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In the spotlight Southwest Berkeley

Company behind SFMOMA’s vertical garden now fills 10,000-square-foot warehouse on Ashby Avenue

Founder David Brenner with a living column at the Berkeley warehouse/headquarters of Habitat Horticulture. Credit: Joanne Furio

When David Brenner was a child and his grandparents went on vacation, he watered their houseplants. Even as a kid, he noticed the power of plants. 

“Why did watering plants have this therapeutic effect?” he wondered. “It always fascinated me. I became really interested in why we like plants.”

Years later, when it came time to pick a college major, Brenner ended up studying both psychology and environmental horticultural sciences at California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo. 

In 2010 Brenner founded Habitat Horticulture and has since become a pioneer in the living wall movement, creating, most notably, the living wall at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, the largest continuous living wall in the country at 150 by 30 feet. 

Habitat Horticulture’s installation at SFMOMA is the largest continuous living wall in the U.S. Credit: Garry Belinsky

For almost a decade, Habitat operated out of San Francisco, but in 2019 Brenner moved its headquarters into an Ashby Avenue warehouse where he already had a workshop. The headquarters and workshop occupy the entire 10,000-square-foot warehouse, on Ashby Avenue just west of San Pablo, its hard-to-miss exteriors covered in colorful murals by Joey Rose. Habitat’s design, build and shipping operations take place there, while its plants continue to be stored in one of the last functioning greenhouses in San Francisco. (The Ashby warehouse is in a block that was owned by one family for more than 100 years, and has housed an eclectic selection of businesses and arts spaces.)

Now with 42 employees, and Brenner as principal and chief designer, Habitat has completed more than 200 living walls and botanic installations, from private homes to commercial projects like the 24 living columns and 800 square feet of planters atop the new Salesforce Tower in San Francisco in 2018. 

Muralist Joey Rose wrapped the exteriors in colorful, flora-inspired patterns. Credit: Joanne Furio

In 2019 Brenner designed the vertical garden for 601 City Center in Oakland, a mixed-use commercial building, the first living wall to achieve artistic designation under Oakland’s Public Art for Private Development municipal code. Berkeley boasts four living walls, but they’re all in private homes.

Habitat’s large-scale living walls — basically a garden on a wall — are made possible by a  proprietary watering system Brenner started working on while in college. Called Growtex, the water-efficient system utilizes a felt-like wicking material made from recycled plastic bottles that moves water up from a bottom reservoir. Brenner’s first project was a living column for New Resource Bank around 2010. 

The same year, the California Academy of Sciences asked him to redesign and rehabilitate its moss wall. That led to Brenner creating a living wall for the museum’s piazza. San Francisco’s Foundry Square III became Brenner’s first large-scale project in 2014. An L.A. office opened in 2015, followed by SFMOMA’s vertical garden a year later.

“The living wall to me is really the heart of the new SFMOMA,” Janet Bishop, the museum’s curator of painting and sculpture, said in a video on Habitat’s website. She called the wall “one of the most compelling works of art in the entire museum.” 

During the pandemic, as public life shut down, Brenner, “like a million other people wondered what we were going to do.” As an interest in houseplants boomed, Brenner, too, shifted his focus to the domestic realms. He and his wife had recently moved from San Francisco to Albany with their infant son.

“We were all striving for connection with life and plants are part of that,” he said. “They showed us that the world was going on and things were still surviving.”

In late 2020, Habitat introduced the Gromeo ($225-$429), a low-maintenance, mini living-wall system that can be hung on a wall in a home. Gromeo comes in two sizes and finishes, with or without plants, and uses the same proprietary system found in Habitat’s large-scale vertical gardens. Watering takes place every one to three weeks, depending on plants and light conditions. 

Owner Dave Brenner’s dog, Romeo, poses with a trio of Gromeo wall gardens. Credit: Amber Leigh

On a recent weekday at the warehouse, ferns, pothos and peperomia covered a living column that can move up and down via remote control. In the office spaces, tropical plants in pots and baskets sat next to employees like coworkers. No matter where plants may be, Brenner sees their presence as a way to deepen our connection to nature and enliven the built environment. 

“I always wanted to create these places that people could enjoy, something that feels like nature,” Brenner said. “Our connection is primordial.”

Habitat Horticulture, 1038 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Phone: 415-684-8555. Connect via Facebook and Instagram

Closed North Shattuck

Siamese Dream to close after a decade on Shattuck

After almost 10 years, Siamese Dream will close on March 15. Credit: Joanne Furio

Fresh from a lunch at Chez Panisse, a gaggle of women walked a few doors down to Siamese Dream, happy to discover a going-out-of-business sale with all merchandise 20%-50% off. The sale was bittersweet, though, for neighborhood customers sorry to see the store go after almost 10 years. It will close on March 15. 

“It had cute, interesting pieces that you couldn’t find anywhere else,” said Katrina B., who lives nearby. “I will miss it.”

Shoppers peruse discounted merchandise at the closing sale. Credit: Joanne Furio

The store is known for women’s fashion, jewelry and accessories from Thailand, India and Nepal, much of it handmade and all of it with a funky, boho vibe: Nepalese knitted gloves and boiled wool scarves; Indian and Thai jewelry, Indian scarves and cotton wrap dresses. Morocco was represented by leather handbags and slippers. 

