Theatergoers are filling seats at Berkeley Rep as much as they did before the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the street at the Freight & Salvage, though, crowds are still smaller than they were in 2019.

At Rose Pizzeria, chef and co-owner Alexis Rorabaugh noticed an extra buzz on the streets as Cal students returned to Berkeley at the end of the summer, thousands of them to new apartments nearby.

“It just feels more lively and invigorating than it did last year,” Rorabaugh said. 

But next to the shuttered Regal UA movie theater several blocks to the south, the sex toy and supply boutique Feelmore longs for more foot traffic — and a more inviting block.

“I don’t think it’s where we hoped to be,” owner Nenna Joiner said of the shop’s COVID recovery.

Interviews with downtown business owners and city officials paint an uneven but optimistic picture of how Berkeley’s core is bouncing back from the pandemic.

Several high-profile businesses have closed, including all three of the neighborhood’s movie theaters, and vacancy rates for ground-floor commercial space and offices remain well above pre-COVID levels. But while cities from San Francisco to New York face an existential crisis over the future of downtowns that rely on legions of office workers, there is also hope that the challenges in Berkeley are only temporary.

Patrons fill the deck at Rose Pizzeria during brunch on a Sunday. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Berkeley High students sit on the lawns at Civic Center on a sunny Monday afternoon during recess. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Unlike office workers, the students who are the lifeblood of many downtown businesses have returned in droves. More will soon join them, as downtown is the epicenter of Berkeley’s biggest construction boom in generations — its population has more than doubled since 2012, and is expected to double again over the next five years, putting thousands of new prospective customers within walking distance of shops and restaurants. Some of the area’s business closures and vacancies are the result of new development, like a Walgreens store that shuttered at the site of a planned 25-story apartment building.

“We’re doing a lot better than other downtowns,” said Downtown Berkeley Association CEO John Caner, “and a lot of that is because we aren’t as dependent on the office market.

“The trajectory is really good, [but] people are still struggling somewhat.”

Berkeley High students walk past a construction site on Allston Way, toward Shattuck Avenue, during their lunch hour. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Like other downtowns, Berkeley’s core took a beating in the early months of the pandemic, when many UC Berkeley students moved back home, and those at Berkeley High and Berkeley City College stayed home. 

“We had a lot of people hanging on by a thread, and a number of folks closing,” Caner said.

The vacancy rate for ground-floor commercial space downtown more than tripled, from 5.1% in 2019 to 15.7% in 2021, the highest among Berkeley’s commercial districts, according to data tracked by the city’s Office of Economic Development.

Caner said the business association’s foot traffic counts improved as students returned to in-person instruction — but they still lag pre-pandemic levels by about a quarter. City data showed downtown’s vacancy rate last year stood at 11.9%, still more than double what it was in 2019; this fall, officials will consider a $100,000 budget request for artist-designed window coverings to brighten up all the vacant storefronts.

There are signs the pandemic has changed consumers’ relationships with some downtown businesses. 

In the dining world, Caner said casual, quick-service coffee shops and restaurants have been quicker to recover than higher-end sit-down establishments. 

Berkeley Rep Managing Director Tom Parris said the theater sells more single-show tickets and fewer season subscriptions as audiences pick and choose what they want to attend. Freight & Salvage Artistic Director Peter Williams said the venue still sells out big acts, but notices smaller shows aren’t drawing crowds as well, and wonders if fears about catching COVID are keeping older and more vulnerable audience members away. 

“We’re doing a lot better than other downtowns, and a lot of that is because we aren’t as dependent on the office market.”

John Caner, Downtown Berkeley Association CEO

Worryingly for the business association, Caner and others say years-long struggles for retail are continuing in downtown Berkeley as stores face more competition from online shopping giants.

“Every business is dealing with the Amazon effect,” said Mike Traini, a manager at the Cal apparel store Shop College Wear. And even though his store is practically on top of a BART station, Traini said he fears that customers who opt to shop in person will “all go to Walnut Creek,” with its high-end malls and ample parking, rather than downtown Berkeley.

A restaurant worker takes a smoke break on Addison Street in downtown Berkeley. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Olga Degas, an Oakland resident, and her friend Cynthia Mcnair, who visited from Los Angeles, chat before a concert at the Freight & Salvage in downtown Berkeley. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Berkeley’s office market has also been bruised by the pandemic, with an 11.5% citywide vacancy rate that is more than three times its 2019 level, according to data from the firm CBRE. But it’s still better than the outlook for neighboring cities — Emeryville’s office vacancy rate stood at 24%, while downtown Oakland’s was 28.5%.

And offices were never central to downtown Berkeley’s economy, said CBRE senior vice president Mike Raffetto.

“It tends to be a very small, niche market,” Raffetto said.

That’s a far cry from places like downtown Oakland and San Francisco, where the absence of office workers has threatened an entire ecosystem of businesses and institutions that rely on them, from coffee shops and work-lunch restaurants to commuter-centric public transit agencies such as BART and Caltrain. There are even signs of life on that front in Berkeley, as Caner noted the recent opening of the salad chain Mixt — a poster child of the office worker economy — on the ground floor of downtown’s Skydeck building.

