International Boulevard in Oakland, California, is an iconic corridor that begins in the city’s gentrifying Lake Merritt neighborhood. This nine-mile stretch, home to many of Oakland’s Black- and immigrant-owned restaurants, hair salons, clothing boutiques, and more, also runs through the city’s struggling east side. Along this section, the street is flanked by some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where long-standing challenges related to crime and blight persist, making it harder for businesses to flourish.
Recognizing the need to help lift businesses in these underserved areas, the city has long made the revitalization of International Boulevard a priority. Most recently, Oakland designated several opportunity zones that cut across International Boulevard, and, to increase foot traffic and better serve residents, a new Bus Rapid Transit system along the route was created.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. As hard as it was for these small businesses to stay open before the crisis, the economic impact of having to shutter their doors during lockdown has been devastating.
“When the pandemic hit, we ran into a situation where these businesses were really just struggling to make it through the next week or two,” said Eric Simundza, an economic analyst at the city’s Department of Economic and Workforce Development (EWDD), which is enacting a series of measures — including several explicitly designed for businesses operating on International Boulevard — to help these owners survive.
“It put us into a mode of, ‘We’ve got to do it now.’ Everything was accelerated,” added Marsha Murrington, a FUSE executive fellow with EWDD who for the last two years has been working with local businesses, property owners, and nonprofits to improve the commercial corridor along the BRT route to help boost foot traffic, eliminate blight, and reduce vacancy rates.
Asking what business owners need
To start, EWDD launched a massive outreach effort to understand these businesses’ most urgent needs. Using social media, email, and phone calls, EWDD staff reached out to more than 1,000 business owners and asked them to complete a business impact survey. They reached an additional 500 businesses by partnering with community-based organizations, like the Latino and Chinatown Chambers of Commerce, which together conducted outreach in three languages. EWDD staff also worked in close partnership with the Black Cultural Zone Collaborative, a community organization working to keep Black businesses from being driven out of fast gentrifying East Oakland.
“Because we have to shelter in place, and we’re not able to go out and flyer, we’re relying on partner organizations that have those existing relationships with merchants in different areas of the city to be our conduit to share information about available resources and funding opportunities,” said Harry Hamilton, marketing program coordinator at EWDD. “We’ve managed to penetrate some areas that haven’t had this kind of assistance in generations.”
Roughly three quarters of business owners who responded to the survey said they needed grant support to cover operating costs, according to the city. So Oakland set up a small business emergency grant program, which has distributed $1 million in grant loans to 185 businesses, many of them on or near International Boulevard and all to low-income entrepreneurs.
Some business owners along International Boulevard have also received grants from the city’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Business Assistance Fund, which was set up before the pandemic to support businesses affected by construction of the new bus route. One of them was Nicolas Sanchez, owner of Cafe Platano on International Boulevard.
Sanchez came to the U.S. from El Salvador when he was 14 years old. He started his culinary career as a dishwasher and worked his way up to become an executive chef. In 2006, he opened his first restaurant in nearby Berkeley. He and his brother, who is a co-owner, would measure how well they were doing by counting how many times they had to run the dishwasher.
Sanchez opened his Oakland restaurant in 2013, and he and his brother have since opened two more locations. Starting in mid-March, they closed all four locations but continued to pay their roughly 50 employees, including eight in Oakland.
“It was scary,” said Sanchez, who has been paying rent on credit. He has since reopened, but for now he is only offering catering services. He got a boost from the city’s BRT assistance fund, through which he was able to get a cargo van to help him deliver food to customers.
In response to the pandemic, Oakland also began allowing business owners with pre-existing BRT grant commitments to get an advance of up to $10,000 on those funds and use it to cover operating expenses, like payroll, rent, inventory, and utilities. Businesses that didn’t have an existing commitment are eligible for an operating grant in the same amount.
The city has had to infuse more flexibility into its existing programs as well. For example, EWDD staff went to city council to allow community development block grants to be used to cover operating costs related to the pandemic, following a similar change by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Mitigating the fallout
At the same time, the city is doing what it can to contain the damage and help businesses reopen, including connecting business owners with legal resources to fend off eviction, helping them apply for loans or pandemic unemployment assistance, and offering resources to help them build online retailing capacity. A portion of the city’s $1.3 million in workforce grants will be used to help retrain workers, such as nail technicians and aestheticians, many of whom had businesses along International Boulevard and who may be out of work for an extended period of time.
Another effort by the city to help local business owners has been the Flex Street Initiative, which made it easier for restaurants to conduct business on publicly owned and leased outdoor spaces, such as parking lots and sidewalks.
Valentino Carrillo’s restaurant, La Frontera Mexican Restaurant located on International Boulevard, had barely been open a month when Californians were ordered to shelter in place, disrupting his plans for a grand opening. He was forced to close briefly. When he reopened, foot traffic to the neighborhood had all but vanished, and finding staff willing to work during the pandemic was challenging. When Alameda County began to allow outdoor dining as part of a phased reopening, Carrillo had limited space to accommodate customers.
Under the Flex Street Initiative, he was eligible for a fee waiver and a more streamlined permitting process. Carrillo, who was one of the first to apply, has since set up tables and chairs on the sidewalk outside his restaurant. He is also working with the city to create a patio in his back parking lot.
“There was a point where we were doing maybe $100 a day of foot traffic,” Carrillo said. “Now, business is much better.” Some of his revenues come from takeout orders, he said, but people are increasingly taking advantage of the outside seating. “That additional revenue from outdoor dining definitely helps.”
Looking to the future
The outlook is still very much uncertain. “It’s hard to really see what the future is going to look like, because we know that a lot of businesses are not going to survive this,” Murrington said, which makes assessing community needs difficult. “We are really struggling to see what the business mix is going to look like.”
In the meantime, the city is looking to bolster infrastructure and wifi connectivity along International Boulevard and other underserved areas so that whatever the mix does look like, businesses will have what they need to succeed. Earlier this year, Murrington worked with the city and the East Oakland Neighborhood Initiative (consisting of 12 partner organizations) to secure a $28.2 million grant to implement community-selected projects in East Oakland. These include an affordable housing project with a ground floor health clinic, a bike lending program, tree planting throughout the neighborhood to improve air quality, a creekside trailway, and an aquaponics farm, all of which are expected to create jobs and increase the quality of life and the area’s commercial appeal. That work, Murrington said, is continuing despite the pandemic. “But there’s no question it’s going to be challenging to get everything in place due to the pandemic,” she said.
Murrington is also working to secure a grant that would help build the capacity of community partners to engage with local business owners beyond the pandemic. “There was really a need to have that cultural and linguistic capacity,” said Murrington. “We want to have organizations that are trusted in the community work with these small businesses more directly.”
It’s that cultural vibrancy, after all, that attracts many people to International Boulevard, which is known as a destination for hard-to-find niche businesses like ethnic spice vendors and purveyors of authentic western wear. “People from all over come to Oakland just to shop along International Boulevard,” Simundza said.
Carrillo, for his part, is optimistic about the future. He is in conversation with the city to start a farmers market and a local music festival. “You know,” he said, “when the pandemic is over.”
This story was produced by FUSE Corps, a national executive fellowship program that partners with local government agencies and produces solutions-driven journalism.
Rikha Sharma Rani is a Bay Area-based freelance journalist who writes about urban and social policy. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, CityLab, Politico Magazine and more.