside about a similar crash at the Berkeley Amtrak station in late January and shared photographs of the damage. Authorities in that case, which was handled by Union Pacific, provided minimal information.
Connect with Ecohome Improvement on its Facebook page.