Ever since the Blockbuster on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue went out of business in April, the building that housed the video rental store has remained empty. Recently, though, a prospective new tenant appeared: a sign on the door notified passersby that the liquor franchise Beverages and More (BevMo!) has applied for a permit to move into the former movie rental store.
But there’s been no welcome from local merchants and community groups. “What they are providing is something we already have,” said Ronile Lathi, a volunteer organizer for the Piedmont Avenue Merchants Association, who helped sponsor a meeting late last month at Piedmont Gardens to talk over opposition to the plan and urge BevMo! to find another location. “The Merchants Association is against it,” Lathi said.
During the meeting, several residents stood to express their concerns about the changes to neighborhood demographics, including traffic congestion and loitering by both visitors and residents.
“I do like BevMo!” Margitta Gardner, who has lived in the Piedmont Avenue area for three decades, said at the meeting. “I like to shop there. The reason we don’t want them on the avenue is that we want the smaller stores and smaller businesses. We want to be able to get more businesses on Broadway, where there are a lot of empty buildings.”
Merchants and residents have told BevMo representatives that they would support the store in another nearby location, such as the shopping center near the Safeway on Broadway and 51st Street. On or near Piedmont Avenue, though, seven stores already sell wine and spirits, Lathi pointed out—including Wine on Piedmont, Vino, and Safeway. Piedmont Avenue itself is made up mostly small retailers with only a few employees. These smaller shops depend more on single-store profits than do large corporations like BevMo!, Lathi said.
Gardner also said there is some concern that panhandlers would go into BevMo! to buy liquor and then sit and drink in the park nearby. Several people in the room asked why the owners refused to consider a different location.
“We want to serve the neighborhood,” said Greg Endom, BevMo! vice president for real estate and construction. “It’s a very nice street. It’s the kind of place we like to locate. Except for Safeway, there is not a lot happening on Broadway.”
Endom also said the company database indicates that customers who travel to the stores in Emeryville and Orinda live in the Piedmont area. “Here’s where our customer base is, and we don’t have a store to serve them,” he said.
Both the Merchants Association and the Piedmont Avenue Neighborhood Improvement League (PANIL) have organized a petition and letter-writing campaign. The documentation will be submitted to the city zoning commission, outlining arguments against approving BevMo! for the space.
In addition to concerns about loitering, the application submitted by the business owners predicts multiple deliveries to the area store, three or four per week; and estimates an average of 200-300 customers per day. With only 11 parking spaces, the residents said, they are concerned about traffic congestion.
Brian Goehry, the owner of Wine on Piedmont, said he opened his store three years ago after his previous employer went out of business. “What’s most likely to happen is stores like us, Vino and even Piedmont Grocery will still survive, but we’ll take a hit,” Goehry said as he stood in his store a few days after the BevMo! meeting. “We may go from being somewhat profitable to breaking even or maybe even not. It’s not something that will immediately put us out of business, but it certainly hurts the longterm prospects for the different stores in the area.”
Perry Trautner, the manager of Piedmont Avenue wine store Vino, said he believes part of his store’s success is good interaction with customers. “I know probably 98 percent of these people on a first name basis,” Trautner said. “The large store simply can’t provide that.”
Trautner said his business colleagues feel “ambushed” by the number of potential changes to the area, such as the planned Safeway reconstruction and the BevMo! application. “When you think of how many outlets already sell wine within this 1000 feet of where this BevMo! is supposed to go, it makes you wonder, what is the planning commission thinking about?” he said. “Is it just the tax revenue?”
According to the Oakland City and Planning Commission, Piedmont Avenue is currently designated as a zone CN1, a designation for “pedestrian-oriented storefronts” intended to “maintain and enhance” a variety of commercial districts and to promote walking among shops. But BevMo!, PANIL organizer Valerie Winemiller said, is an auto-oriented business. “I think BevMo! sees shoppers with disposable income,” she said. “Piedmont has developed a clientele of wine drinkers, and they want to siphon that.”
The meeting with the planning commission is scheduled for Sept. 19. After reviewing documentation and hearing statements from all parties about the application, the Zoning and Planning Commission will vote to approve or decline the application submitted by BevMo!.
Read past Oakland North coverage about the proposed Safeway expansion.
Correction: This article was updated to correctly identify Perry Trautner.