Berkeley also hasn’t been plagued by the same bad press as downtown San Francisco, where every store closing seems to be treated as a sign of the area’s impending demise.

Empty retail space at 2095 Allston Way, a former Walgreens, which closed earlier this summer. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight 

Caner said he doesn’t believe worries about crime or safety are keeping people away from downtown Berkeley, though there’s still room for improvement. Joiner, the Feelmore owner, said they would like to see Berkeley do a better job cleaning sidewalks, and consider taking steps to “activate” the pedestrian area in front of their shop the way it has the BART plaza a couple of blocks to the north.

About the photos in this story: For this assignment, Berkeleyside’s photojournalist and CatchLight fellow Ximena Natera switched from her usual digital camera to try two film cameras instead: a point-and-shoot 35mm Canon and a Holga, a medium-format toy camera. “After talking to Nico, I realized that this story was about the different moods of downtown, and what it feels like to move around in the area as a patron or a neighbor, so I thought it was the perfect chance to experiment,” Natera said.

Councilmember Kate Harrison, who represents downtown, said city staff have done well at helping unhoused residents in the city center, where the number of people living on the streets has declined since peaking early in the pandemic. Harrison said she hopes initiatives such as the recently launched Specialized Care Unit — which offers a non-police response to people experiencing mental health crises — will provide aid to people struggling on the streets, and help others feel more comfortable spending time downtown.

“I’m really hoping that is going to make a big difference,” Harrison said. “We need sustained effort from our mental health professionals.”

Chris Bernal, a Rose Pizzeria worker, picks a salad and oysters from the kitchen on a busy Saturday night. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Years after Berkeley’s heated battles over downtown development, no change has been more noticeable in the neighborhood — or is more central to its future — than the explosion of new housing construction.

During a two-week period in August, five downtown buildings with a combined 270 apartments got their certificates of occupancy from city planning staff, allowing them to welcome residents ahead of the new academic year. For comparison, 295 homes came on line citywide in 2021, while 2018 and 2019 combined for 282 new units.

“It just feels more lively and invigorating than it did last year.”

Alexis Rorabaugh, Rose Pizzeria chef and co-owner

Just down University Avenue from a newly opened 50-unit apartment building, Cody Furin has noticed the busier sidewalk outside Honey TV, the clothing and accessory shop he co-owns, since construction wrapped up. One customer told Furin he stopped by the store after spotting it from the window of another apartment building across the street.

“University is on the come up a little bit,” said Furin, whose store was the brainchild of several musicians who used their newfound extra time in 2020 to make psychedelic- and punk-inspired T-shirts and tote bags. “There’s way more foot traffic on this side of the street now.”

Those new apartments will be joined by thousands more homes under construction or in the planning pipeline for the coming years: Workers are building a 772-bed UC Berkeley dorm at the east end of University Avenue and a 156-unit development at 1951 Shattuck Ave., among other projects. The 25-story building planned for the Walgreens site, one of three projects at that height proposed for downtown, was approved with minimal opposition in March.

In the immediate sense, having several major construction projects underway at once hasn’t exactly helped downtown’s recovery.

A man carrying flowers walks on Shattuck Avenue towards University Avenue on a Saturday night. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Three large apartment complexes have been built within a block of Lhasa Karnak Herb Company in recent years, and a developer is seeking approval for an even bigger one across the street. While owner Aaron Murdock said he supports building new housing, particularly the affordable apartments that opened last year just across Berkeley Way from his herb and spice shop, getting it built hasn’t been easy on his business.

“It’s been bad for foot traffic, it’s been bad for noise, it’s been bad for dust,” Murdock said. “We have to wipe down our store four times more often than we did before.”

“You just have to sort of tough it out if you can. I think I’ve got another five years’ patience to wait it out, then we’ll see where we are.”

Aaron Murdock, owner of Lhasa Karnak Herb Company

The key question for a long-tenured specialty retailer like Murdock will be whether downtown’s new residents, most of whom are likely to be Cal students, become loyal customers — or if, as he’s found in the past, younger would-be shoppers “walk right by.”

Joiner said they are optimistic that Feelmore can tap into the student market as more people move downtown. They have been doing speaking engagements at student centers, fraternities and sororities, and hope students see their store as a sex-positive resource.

“What we’re doing is staying in front of our customers, and engaging in ways people don’t expect,” Joiner said.

Despite his trepidation, Murdock said he has no plans to leave downtown — Lhasa Karnak’s lease is up soon, and he’ll be signing another five-year extension.

“You just have to sort of tough it out if you can,” he said of this transitional moment in downtown Berkeley’s history. “I think I’ve got another five years’ patience to wait it out, then we’ll see where we are.”

Attendees at the Poncho Sanchez and His Latin Jazz Band concert at the Freight and Salvage take a salsa dance lesson before the show on Sept. 15, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

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Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...