As a long-time neighborhood resident, I’ve become convinced that commercial districts, like the one here in the Grand Lake, are organic entities that change over time. There are, of course, a few businesses that seem to be defying the rule including Walter Bennett Cameras, Lakeshore Donuts, the Grand Lake Theatre, the adjacent Smoke Shop and most notably, the Alley where Rod Dibble, has been performing five days a week since 1960.

These, however, remain the exceptions. To illustrate the extent and quality of the changes that have occurred, I’d note that in the early 1970s a topless Go-Go bar conducted a booming business on Grand Avenue. Way back then, I was working full time restoring and remodeling what was to become our home. More often than not, I ate lunch at Kwik Way with half a dozen glazed donut holes from Colonial Donuts for dessert. As I remember, there weren’t a lot of other choices.

Kwik Way has, of course, recently bit the dust and like the majority of the changes that have occurred, that’s probably for the better. Certainly, there are now far more and much healthier food choices than we ever thought possible. In addition, on Lakeshore and Grand, there are a plethora of fairly recent additions to the retail scene including (to name just a few) Trader Joe’s, Glow, Juniper Tree, Maribel, Urban Indigo, Cultural Crossroads, and Queen. For the most part, these changes have taken place in a fairly haphazard fashion.

Councilmember Pat Kernighan noted somewhat ruefully that, aside from enforcing the provisions of the zoning codes, the City is largely lacking in leverage in determining what businesses are located where.

I also talked to Pamela Drake, the Director of the Lakeshore/Lake Park Avenue Business Improvement District (BID), an association of property owners who tax themselves in order to provide private security, sidewalk and gutter cleaning, landscaping, and promotional activities. She made much the same point, citing the prior torpedoing of a proposed lease for a Quiznos Submarine Sandwich Shop that would have violated restrictions on the number of fast-food franchises in a given area. Aside from such restrictions, what’s typically the case is that the property owner, in consultation with a commercial real estate broker, ends up leasing to the “firstest with the mostest” with little regard to a business plan or community input.

In my view (one that was endorsed by Kernighan), many of the businesses that have been most successful and proven the best fit with the neighborhood are those that were actively recruited by the community. If you’re a newbie to the neighborhood, it may be difficult to comprehend that some 15 years ago we banded together to entice the now-ubiquitous Noah’s Bagels to Lakeshore. Their signing on the dotted line was considered a major victory.

Arizmendi came due to the efforts of the Greater Mandana Action Coalition in cooperation with the Merchants’ Association. And Trader Joe’s was almost everybody’s first choice for the vacant Albertson’s.

Sometime in the next several months, the newest addition to the Grand Avenue restaurant scene should be opening. Camino is the widely anticipated creation of Allison Hopelain and Russell Moore. The latter is a veteran chef and produce buyer for Chez Panisse. Camino will be a huge plus for the neighborhood. Their coming is due largely to the efforts of Mary Ellen Navas who saw the empty Country Home Furniture store as an opportunity to bring about positive change. She shared her hopes and concerns with the property owner and convinced him to hold out for a project that would provide maximum benefit to him and to the community at large.

I’m broaching this subject due to changes that are now in the works—not to mention additional changes that will inevitably occur over time. As you’re probably aware, See’s Candies surprised virtually everybody when it permanently closed the doors of its Lakeshore store on January 2. Rumors about the demise of GapKids on Lakeshore, on the other hand, had been circulating for several months and were finally confirmed in a BID newsletter with further details provided in a Oakland Tribune article.

Pamela Drake indicates that potential tenants have already expressed interest in both of these vacancies. In point of fact, the owners of the 4,000 square foot storefront now occupied by GapKids are close to signing a contract with a thrift shop called “Out of the Closet”—a chain of shops benefiting the AIDS Healthcare Foundation established by Magic Johnson.

While this is quite obviously a worthy charitable enterprise, it—in my opinion—is neither the best nor the most appropriate use for one of the largest retail spaces in what is considered one of Oakland’s most vibrant and successful commercial districts. More importantly, this decision is about to be made with virtually no input from the community. Nonetheless, as confirmed by a staff member in the City Zoning Department, a thrift shop does conform to the existing C-20 designation and there are probably no grounds for an appeal. On the other hand, if you feel strongly one way or the other, I’d suggest calling Out of the Closet’s main office at (323) 860-0173 to express your opinion and it wouldn’t hurt to email Pat Kernighan, as well. Your comments with regards to this proposed use would also be welcomed here at the Grand Lake Guardian. (Just enter your comment at the bottom of the article or write a Letter to the Editors.)

