For years, Berkeley residents have watched as the Oaks Theatre has changed from a vibrant movie viewing location, to nothing, and now, a climbing gym in progress. The progress of the Oaks transformation into a haven for avid rock-climbers has been a long time coming, and hopefully it will soon be achieved. Residents of Berkeley and neighboring Albany have been hearing news and rumors surrounding the building for years, and look on with eagerness as it comes closer to completion. Berkeley International High School (BIHS) student Sam King, who lives a block away from the building, said, “I’m really excited for the climbing gym to open up.”
Touchstone Climbing is a company that owns and operates climbing gyms all across California, including the Berkeley gym Ironworks. Touchstone Climbing is creator and soon-to-be operator of the new climbing gym at the top of Solano Avenue. The gym will be mainly for bouldering, which is a type of climbing that is done without ropes or harnesses, generally on short formations. The new climbing gym will inhabit the old Oaks Theatre, which originally opened in 1925 and remained an important Berkeley fixture for many years, until its closure in 2010. As far back as many North Berkeley residents can remember, the Oaks Theatre has been plastered with “for sale” signs and aging crepe paper that covered its windows and ticket booth.
About three years ago, Touchstone Climbing made their bid to buy the building, and since then have been hard at work converting the theatre into a gym. Heather Bellgreen, Touchstone’s marketing director, said, “We want to maintain the historic integrity of the building as well as modify it for its new life as a climbing gym.” Touchstone has actually renovated a theatre into a gym before, namely their San Jose location, and so they approach this difficult project with prior experience. Partly due to their goal of preserving the building’s character, coupled with the added challenges of COVID-19, their opening has taken longer than expected. Touchstone’s newest set of plans were only very recently approved by the city of Berkeley, but the date of their opening is still uncertain.
Climbing gyms have recently been shuttered by the California government in all counties in the purple tier, including Alameda County, so although the Oaks isn’t open yet, Touchstone’s other gyms are struggling. Climbing as a sport is inherently solo, but seeing as climbing gyms operate indoors and contain surfaces that are frequently touched, they have to be very careful. You can only spread so much Purell on a wall before it becomes too slippery to climb. At gyms in counties in the red tier and below, Touchstone is still allowing climbers who are masked, socially distanced, and have had their temperature checked, though only in limited capacity with no group classes or rented equipment. Events like birthday parties, after school classes, and singles night are impossible. Climbing is not an activity well accustomed to Zoom, so when the facilities are closed, their entire business is closed. As is with all businesses nowadays, things are hard. While Berkeley might yet have time to wait until our shining new climbing gym is open, we can be sure that when it does, it will be glorious.