Despite having the potential customer base of Marin’s second-largest city, the shops, restaurants and services of downtown Novato’s Grant Avenue have struggled to find their identity and deliver on the promise of an $11 million street revitalization and the coming of Whole Foods and new townhomes. But the tide seems to be turning and many merchants are looking to a more hopeful future.
One such businessman is Goetz Boje, owner of Novato’s Cacti as well as Harris’s steak house in San Francisco. “My business partner and I would always drive by this location and think, ‘this could be a great place,’” Boje says of the charming 1937 church with a vaulted wood ceiling that housed the failed Santa Fe Mary’s and many other businesses including a bank. He took the spot over in 1991, gutted and remodeled it and opened up the 96-seat (with 40 more outside) steak, seafood and pasta house.
“We are in a suburban location and that comes with ups and downs,” the Novato resident says. Boje points to the vacant building nearby and says it has been that way for years. “The streets are nice but we need more tenants and foot traffic and a more streamlined approval process for new businesses.
“But we are still running and still going. We’ve had a good run,” he says, pointing out that he has made the restaurant business his life’s work since 1958. “It is a great experience; I don’t regret it one bit. And this is a great town to raise a family in.”
Jan Morris, who also raised a family in Novato and has run the Morris & Company gift shop on Grant Avenue since 2007, has seen a rise in foot traffic since Whole Foods opened this year. “It has been a big benefit for us and boosted patronage,” she says of the opening. “And a lot of people who now come in have never seen the store before.”
Indeed, the decision to stay in the current location, a 1908 Victorian building at the very end of Grant Avenue, seems to have been a good one as Whole Foods customers pass her shop every day as they walk to the store or park their cars in the new lot. “It was a temporary location but we fell in love with the character of the building,” she says.
Jan and her retired husband, Austin, have lived in Novato for 32 years and decided to start the shop as an extension of Jan’s painted glassware business. “Starting a business is like childbirth,” she says. “You can read all you want about it but there is nothing like actually doing it.”
Jan believes that stores in the area need to stay open later and, like her own establishment, which is open seven days a week, need to remain open on weekends. “I think we get customers coming up to this area because people can’t find boutiques anymore,” she says about the attractiveness of Grant Avenue. “People like boutiques; they like to go shopping and have lunch with their friends.”
The Morrises point to the mix of stores, the addition of new businesses like Powell’s Sweet Shoppe, restaurants with outdoor seating, recent relocations and renovations and community events like the farmers’ market and the annual car show as signs that things are looking up for Grant Avenue.
Local real estate agent and new council member Denise Athas, who joined the council last year to help “make Novato a thriving city again,” is also optimistic about downtown’s future.
“Grant is in the middle of changing,” she says. “Lots of business owners are their own employees these days.”
Athas agrees that shops need to stay open later and on weekends for commuters (Whole Foods is open until 9 p.m. nightly) but says signs are pointing towards a renaissance on Grant Avenue as more shops come in, others expand and renew their looks and the corridor moves to a better balance between service and retail.
According to Athas, the 124 townhomes and flats at Millworks (part of the Whole Foods development) are almost all rented, Duarteau Boutique is moving from San Rafael to Grant Avenue, Once and Again is moving to a larger space, Circle Bank is coming into 999 Grant, which also opens a space for a new restaurant and, the big news, the Novato Theater is in contract to open with two theaters inside. Bernice Baeza, the owner of the successful Lark Theater, hopes to relight the lights at the historic location.
“The theater would be incredible; it has been vacant for almost 20 years,” Athas says. “It’s been a long while coming. This would bring entertainment and vitality to the area.”
In terms of the real estate market in the surrounding city, things are about on par with last year; 257 single family homes sold for an average price of about $560,000 while 136 townhomes sold with an average price of about $281,000. The developer at Millworks has elected to rent the one-, two- and three-bedroom units, as sales were slow. To date only a few units are still available, for prices ranging from $1,750 to $2,950 per month.