Montclair Village: Weathering the economic storm

     MONTCLARION: August 6, 2010

Montclair Village Hardware owner Erik Hoffmann

The banner hanging outside Montclair Estates is telling. “Everything Must GO!” it spells out with great urgency in fiery red letters. Montclair, like many retail districts across Oakland and the U-S, is feeling the pinch of a stalled economy. But higher expenses and cautious consumers are just part of the problem facing local small business owners today. Longtime merchant David Sarber, whose family has owned Sarbers Camera for 48 years in Montclair says we need to go back four or five years to find the rest of the story.  Back to better economic times, when “everyone was spending more money and there was more money to give landlords.”

     Sarber says many of the vacancies we see in the Village today are the result of expired leases and landlords and brokers who want higher rents and commissions. “If you ask some of the landlords and brokers what their experience is with trying to rent the spaces, they will tell you they are getting zero calls from retail establishments at any price.” He says it’s no wonder. The rents landlords say are at market value are based on leases signed several years ago and are “nowhere near relevant to today’s economic times.”

     Consider the recent changes. Colonial Donuts moved around the corner to save money on rent. Wheels of Justice moved down the street to the site left vacant when the owner of Raimondi’s retired. Score, Movie Express and Argento Jewelry all folded and after more than a year – their spaces remain empty.

     Then there’s the story of Blockbuster. It closed shop last month, leaving some customers angry that Montclair no longer has a movie rental store. Landlord Reuven Kahane says the company wanted a rent reduction for a year and they were in the middle of negotiations when corporate decided to close the store. “I’m trying to do everything without any ill will and am trying so hard to work together with people,” Kahane says. “I feel very strongly that nothing hurts a city more than a vacancy.” He points to the new restaurant, Amba, which he and his partners opened on Moraga Avenue after their dry cleaning tenant closed shop. And the Blockbuster site won’t be vacant for long. First Republic Bank is making this prime corner property its home, after some extensive remodeling. “People are very excited,” Kahane says, “because it’s a private bank which will attract a lot of new customers and Republic is very community oriented.”

     But not everyone agrees. Sarber and others fear that Montclair’s C-27 zoning classification is being threatened. This is the law that limits the type of businesses that can set up shop on the ground floor in the village, favoring brick and mortar retail. “Consider [the possibility] that the landlords have maintained high rents in the village to force retail out of the buildings,” he says. “They can now cry wolf and say no retail will come in and that they might have an argument with the city of Oakland that the zoning is unfair and it should be changed.”

     Shoppers have made it clear, over the years, that they don’t want to lose the small town feel of Montclair. Charles Chapman worries about the future of two village staples – Montclair Estates and Montclair Village Hardware (at the time of this writing, their futures are uncertain). “They give the Village a diverse quality rarely found in shopping areas anymore,” he says. 

     Rebecca Robins goes a step further. “It’s our street,’ she says. “We like our businesses here, and it’s a shame that they can be forced out like this after all these years.”


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