The original ceiling of the Rivoli Theatre inside the present-day 99 Cent Store on San Pablo Avenue is studded with mylar balloons. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

The 99 Cents Only Store inside the 100-year-old Rivoli Theatre on San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley will close in mid-November, according to the parent company, making way for a potential housing development.

The chain said on its website that the store will close on Nov. 30, and employees have been offered work opportunities at its stores in Richmond and Pinole.

Employees at the Berkeley store said it will likely shut its doors when the current inventory is exhausted, which could be mid-to-late November. An employee said thefts have also been a concern at the store.

Oakland-based Lowney Architects filed a pre-application in March for the stretch of San Pablo Avenue that includes the mixed-use, 99 Cents store building at 1941 San Pablo Ave. and Everett and Jones barbecue at 1955 San Pablo Ave.

They’ve proposed a seven-story mixed-use complex with about 270 homes and are expected to submit a complete application by the end of the year. The new development would be fast-tracked through SB 330 with a state density bonus, with 15% affordable units. The pre-application includes commercial space on the ground floor of the building.

There are currently eight rent-controlled units at 1931 San Pablo Ave. in addition to the store, which would be demolished along with the theatre and the restaurant. Berkeleyside has reached out to Everett and Jones for comment.

The original facade of the Rivoli Theatre, as seen from San Pablo Avenue. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

The theater was built between 1924 and 1925, seating 1,400 people and running shows four days a week. It was initially financed and managed by Lawrence Borg, a “moving picture house” entrepreneur, who also managed the Varsity Theater (where the former Priya Indian Cuisine sits now). The landmarked Borg building at 2136–2154 San Pablo Ave. is named after Lawrence.

Despite its grand, painted interior, Rivoli Theatre had a short life span as an entertainment hub, according to city documents, and it was converted into a grocery store in the late 1950s. It’s not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, nor is it a landmarked building locally.

Dennis Warsen, who lives on the border of South Berkeley and North Oakland, was shopping at the store on Tuesday and hadn’t heard about its impending closure. He’s a theater enthusiast who initially thought it was a silly idea to put a grocery store inside such a grand building.

But practically, the store was one of the best places to shop when inflation sent prices soaring this year — and even before that when long lines dominated stores during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the aisles inside the 99 Cent store are still fully stocked as of Oct. 25, 2022. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Fredericka Robinson used to live nearby the store and visited the location when it opened about 10 years ago. Robinson said the store was also subject to inflation pressures, and they recently started seeing items pop up in the $6-$7 range, though quality slightly improved with the higher price tag.

Robinson now lives in West Oakland, where the 99 Cents store closed in 2017, and pointed out that other stores that are easy to access on public transportation (like the now-closed Dollar Tree on Shattuck Avenue) have also shuttered. Housing plans are also pending for that location in South Berkeley.

The remaining Dollar Tree store in Berkeley (which is structured differently, stocking less groceries) is now on San Pablo Avenue and Gilman Street, a little under a mile away. Other shoppers visiting the store on Tuesday said they would try Big Lots and other stores to meet their budgets.

Curt Gray, who has lived in the Northwest Berkeley neighborhood off of Curtis Street for over 30 years, said the 99 Cents store closing to make way for housing feels like a slew of changes on San Pablo Avenue “coming to a crescendo.”

He questioned if affordable housing units brought on by the project will make a dent in the housing crisis regionally, especially in a traditionally working-class neighborhood. He said he’s also concerned about the loss of architectural character in the neighborhood if a 100-year-old building like the Rivoli Theater is demolished.

After the Grocery Outlet on Fourth Street closed in 2016 to make way for homes, Gray said the 99 Cents store became an essential amenity in the neighborhood as a larger chain store with broad offerings and hours. Mi Tierra Foods, a Mexican grocery market, is located nearby, and Berkeley Bowl West is about a mile away.

West Berkeley is losing groceries — it’s just frustrating,” Gray said. “They’re not building what we need them to build.”

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...