Bolfing’s Elmwood Hardware, the famous hardware store which opened in 1923 and has since come to be a key fixture of the Elmwood District in South Berkeley, is in danger of closing its doors — and this only months after Telegraph Avenue lost Cody’s Books, a venerable Berkeley institution of 50 years. Why is Elmwood Hardware in danger of closing down? Is it a greedy developer who has bought the plot of land and plans to demolish the hardware store and build luxury condos on the site? No, far from it. This time, the store is in danger of closing because of a zoning ordinance designed to preserve the neighborhood.
How could this be? Shouldn’t a preservation-oriented ordinance, well, preserve such a long-standing and well-loved store? So you’d think. In this case, Tad Laird, the owner of Elmwood Hardware needs to close the store on October 1, in order to carry out about $4,000-5,000 worth of much-needed renovation, seismic retrofits, and upgrades that will bring the building in conformance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, it is unclear that he will be able to afford all these changes. In order to fund the renovation, Laird wanted to add an extra floor with apartments (at different points in the process, the exact number of units has been quoted as 2, 3, or 4), but the extra story could potentially make Laird’s proposed building 1.5 feet taller than the acceptable maximum height of 28 feet. His proposal also involves additional storage and office floor space. As it turns out, Laird’s rather modest proposal conflicts with the Elmwood’s draconian zoning ordinance on three separate counts, and in order for his plan to go through, he would have to apply for three separate variances to the zoning. If any one of these three variances is not granted, the plan fails, and Laird will have wasted a large sum of money he cannot afford, not to mention time — all in an effort to keep his well-loved store in business.
The Elmwood district has extremely strict zoning requirements, some of which are downright ridiculous, even by Berkeley standards — the requirement that the commercial district have a maximum of seven restaurants jumps immediately to mind — all in the name of preserving neighborhood charm. In this case, though, the ordinance is a failure, trying so hard to preserve the neighborhood that it might actually force one of the neighborhood’s most beloved and long-lasting businesses to close its doors. Indeed, this article in the Oakland Tribune has quoted an informal survey result suggesting that 7 in 10 people who come to the Elmwood district to shop do so at least in part to visit Bolfing’s Elmwood Hardware. Although it would be a shame for the hardware store to close down in its own right, it seems that the absence of Elmwood Hardware would also have a detrimental effect on other neighborhood businesses.
To his credit, Gordon Wozniak, who represents the Elmwood district on the Berkeley City Council, is frustrated by the severe limitations put in place by the zoning ordinance. Unsurprisingly, though, some Berkeley NIMBYs, and even at least one business owner in the area, would still like to maintain the Elmwood’s strict ordinance. Here is a quote from the same Tribune article:
But other merchants on the street support the ordinance’s protections and fear granting exceptions would lead to a slippery slope.
“Nothing against Tad, but if he were allowed to build those apartments on top of his building, I guarantee you every other property owner on the street would jump on it and build, too,” said Jason Wyman, manager of the apparel store Elements. “And that would drastically change the character of the neighborhood. It would become a second Shattuck Avenue.”
In its typical fashion, the Tribune unquestionably inserts this observation into its article, but it fails to address how the observation is flawed and unnecessarily alarmist. I agree that we need to take into account the neighborhood context, which is quite distinct from downtown Berkeley — but no one is proposing anything remotely high-rise or even mid-rise in the Elmwood. Although College is a narrower avenue than Shattuck, a couple additional stories of housing in select locations would not constitute a drastic change to the character of the neighborhood, nor would it turn the Elmwood into anything resembling downtown Berkeley. For example, consider this sketch of what the new hardware store would look like, with a few additional housing units on top of the store:
Courtesy Bolfing’s Elmwood Hardware.
Seriously, now: let’s be honest. Tad Laird’s proposal completely fits into the neighborhood. The essential Elmwood charm is retained; indeed, it would still be retained even with a couple additional stories of apartments. The new residents of these apartments would be customers of the local establishments and would add a touch of vitality. In the above quotation, Jason Wyman suggests that there will be a domino effect, and that every business will want new apartments above their store. My response? It’s about time. As long as we’re considering the neighborhood context, we cannot forget a few other important characteristics of the Elmwood district:
- It is located one mile from both Rockridge and Ashby BART stations, which, combined, are served by 3 of BART’s 5 routes;
- It is located within one-half mile of the 1R rapid bus on Telegraph, which will in the future be upgraded to a bona fide bus rapid transit route; and
- The center of the neighborhood is at the intersection of AC Transit lines 9 and 51, the latter of which is one of AC Transit’s most popular, high frequency routes that is due for future enhancement.
In other words, the Elmwood, located as it is at the intersection of two major avenues, is transit-oriented. As much as Berkeley’s vocal no-growth contingent would like to stop any and all developments so that the Elmwood “village” can remain frozen in time, it is simply irresponsible to do so indefinitely. Denser growth should be directed onto the major avenues that have frequent transit service, and in Berkeley, that list includes not only Telegraph, Shattuck, and San Pablo, but also College.
The irony here is that the NIMBYs are caught in a trap. They love to argue that any new developments will increase traffic, decrease parking, and irrevocably ruin the character of the neighborhoods. Here, though, we are in a situation in which a beloved, unique, local institution that has been in the neighborhood for decades is in danger of closing down, but this anti-development zoning ordinance is detrimental to the preservation of that very institution which has come to be a key anchor of the neighborhood.
I sincerely hope that Bolfing’s Elmwood Hardware store finds a way to pull through and stay in business. By the same token, I also hope that the City of Berkeley and its militant no-growth contingent can take away from this the important lesson that the Bay Area is growing and changing, and Berkeley must find a way to do so, as well. Zoning ordinances definitely have value, but they exist to serve the city and its citizens — not the other way around. The time has come (actually, it came quite awhile ago) for the so-called progressive City of Berkeley to take a long, hard look at its conservative zoning policies and adapt them to fit a modern, evolving city.