Owner Srisuda “Jay” Romero said she’s closing because she needs to take more care of herself and spend more time with family. She will continue to operate her flagship store in Rockridge, however, which has been around for 20 years, and her online business.  

“After COVID, I thought it would be better to focus on one store,” she said. 

Siamese Dream, 1527 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Phone: 510-428-9989 Connect via Facebook and Instagram. 

In the spotlight Downtown Berkeley

Coworking that comes with a meditation perk

Part of the common coworking spaces at CoWorking with Wisdom at Dharma College. Courtesy: CoWorking with Wisdom

CoWorking With Wisdom, which dubs itself “a new kind of coworking space — where work is balanced with ancient wisdom, mindful practice and whole-person embodiment,” is offering use of its conference and meeting rooms free to interested nonprofits until March 31. The spaces are part of the organization’s recently refreshed coworking space, made up of about 10,000 square feet on the ground floor, a light-filled space with 30-foot ceilings and 12,500 square feet in the basement. 

CoWorking with Wisdom occupies two floors at Dharma College. Courtesy: CoWorking with Wisdom

The organization is offering the space with the hope that nonprofits will sign on and become members — what is likely the only coworking membership that includes classes in meditation. Memberships start at $465 a month. 

CoWorking with Wisdom is part of Dharma College, whose mission is to make ancient Buddhist teachings available to modern society “in new and innovative ways,” according to its website. 

Interested nonprofits should call 510-704-1105 or 510-365-8239 or email

CoWorking with Wisdom, 2222 Harold Way, Berkeley. Phone: 510-365-8239. Connect via Facebook

Closed Elmwood

Barge North heads north, then disappears

The site of the last Barge North location on College Avenue. Credit: Joanne Furio

Barge North sailed onto College Avenue in November 2021, the third store in a family business owned by Kristen Young and Ford Norris. Despite its “slow fashion” mission and ethically made products, the store struggled and downsized into a smaller College Avenue storefront a few doors north last year. That didn’t help either. Barge North closed at the beginning of the year. 

Barge North also closed its Sebastopol store and its Mendocino Store on Feb. 18. Its online store will remain. 

“We’re gonna take a break from the daily grind of running a brick & mortar & focus on our family, and we are very proud to have made this life changing decision,” the owners wrote on Facebook

Barge North, 2946 College Ave., Berkeley. Connect via Facebook and Instagram

In the spotlight

New paid service picks up recyclables the city won’t accept from your Berkeley doorstep

A Ridwell pick-up box in North Berkeley. Credit: Joanne Furio

A 2022 report revealed that only 5%-6% of all plastics are recycled, even lower than the previous 9% figure that had often been cited. 

Such dire statistics have helped to boost companies like Ridwell, which — for a fee — hauls away what typical municipal recycling services will not accept, like batteries and plastic film bags. 

Ridwell claims a 97% recycling rate and provides transparency so members know how and where their recyclables end up. In the Bay Area, for example, 99% of plastic film and wrap retrieved from Ridwell has been recycled, the company says, with much of it turned into Trex decking material. 

More than 600 Berkeley families are using the service after a company rep drummed up interest in November. Prices range from $14 for a 12-month plan to $18 for a three-month plan. 

Customers place recyclables in a Ridwell box outside their door and the company picks them up every two weeks. 

Diane Blacker, a North Berkeley customer, said she was particularly intrigued by the company’s transparency. 

“I got tired of running around to the various local recycling centers, trying to find places for the items Berkeley recycling won’t take,” she said. “I’m very happy with the service.”

Biz Buzz 

In Brief: Layoffs at Bayer, firings at REI

  • Despite plans to eventually add some 1,000 employees over the next 30 years as part of a $1.2 billion plan for its Berkeley campus, Bayer has cut 55 jobs there as part of a belt-tightening effort and reorganization, Fierce Pharma reported. Workers were notified Jan. 30 that their last day would be March 31. Bayer employs about 1,000 at the Berkeley location, where the focus for decades has been on producing treatments for hemophilia such as Kogenate, Kovaltry and Jivis. 
  • Traveling to Kona? If you are, Berkeley Humane wants you to transport a dog from Kona’s overcrowded shelter to Berkeley Humane as part of its Aloha Dog Project. Tito’s Handmade Vodka recently awarded the shelter with a $50,000 grant to support the medical care of 25 dogs, including vaccinations, microchips and spay/neuter surgeries, which can range from $2,000 to $8,000 per dog. Since the project began a year ago, the shelter has transported some 30 dogs, all but two of which have been adopted because they are still receiving medical treatment. 
  • Nine employees were terminated and one resigned at Berkeley’s REI between Jan. 29 and Feb. 4, the Daily Cal reported, on the basis of “theft or fraud,” according to REI Public Affairs. Since the Berkeley store unionized in August, employees have requested information about historic disciplinary actions. Similar accusations were leveled against employees before the store unionized, but were dealt with quietly. This time, one employee alleged, the accusations seemed more concerted and directed at REI employees.  

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...