City Council vote upholds contentious tea shop move

Derek Remsburg/File
A’Cuppa Tea was allowed to move to another district despite the quota this would exceed.

The Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday to uphold an exception to one local business, allowing it to change locations to another district, thereby exceeding the quota for quick-service restaurants in that area.

The appeal of the exception — which was brought before the council after the Zoning Adjustments Board approved the exception in May — was denied in a vote at Tuesday’s council meeting, sparking discussion about a need for readjusting the currently decades-old quota system on local businesses in the Elmwood Commercial District.

The exception will allow owners Lynn and Lee Vu to move their tea shop, A’Cuppa Tea, two blocks north of its current location on the corner of College Avenue and Alcatraz Avenue into a currently vacant lot located in the Elmwood.

At the meeting, the owners said they sought a new location after being unable to renew their current lease.

“We are really happy to move in not too far from (the) old location. It is easy and convenient for customers,” Lynn Vu said at the meeting. “I am unhappy we have to come a second time to tell you and everyone that the business is very important for us.”

While the district’s quota allows for only seven quick-service food establishments, there are currently eight quick-service restaurants operating in the district and two additional vacant storefronts holding such permits. The approval of the new permit issued to A’Cuppa Tea brings the total to eleven establishments.

Zoning Adjustments Board chairman George Williams said that the storefront A’Cuppa Tea will move into — the former location of H. Tulanian & Sons Oriental Rug Cleaning and Repair — had been vacant for a couple of years and that the landlords were unable to find a retail business that could open up there.

“The empty lot did not add to the vitality of the district,” Williams said. “It is better to fill it with an activity. If it is not popular, it won’t be patronized.”

At the meeting, representatives of Elmwood Merchants Association used the appeal to raise the question of  what they said is a much-needed re-adjustment of the district’s quota system.

“We need to look at the quotas and ask ourselves: Should we even have quotas in the some of the categories?” said David Salk, a member of the association, at the meeting.

He added that while food service quotas often bring the most contention from community members, the council should make an effort to send a referral to the planning commission to consider modifying the quota.

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said though he would like to see a “modernized quota,” zoning changes needed to redesign the quota system could take up to one year after the council sends a referral to the planning commission.

“The quota was made many years ago by taking an inventory of the businesses in the Elmwood Commercial District at the time,” he said. “It is a contentious issue, but I think the quota should be modernized. We need to talk with community members and merchants and reach a consensus.”