With the closure of the Kids’ Gap and the middle of the night abandonment by See’s Candies, the Lakeshore Avenue business district (map, pdf) is experiencing its first serious vacancies in a long time. (See Ken Katz’s “Retail vacancies pose opportunity for community input.”) How these and any future vacancies get filled can make a big difference—positive or negative—in the health and vitality of our neighborhood.

Our history as a community shows that we can organize and bring in businesses that serve us well. Some of our best-loved businesses—like Arizmendi’s—have resulted from ideas from people in the neighborhood.

As the Director of the Lakeshore/Lake Park Avenues Business Improvement District, I have initiated an unscientific survey by merchants to gather information from residents and shoppers about what kinds of businesses they would like to see come to the neighborhood. Ken Katz and I also solicited responses at the Grand Lake Farmer’s Market on two Saturdays.

The questionnaire listed several categories of businesses; respondents could indicate their positive or negative responses to each one. Some people suggested particular businesses by name. I have done my best to tabulate the results and the comments and have made some generalizations from the initial results.

These results should be considered a beginning to a community conversation and a dialogue with the owners’ group (the Business Improvement District). I have received 40 responses so far and will add comments to the lists as more come in. I’ll continue to report these here in the Grand Lake Guardian, so stay tuned. For now we have:

Survey results

Clothing was one of the categories, with subcategories for men’s, women’s, sports, and shoes, with a separate question on children’s supplies.

Men’s clothes: 10 positive responses.
Women’s: 21 responses including 2 for vintage, 1 each for teenage girls’ clothes and for 10 to 15-year-olds.
Shoes: 22 responses for shoes in general.

There were also 3 unsolicited comments against thrift stores, whereas “used” was a category that solicited 5 positive responses. Crossroads Trading Company was mentioned as a good used-clothing store. It’s defined as “consignment,” not “thrift.” (See also the recent stories about what had been a potential thrift store to move onto Lakeshore: “Retail vacancies pose opportunity for community input,” “Pat Kernighan: Out of the Closet and the GapKids space,” and “Out of the Closet withdraws bid. Community meeting March 2nd.”)

Under the category for specialty beauty supply or brand-name makeup: M•A•C Cosmetics was mentioned 8 times, while Sephora was noted 6 times and Aveda once. Some respondents noted that we have enough beauty stores.

To the question on children’s supplies, including equipment, there were 8 positive responses. Many of those who answered “no” to the need for more children’s supplies stated that they had no children. Under this category consignment was suggested, better toys and books were also noted. This category was possibly limited by the time it takes to fill out a questionnaire while shopping with children (especially those surveys collected at the farmers’ market).

Under the category for pet supply, pet specialty, or pet services, there were 17 positive responses including requesting doggie daycare, pet sitting, walking, grooming, vet services, and bird supplies. Numerous respondents named specific stores: Pet Food Express (several) and Wags & Wiggles (named once). A number of respondents said “no,” and a few noted that there were too many pets on the street already.

The gourmet cookware store category elicited 20 positive responses including naming Sur La Table twice and Pier 1 once.

The question about an electronics store had some positive responses, with Radio Shack being mentioned twice, computers and video once, and 1 each for CompUSA (which is actually going out of business) and Best Buy.

Furniture as a category got 10 responses with “affordable” being the notable description.

Travel supplies received only 5 positives.

Now for the food/restaurant categories:

Fine dining received 15 positives with one request for a sports bar and one for a wine shop (not having noted the new wine bar or the liquor store which has always offered a good selection of wines.)

Many respondents noted that they would like more ethnic-food choices under the headings for take-out and fine dining combined. Italian received the most votes (5). (A. G. Ferrari was noted 3 times by itself.) Then came sushi (4 votes), with some noting that there are already many neighborhood sushi places.

Vegetarian and Tapas came next, with 2 each. With 1 vote each: Mexican, Middle Eastern, and New York deli—including a “real” bagel, and more salads. Other mentions of specific companies included Jamba Juice (noted 3 times), Zachary’s Pizza, California Pizza Kitchen, and Cato’s Ale House.

