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Concern Grows about Commercial Vacancies in Downtown Novato

Should the city of Novato revise an ordinance that some believe is too restrictive in this economy?

Commercial property vacancies are not difficult to find in the Bay Area these days, and the situation isn’t any different in Novato. Old Town has its fair share of unleased space, and these spots along Grant Avenue have been gathering spider webs and dust — not just to fall into the Halloween spirit.

On the west side of downtown, the former location of Del Reeno Meats at 1413 Grant Ave. has been vacant for 10 years. This January, the former Pini Ace Hardware site at 1107 Grant Ave. will have been vacant for nine years. (FYI, Pini is in the ninth year of a 20-year lease at the Nave Shopping Center, according to co-owner Chip Young.)

West of Redwood Boulevard, at 881 Grant Ave., the former site of Alain Pinel Realtors has been vacant for more than two years. At 830 Grant Ave., the former site of the Feathered Nest, has been vacant for about two years as well.  

Further complicating matters and standing in the way of potential tenants is a city ordinance that restricts financial institutions from setting up shop on Grant Avenue east of Redwood. The ordinance was put into place (in part) with the good intention of keeping the small-town feel in Old Town while promoting boutique retail establishments. Novato has way more service-oriented businesses — salons, medical offices, banks — in its downtown area than retail/restaurants; the opposite is true in popular downtown districts such as Fourth Street in San Rafael and Kentucky Street/Petaluma Boulevard in Petaluma.

While Novato's downtown ordinance had support at the time, some now question if it is not counterproductive in an economy that is still trying to recover. Wouldn't an occupancy of any kind be better than another "for lease" sign?

The 881 Grant Ave. property, built as a bank on the corner of Machin Avenue and Grant, is particularly impacted by the restriction. It looks suited for anything but retail with the building having been previously occupied by a realty company and, prior to that, a printing company. John Williams, managing director at Sperry Van Ness commercial real estate, said "a prominent financial firm" is interested in the property. But the current ordinance prohibits the that type of company from becoming a street-level tenant on that sector of Grant Avenue. Imagine being the owner of that building, having to say no to a potential tenant.

Local business people say there is little doubt that a “financial institution” in this space should have some residual benefit to the retail merchants in the area. Not only would such a business bring more employees into Old Town, but it would also bring in their customers, both of which have dollars to spend and stomachs to fill. Retailers and restaurants could stand to benefit from a little more foot traffic and perhaps the vacant storefronts would start to fill up again. 

The ordinance issue is expected to be a topic at upcoming city meetings. Several people, including Williams and former Novato Chamber of Commerce president Jerry Peters, have spoken in front of the Novato City Council about the matter.  

How do you feel about the ordinance? Do you think a financial institution should be allowed to occupy 881 Grant Ave.?

Driving through the Bel Marin Keys industrial parks, you will face a visual barrage of “For Lease” signs on every street. We'll take a look at that area in a future column.

Vintage Oaks Shopping Center is bucking the trend with only two vacant spots. Kathy DeOchoa, general manager of Crosspoint Realty, which handles leases at Vintage Oaks, said the shopping center's occupancy rate is 98.3 percent. The former Southern Pacific Smokehouse is to reopen in November as Hopmonk Tavern Novato.

Do you know of a new business opening around town? We want to know! Please contact Tom at tomnovatopatch@gmail.com with all your business tips.

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Norma Dawson October 09, 2012 at 07:36 PM
What exactly is happening at the Circle/Umpqua building? I haven't seen anything happening there in months. I hate to see empty buildings downtown, but we watched a cute little town in Colorado open up it's main street and now is mostly real estate offices. I would hate to see that happen in Old Town. Agreed the meat shop is nasty, it was even when it was open towards the end of it's operation. Is there any word of anything at the old Pini Building?
kathy miller October 10, 2012 at 01:33 AM
Sol Food Restaurant should go into pini site with space for outdoor dining. No More banks and nail salons. Vegetable stand , organic famers site in revamped meat store. No more grocery outlet, 99cents stores, and all the other crappy stores that anchor our shopping centers.
K.H. Vogee October 24, 2012 at 04:10 PM
The rents for these over-sized spaces are atmospheric! I think the old Pini site and -the Alain Pinel site should be re-worked into attractive micro-business retail spaces, in graduated sizes...the building owners would help grow thriving small businesses and find the smaller spaces easier to rent. The community would find our Old Town a diverse and interestiong place to frequent and the owners would get the satisfaction of helping grow the economy...a win win for all.
Julie Casey October 27, 2012 at 04:20 PM
I'd like to have an article about the Novato Square shopping center as well as the Bel Marin Keys area. This shopping center used to be a thriving part of our community and is now a ghost town. Why are we having trouble bringing in big vendors for the Pini space and the Bell Market space? Are there issues with new building codes? Is it rental rates? What are the property owners looking for in a tenant?
Ventress Dugan October 27, 2012 at 04:58 PM
My opinion is the Novato Square Shopping Center is allowing the present businesses to run out their leases and will sell the property for Affordable Housing to be built. The management has made NO attempts to rent or upgrade this property. If this was sold for that purpose, the owners would gain huge tax exemptions. In the shopping centers present state, it is a playground for underage drinking, skateboarders and who knows what else. WHY has the city council done nothing about this situation?

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