Keeping Up with What's Not Working

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday May 25, 2010 - 11:07:00 AM

The demise of coverage of Berkeley’s commission meetings by news outlets, including this one, makes it desirable or even mandatory for anyone who’s interested in local public policy (estimated to be about 1000 of our 113,000 citizens) to watch meetings as online video. Currently that’s only possible for city council and the zoning adjustment board, both of which meet in the wired-for-video city council chambers in the Maudelle Shirek building. 

There’s a choice of watching in real time (streaming video) or afterwards, which is easier, because you can jump over the dull parts and go quickly to the livelier bits, if, of course, you know what they might be. For example, if you wonder what’s happening to your local shopping area, whether that’s Telegraph or Elmwood or Solano, you really ought to watch just a bit of last week’s Zoning Adjustment Board meeting, which can be found here. 

The topic of interest was the discussion of whether or not the board should grant a variance to permit the fourth yogurt shop in a three block area around Telegraph, this one an outpost of a Southern California chain. It’s number 9 on the agenda. 

A bit of background: in the interest of keeping a diversity of suppliers in local, presumably walkable, shopping areas, the city council in its wisdom once upon a time established a quota system for various kinds of businesses in especially threatened areas. In principle, this is a good thing. 

When we moved to the Elmwood, back in the halcyon days of houses affordable on an assistant professor’s salary, there was a genuine hardware store on College near Ashby, as well as a movie house, a variety store, two pharmacies and a clothing store that catered to old ladies and their grandchildren (before I was a grandmother myself). There was even a theater that the kids could walk to on their own and pay for out of their allowances, the original Berkeley Repertory Theater, in the days before it became a downtown pre-Broadway tryout house with a bridge-and-tunnel audience. 

Telegraph, then as now, was decried by sober citizens because it had at least one head shop with attendant consumers and a leather-and-chains establishment, but it also had a variety of other businesses, including an art movie house.. It had gone “downhill” enough that we were able to install a few programmers in a cheap rent upstairs office space and start a software company in a location convenientto the UC campus, Cody’s and of course The Med. 

In the thirty years ago since then, most of the locally owned service businesses have disappeared from shopping areas like these. As city mothers and fathers noticed that shoppers were increasingly driving to the new Orchard Supply Hardware with the big parking lot near the freeway, or even worse, to the Home Depot on the Oakland-Emeryville border, where Berkeley didn’t even collect the sales tax, the quota system seemed like a good idea. The theory, then and now, has been that when necessities can be purchased in the neighborhoods both energy and revenue can be saved. 

But, to bend a cliché, then was then and now is now. Now, we’re in the middle of a monster recession, and small businesses are dropping like flies. At the Planet we watched, all too many times, the painful cycle of small retailers first cutting back on print advertising, then dropping it altogether, and not too long afterwards closing their doors, a phenomenon with the spillover effect of the decline of our own small business and others dependent on retail for their livelihood. 

In food-obsessed Berkeley, eateries seem to be the survivors of the moment. Commercial landlords are having trouble finding viable retail tenants of any kind, especially if they want to keep their rents up to a level which justifies their entanglement in dubious mortgages, or to use their losses in one building to avoid taxes by balancing them against profits on other locations. Chain or franchise food stores are especially alluring, because they offer tenants backed by the business skills of large organizations instead of the possibly dubious wisdom of mom and pop trying to re-invent the wheel. 

Also, the enormous over-building of the last few years has produced a glut of apartments in the urban East Bay. Often, these unrentable apartments have been required by short-sighted planners to provide retail space on their first floors, even harder to rent than apartments. A quick walk down Telegraph in Berkeley provides a graphic display of the number of empty storefronts, and if the BRT proponents have their way it’s only going to get worse. 

At the ZAB meeting Sophie Hahn, sitting in as a substitute commissioner, gave a quick, intelligent and lucid summary of what the problems are, well worth watching (it’s just after marker 4.12 in item 9 on the video). Hahn asked, pointedly, what the city of Berkeley did to advise and help local independent retailers succeed, and got a quick answer: nothing. 

Some of the other commissioners also did a good job of stating the problem. Most said they felt that they were charged with weighing the detriment to the community of an empty storefront against the detriment caused by a proliferation of cookie cutter franchise snack food purveyors and the absence of service retailers before they decided whether to grant a variance from the quota system. They agreed that the system’s not working—the problem is that they can’t change the law, they can only interpret it. 

Changing laws when needed is the responsibility of the Planning Commission and the City Council. Councilmember Jesse Arreguin has been advancing the smart suggestion that a commercial vacancy tax could correct the problem of speculators banking empty storefronts listed at unrealistically high rents, a practice which might be lucrative for individual owners but is bad for the overall business climate in commercial areas. 

Kriss Worthington has taken an active interest in the problems of Telegraph Avenue in his own district. 

But the rest of the Council is deeply into reactive mode, advancing no creative new ideas of any kind. The latest draft of the downtown plan backed by the Mayor for submission to voters as an initiative is mostly platitudes, with few specific proposals or requirements. Arreguin and Planning Commissioners Patti Dacey and Gene Poschmann have been working on a better initiative based on the work of the Downtown Area Planning Advisory Committee. It will provide concrete provisions for improvement for downtown Berkeley, but won’t be ready in time for the next election in November. 

The rest of the Planning Commission, instead of thinking about how it can help local independents, is currently engaged in a mad dash to rezone West Berkeley as high rise office buildings for envisioned research spinoffs of UC Berkeley’s green-washed alliance with BP. (That’s getting to be a harder sell every day as the gulf oil catastrophe continues.). 

Local manufacturers and local retailers in West Berkeley seem to be entirely off their radar, even though the 4th Street retail district continues against all odds to produce a respectable share of the city’s total sales tax revenue. And Planning Commission meetings are neither reported nor televised these days. 

Berkeley as a whole continues in its patented strategy of Deep Denial. On the one hand, foodie celebrities who happen to enjoy Berkeley addresses seek and find major national ink with their recommendations for shopping local and growing veggies in every urban back yard and vacant lot. On the other hand they sit idly by as their local officials are blithely rezoning every available square inch in the flatlands as building sites for structures which will fatally shade such food gardens, a strategy greenwashed by claims of proximity to future transit nodes to serve phantom passengers. Locavore gurus domiciled in Berkeley continue to denounce fast food chains, oblivious of the economic situation that persuades Berkeley zoning commissioners that they must make room for more of them. 

Contradictions abound. Stores that patrons can walk to are a good idea, but thoughtless transit schemes like AC Transit’s BRT proposal could destroy them in a flash. Quota systems protect neighborhood businesses in good economies, but they break down in a recession. Infill housing is touted as a way of saving farmland on the periphery, but it can ruin urban farming. 

What’s needed now are candidates with the nerve and charisma to articulate a unified strategy for the urban East Bay in general and Berkeley in particular that takes into account a variety of environmental perspectives, all of which seem valuable in isolation but which conflict in execution. There’s a city council election in November—is there anyone around who can offer leadership in these crucial decision areas?