Also in the take-out category, seafood was mentioned twice, including the request for a butcher shop; and a bakery similar to La Farine was suggested as a complement to Arizmendi’s. Two respondents asked for organic or sustainable food and clothing, including herbs and juices in that category.

One respondent complained about the size of our Trader Joe’s, which is somewhat smaller than the others. (This was apparently a decision apparently made by the developer, Sansome Pacific, not by TJs.)

Four respondents also asked for sporting supplies, one additionally for a Curves and one for a dance studio.

It was notable that a number of respondents commented that Urban Indigo is their favorite new business.

Sustaining independent, local businesses

I counted up the number of times respondents also noted—unsolicitedly—that they prefer only independent local businesses: 10. However, at least as many respondents also requested specific chain stores.

As I said, this informal survey can only be used as a jumping-off place for discussion, but it does point up some of the contradictions inherent in residents’ preference to shop locally while still desiring the availability of the brands they recognize. Better service is assumed from local “mom & pop” stores, that depend on the return business; but it can sometimes be lacking in businesses short on staffing and training funds. Managers who work for big corporate chains can be unresponsive, but one of our best managers was Lori Ortiz of the Kids’ Gap (now assigned to the wilds of Walnut Creek.)

Small businesses often need low start-up rents to flourish but do not find it in neighborhoods which can command higher rents due to heavy foot traffic and prosperous demographics. Those neighborhoods then find that they have priced themselves into the upper echelons of the chain-store markets, leaving local business behind.

Sometimes, local municipalities assist new owners attempting to get into the better and higher-end markets; but municipalities rarely—especially Oakland—provide the kind of on-site assistance a merchant may need to succeed where the foot traffic and disposable income is highest.

Hence the quandary of entrepreneurs who pioneer a business in a neighborhood with little competition: Once that business succeeds, the rents often exceed the abilities of some entrepreneurs to maintain their businesses. Corporate chains then come in and gentrify the district. Realistically, the success of Lakeshore has always meant higher rents than in some neighboring streets or other districts. If we want neighborhood stores, we have to patronize them and let them know what works and what doesn’t.

Gentrification in small doses is not a bad thing but communities need to use various methods including zoning, land trusts, and political pressure/organizing to prevent it from sapping their neighborhoods of local character and community self-determination.

Local shoppers should not disdain all chains: Chains can bring foot traffic and serve as anchors to sustain struggling local owners.

Shoppers should consider that these local entrepreneurs may have sunk all their savings into their ventures. Consider the example of the thrift store that almost came to Lakeshore. This business might have prevented other entrepreneurs from investing in our neighborhood and hurt the local businesses by sending a downward demographic message to the local financial and consumer markets. Also, interestingly, Out of the Closet is a chain itself, though one with roots in community service.

Lakeshore is presently thriving and looks to continue to do so. However, many shop owners and some property owners are worried about recession in California and globally. Some of them have seen the slowdown already and business and demographic climates continue to shift. For our neighborhood, the shift has not been in a negative direction so far. That does not mean some of our neighbors (businesses and residents alike) don’t have to run just to stay in place. Therefore, we have to keep current, stay on top of trends, and update our merchant offerings. We have to have dialogue with compassion.

I do this work (as Director of the Lakeshore BID) because I find it fascinating and important to be a part of promoting and sustaining my community. While I hope that you will continue to shop locally, I don’t expect you to shun competition or demand less than excellence nor do I expect you to give up convenience. I ask only that you be reasonable and try to look at our district, neighborhood, and city holistically and make choices that make all our lives a little better.

Community meeting on March 2nd

I’d like to see an advisory group formed to serve to broaden the dialogue between merchants, owners, and community members while acting as boosters for our district.

To that end, Council member Kernighan is sponsoring a neighborhood meeting on Sunday, March 2nd, 2 PM in the Family Room of the Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, 3534 Lakeshore Avenue (at Mandana Blvd.) [map]. (The Family Room is inside the main building of the church—not in Barnett Hall.) Please attend.