Anyone who goes to Berkeley Marina will notice the stunning views, abundant outdoor sports possibilities and the scarcity of casual dining. While the Marina complex comprises 60 acres of upland and 40 acres of water, the waterfront’s three restaurants are sit-down affairs, well-appointed dining rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the ocean and San Francisco skyline. The only casual eating spot is far from major attraction, so visitors seeking more affordable options must bring their own food.
That may soon change, as the city of Berkeley has been working with Innovation Properties Group (IPG), a real estate service provider, to see what it would take to set up a food truck village at the southern tip of the Marina, in a gusty bayside parking lot that used to serve iconic banquet destination Hs Lordships, which has been vacant since 2018.
“By November 1, 2022, IPG will submit for City review a proposed project concept, including description of proposed partners, activities/use of the space, conceptual drawing, gross revenue estimates, and draft term sheet,” read the Berkeley City Council meeting agenda for July 26, 2022. That passage referred to an Exclusive Negotiation Agreement (ENA) both parties entered into with the goal of settling a long-term lease of the city property at 199 Seawall Dr., and a short-term lease to activate a portion of the adjacent parking lot.
Since then, the City Council has extended the ENA for an additional 9 months, with the option to add two additional 3-month extensions. The new deadlines will “allow time for IPG to develop a proposed project and to negotiate terms of the potential lease agreements,” Scott Ferries, director of the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront department, told Nosh over email. (IPG Partner Ivan Smiljanic declined comment to Nosh while the deal with the city is pending.)
“Things like this sometimes take a long time, and we’re in the middle of COVID,” Ferris said in a later interview. “IPG is seeking funders and trying to figure out who’s going to be part of their development … We’re in the middle of negotiations, but we’re making progress.”
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín also said that progress is ongoing for the potential food truck park, and that “IPG has come forward and has really assembled some exciting partners. Some of them had experience in live entertainment, or had a lot of experience in operating successful restaurants.”
“Have you been to Off the Grid or different types of events where there are food trucks?” Arreguín asked Nosh, citing the initial ENA released in a City Council meeting on September 28, 2021. That document described the proposed food truck village at Berkeley Marina as “similar to a food truck village/recreation garden in San Francisco,” and Arreguín repeated that notion, saying “I think that’s the idea, having something … that can bring people to that location, revitalize that location, activate that space.”
Ashlyn McFadden, an official with the SoMa StrEat Food Park team that set up the ParkLab Garden and SPARK Social SF food truck villages in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood, said that she roots for Berkeley Marina’s plan. McFadden said that her team helped transform Mission Bay from “more or less a food desert” to a dining destination. “There were no grocery stores, no convenience stores, only a Subway sandwich shop, and a pie [store],” she said.
The area now hosts a mix of permanent and rotating food trucks, surrounded by more permanent cafés and dining establishments. “Between the two parks, we host an average of 20 food trucks a day,” McFadden said. “We work on a list of about 150 food trucks, so it’s quite a variety that visits the spaces day over day,” she said.
Lisa Bullwinkel, an event producer who has managed the 4th of July and Berkeley Kite Festival at the Marina for 26 years, is enthusiastic about the potential of a food truck village in the empty lot. “I think putting food trucks down at the Marina is a really good idea. People don’t want to buy things, but they want to eat,” Bullwinkel said. She introduced food trucks at the festivals she manages about a decade ago, and said that at big events, some vendors generate $20-25,000 a day.
Bullwinkel also suggested the concept could mesh well with the pending proposal to inaugurate cross-bay ferry service from the Marina. “Especially if the ferry is going to be installed, having food trucks would be really great because people want to eat on their way to work or coming back from work,” Bullwinkel said.
Waterfront department senior management analyst Roger Miller acknowledged that the city has the same idea, and would be prepared to extend its offer if ferry service were launched and the food truck village proved to be popular and successful. He also suggested that when people go to the food trucks, it might inspire interest in the vacant Hs Lordships space. After all, food truck patrons will see its “big, beautiful building,” when they visit the village. “It attracts people, then the whole area will know that building,” Miller said, suggesting that they might even come back to dine if that building finds a tenant.
While city officials seem positive about the proposal, there’s still an environmental factor that could make or break their food truck idea: the wind.
The nearby Cal Sailing Club has two sensors where the trucks might one day park, one on the roof of what was once Hs Lordships, the other on a light post in the lot. “We want to know what the wind speed is here in the water, that’s the closest point,” said 67-year-old windsurfer John Mankey.
Mankey said that in summer, the windiest season of the year, gusts can reach nearly 30 mph, while for most of the year, the average speed fluctuates from 11 to 18 mph; only in winter does the wind calm down.
Bullwinkel, the event producer, says that she managed the wind issue by placing the food vendors she hosted elsewhere in the Marina. “They were never in the Hs Lordships parking lot because honestly, it’s too windy. It’s not a parking lot where you want to hang out very long,” she added. “I don’t know how that’ll work.”
“Food truck is a great idea, good for us,” said Sophie Horiuchi, a Cal Sailing Club member. “I just don’t know how they deal with the wind. Maybe people buy the food and hide in their cars to eat?”
Another question is if Berkeley merchants have dropped the opposition they’ve traditionally demonstrated to new food truck villages. For example, Off The Grid, the Bay Area’s largest food truck network, attempted to launch several villages in Berkeley in the 2010s. After years of complaints from local businesses about the “detrimental effect” the trucks had on brick-and-mortar restaurants, the company closed its last village, near the North Berkeley BART station, in February 2016.
Berkeley’s Chamber of Commerce might be the best group to answer that question, but it didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. However, a representative for Hana Japan, one of the Marina’s sit-down restaurants and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, said they aren’t worried about the possible competition from the food truck village, and cited the trucks’ more casual fare.
A final question is the fate of the Hs Lordships building, a bustling restaurant for nearly a half-century before it closed in 2018. Since then, the city has tried again and again to lease the space, hiring real estate professionals and receiving multiple proposals, Ferris said. “All of these other proposals were ultimately withdrawn, citing the City’s lack of ability to fund building improvements, an inability to secure investment, or overall concerns about the location’s ability to sustain demand,” Ferris told the City Council in July.
Those worries from prospective tenants might be well founded. Public records show that years ago, the Hs Lordships building was evaluated by construction engineering company Kitchell Corporation, which estimated the cost of repairs at over $3 million, a figure that has likely increased since then. According to Kitchell, costs to replace the structure could exceed $21.4 million.
“The reality is that we’ve been trying earnestly for the last four years to find the tenant, but we’ve been unsuccessful,” Arreguín said. “So I think we have a really exciting opportunity here at IPG, and we need to seize the opportunity. If we’re not successful, then we’ll have to go over everything from the beginning again.”
“The reality is the Marina Fund is facing financial challenges,” Arreguín said, and “the City’s general fund will have to keep the Marina Fund afloat for a little bit while we are looking at other ways to generate more revenue. What are we looking at? The future of the waterfront.”
Featured image: Entry to the HS Lordships restaurant in Berkeley’s Marina Southpoint. October 17, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeley/ CatchLight