Solano Avenue, filled with local shops and businesses, is one of Berkeley’s most vibrant commercial streets. Despite its success as a center for vendors and customers, many businesses have closed or left Solano Ave in recent years. To counter this trend, Berkeley-based companies are seeking to expand their businesses on Solano and bring new audiences and customers to the area in the place of the businesses lost.
Touchstone Climbing, a San Francisco Bay Area-based rock climbing gym, is planning on doing exactly that by creating a new gym on Solano Avenue. It will be in place of Oaks Theater, which was closed recently and is now vacant. Touchstone Climbing has a history of repurposing old buildings, and they will continue in this tradition with the expected renovations to the theater. Mailee Hung, Director of Communications at Touchstone Climbing, said, “We love working with buildings that have a lot of history and character. The Oaks is such an iconic part of Solano, so we’re excited to preserve this beautiful building while revitalizing it through adaptive reuse.”
Hung said that Touchstone has “the building permit in hand” since purchasing the space in 2017. “We can’t wait to get started!” Hung added.
City members, customers, and employees from Berkeley hope that the new gym will attract more consumers to Solano. Hung said, “We expect local businesses will be seeing a lot of climbers once The Oaks is open.” Sophie Hahn, Berkeley Councilwoman of the district that Solano Ave runs through, has high hopes for Touchstone and what it will bring to the neighborhood: “I am very eager to welcome Touchstone to Solano Avenue. Based on what I have heard from the community, the Gym is greatly anticipated and appreciated,” said Hahn. She added that filling the space was one of her top priorities when she was elected, and that she wanted to “ensure that this large empty space was put to good use for the community.”
Oaks Theater was previously appreciated by the local community in the same way that Hahn expects Touchstone to be. The theater was forced to close in 2010 due to competition from other movie theaters around Berkeley. In its absence, older locals of Berkeley reminisce about the theater, according to iScream employee Myra Campbell, who mentioned that her grandparents are among them. She said that younger people like herself had not seen the differences as much as those who had been in the area for long amounts of time.
As anticipation builds for the new gym, some shops along Solano have seen the consequences of the lack of active businesses surrounding. Hahn noted that, “Business owners have reported to me that in the absence of the theater, foot traffic was significantly reduced.” Others say they haven’t seen much of a difference, like Campbell, who said, “I don’t think [the closure of the theater] has been problematic for us.” Even though she hadn’t noticed any significant differences in customers at iScream since Oaks Theater and other businesses have turned into vacant buildings, Campbell still thinks that new businesses will bring in more customers. She spoke on the potential impact of having Touchstone in place: “I think people are more attracted to where there are more stores available.”
One of the expected benefits of the gym is the diversity of ages that it will bring to Solano. Touchstone Climbing markets their brand towards an active population of all ages. As a California based company, the founders started their business in San Francisco and expanded from there. Now they have a dozen gyms across California and are still working to grow even more, as the converted theater will be their thirteenth location in the state and third in the East Bay. Hahn is hoping that the gym will be inviting to a younger audience compared to what Solano receives now. She spoke on the anticipated arrival of college-age customers to the area with the new Touchstone Gym. “It may bring students from UC Berkeley, who don’t often frequent Solano Avenue. We welcome their arrival and hope they will discover other businesses as well,” she said. Campbell agreed that a rock climbing gym would attract a “younger audience.”
Hahn also hopes that Touchstone will be a successful replacement of the theater because of the steady flow of visitors and “spillover business” it will bring to the avenue. “One difference between a theater and a climbing gym, which I think will be a great benefit of the gym, is that the Gym is open long hours and attracts clients all day and evening,” Hahn said. Expected benefits of the new gym has left customers eager to see the next steps in the installation of a fun and unique company to Solano.