EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series of stories about the Berkeley Marina written by UC Berkeley journalism graduate students in partnership with Berkeleyside.
Seabreeze Market and Deli, a family-owned diner on University Avenue near the entrance to the Berkeley Marina, has been serving crab cakes, burgers and fries to bikers and hikers for nearly two decades. But its future is now in doubt, its owner told Berkeleyside, as its landlord has been reluctant to extend its lease at the same time work has started on an ambitious, long-awaited makeover on its grounds.
“I’m sure they want to just demolish this site,” said Jennifer Le, owner of the Seabreeze. According to Le, her landlord, the East Bay Regional Park District, has been reluctant to reveal its plans for the building, and has yet to confirm if Le’s annual lease will be extended after it runs out in July 2022.
That lack of communication has put a plan to invest in maintenance for the Seabreeze’s eye-catching structure on hold, she said. “We wanted to repaint the whole place, patch all the holes and to do the inside work. But it’s just not feasible” if they can’t extend the lease, Le said.
The source of the uncertainty is a nearly $6 million improvement project at the Brickyard, an undeveloped 2-acre waterside peninsula behind the restaurant named after the slabs of rubble that once armored its western shoreline and the old bricks that used to litter its eastern edge.
The McLaughlin Eastshore State Park General Plan, which was developed by the park district in 2002, recommended building facilities including a visitor center or a park operations facility, catering, restrooms, concessions, turf areas, picnic facilities, benches and a waterfront promenade, as well as a parking lot for up to 200 cars. The ultimate goal is to connect the Brickyard to the Bay Trail, the 500-mile cycling and hiking path that will eventually encircle the San Francisco Bay.
It took about 12 years for the park district to prepare a conceptual phasing program based on that plan, and approval for its state-funded first phase, which is estimated to cost $5.287 million, was agreed to in 2020. That first phase will create a parking area, some restrooms, seating areas and will add bushes and other vegetation, said Carmen Erasmus, a landscape architect with the park district. “There’s a pathway that goes around, we put some asphalt so there’s a hard surface to get from the parking lot into the restroom area,” Erasmus said. “At the end of this year, we’ll finish this phase.”
Nothing in the first phase has any impact on the Seabreeze. It’s the second phase — which, based on meeting documents from May 2020, adds a 3,000 square foot concessionaire with outdoor seating — that will decide the Seabreeze’s fate. But even that part of the plan remains unclear, park district spokesperson Dave Mason said in an email. “Additional Phase II plans have not been finalized and are very conceptual at this point,” he said, declining to answer further questions from Berkeleyside.
The possibility that the Seabreeze might be forced to close is one that Le has been prepared for since she purchased the business in 2004. The previous owners started the restaurant decades ago as a food truck, and the place has had a month-to-month lease since then. Its founders eventually built the Seabreeze’s structure out of shipping containers that they brought in one by one “because they couldn’t put anything permanent,” Le said. Even then, “I was told they were worried that they were going to be evicted,” she said.
Over the years, Le has made some improvements to the Seabreeze, but uncertainties about the future of the adjacent parkland kept her from putting too much work into the place. “We thought we could be gone any day,” Le said of the deferred maintenance to the crumbling building. “But it’s already close to 17 years.”
Even with those years of uncertainty, Le said that she has been thrown off balance by the upcoming project. Le expected to be informed of plans and timelines, but now feels that “they don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said of the parks district. “They wouldn’t know whether or not we’re going to be here, or it’s going to get another concession stand or a restaurant.”
Kyle Nguyen, Le’s 18-year-old son, took over the operations of the Seabreeze last summer, during a pre-college gap year. He said his two siblings and he grew up helping out in the restaurant, and that they “slowly added all the stuff and made it look nice.” Nguyen thinks the landlord’s silence is a bad sign for the business. “The regional park is trying to kind of push us out a little bit,” he said. “They are trying to build something fancy.”
Le said that any decision to demolish the Seabreeze would be to the area’s detriment. “It’s a unique place,” she said of its low-slung and boxy design. “You can’t find anything like this anywhere in the city.”
Regulars at the Seabreeze might agree. Ricardo Martinez, a former Seabreeze employee, said that the restaurant “had an impact on me growing up,” and is “definitely a good place to enjoy burgers, seafood.” The 25-year-old now lives in Richmond, but returns to the Seabreeze every couple of months. If it closes, Martinez said it will be “pretty sad.”
“I worked here and I enjoy the food here,” Martinez said. The Seabreeze is “definitely something that should stay.”
“I love Seabreeze,” Terry Taplin said. He’s a Berkeley City Councilmember who was raised in West Berkeley and now represents the area that includes the business.“That’s one of the Berkeley restaurants where my mom would go,” he said. “I’m hoping that they can bounce back.”
Le estimates that 80% of her customers are regulars, people who have sustained the business through good times and bad. “I know the community, its generations,” Le said. “I’m dealing with some customers who are third generation at the Seabreeze and I’ve seen them grow with the years.”
“People have approached me like, hey, make it a historical site,” Le said, but she prefers not to engage in a lengthy battle to preserve the restaurant. Le also owns other restaurants, she said, including a spin-off called Seabreeze at the Dock in Oakland’s Jack London Square, and she’s been splitting her attention across all the businesses. If her landlord decides against extending her lease, Le said, “we are OK that we might have to walk away.”
Another option she’s willing to consider is moving into the restaurant space that might be part of the Brickyard’s eventual renovation plans. To do that, she’d probably have to participate in a competitive bidding process for a concession contract, she acknowledges, and “it’s no guarantee that it would be given to us.”
In fact, there’s no guarantee at all when it comes to the future of the Seabreeze, as Le’s landlord hasn’t made its eventual plans clear. “Hopefully, they will allow us to stay on,” Le said. “We have so many plans to keep Seabreeze the way it is. It’s iconic.”
Leqi Zhong and Chris Ehrmann are students in the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley covering economic development.