You may also wish to respond to a survey the Lakeshore BID has just put together that’s not focused on any specific property but is instead intended as an overall measure of what kinds of goods and services would be most welcomed. The survey is being distributed to Lakeshore merchants, neighborhood residents, and patrons. It lists a number of options including pet food, gourmet cookware, shoes, and children’s and adult clothing, but, if you choose to fill out the survey, please don’t feel limited by what’s on the list. The Guardian would also welcome your comments with the expectation that we can play a valuable role in helping to facilitate this discussion.

Around the corner, in the area covered by the Grand Avenue Business Association (GABA), there are currently five vacant storefronts. One is the Rock Shop on Santa Clara. Two others are in the same building occupied by Stu Sweetow’s AV Consultants. Another is next door to Galleria Scola where The Time Was Antiques was a long-time tenant. The most prominent, however, is at 3265 Grand—most recently the 3 Day Blinds store which has moved across the street. This is a very large space with attached parking that has huge potential. The Guardian would be pleased to entertain any specific suggestions for these locations (or for Grand Avenue as a whole) and will share them with GABA and the owners of the property.

On Lake Park Avenue, the current status of the Kwik Way illustrates the limitations on what we, as a community, can accomplish. It seems highly unlikely that the mixed-use development that was thoroughly vetted by the community is going to happen any time in the near future. (For more details, please read Pamela Drake’s February 2, 2007 article here in the Guardian).

The Hahn family, which owns the B of A building, Kwik Way, and the Serenader had expressed a willingness to sell the latter two properties to potential developers, but apparently balked at the appraised value. Instead, they continue to shop around the Kwik Way property looking for a long-term tenant with the financial clout to meet their revenue expectations and make the necessary alterations to the existing building. This pretty much limits the field to a large chain operation and it’s one that would have to be willing to factor in the cost and time delay involved in obtaining a Major Conditional Use Permit (CUP). (For an explanation of these issues, see “FatBurger should earn high level of official scrutiny.”) Word is Chipotle is currently on the top of their list.

I’m hoping that this article will help contribute to the decision-making process with regard to some of the current vacancies, but more importantly I hope it helps lead to a process that will encourage property owners, merchants, and residents to—at a minimum—work cooperatively in determining what goods and services are in most demand and, if possible, to work towards institutionalizing the process with formal surveys and maybe even a comprehensive business plan that would encompass the entire business district.

When I discussed this issue with Pat Kernighan, she emphasized the importance of community members becoming involved proactively and cited Mary Ellen Navas’s success in bringing Camino to Grand Avenue as the perfect example of what concerned residents can accomplish. In addition to working directly with individual property owners, she also suggested that the community become more involved as active partners with the Lakeshore BID and with the Grand Avenue Business Association—both of which are clearly open to constructive input from the community.

When I asked Pamela Drake and Dave Latina, the developer of the Barbary Lane Senior Communities, how to best achieve these goals, both independently cited the Main Street Program operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as the single best model.

Latina explained that the Main Street Approach consists of three basic parts: survey, assessment, and implementation. He added that the National Trust does have interns available, but he estimated the cost of the three-part program to be roughly $60,000. As confirmed by Kernighan, an already cash-strapped City is unlikely to come up with funding—although the Lakeshore BID did discuss at their last meeting the possibility of hiring a consultant to achieve at least some of the same goals.

I don’t know what, if anything, will come as a result of this article or as a result of related discussions that are taking place at the Lakeshore BID, GABA, and elsewhere. But I do want to stress just how much a community (particularly one as savvy as this one) can achieve when it’s adequately motivated. I’ve already cited the arrivals of Noah’s, Arizmendi, Trader Joe’s, and Camino as positive proof. The other side of the coin is represented by those projects the community has killed, against all odds, including the MacDonald’s drive-thru and the proposed commercial development in Splash Pad Park.

Really, all that is required to make a substantial difference is one or more individuals with the necessary resolve and commitment. Do I hear any volunteers?