Fast food lovers tired of the same old grub may soon have a few more options downtown.
A central Berkeley merchants group asked the city’s Planning Commission Tuesday to recommend lifting a three-year-old moratorium on new fast food restaurants on University Avenue between Oxford Street and Martin Luther King Junior Way. And some city officials agree.
“It doesn’t seem like fast food proliferation is a problem anymore,” said Ted Burton of the city’s office of economic development.
City Council adopted the fast food moratorium in 1999 amid concerns of local restaurant owners that fast food and take-out restaurants were increasing in number and threatening to drive out their businesses.
There are about three fast food restaurants, according to city officials, on the disputed section of University Avenue, including national chains and independent shops.
Burton says the local business climate has changed markedly since 1999. He noted that the city has no pending applications for fast food restaurants downtown and that the Burger King on Shattuck and University avenues recently closed.
Planning commissioners, however, said they want more information about the moratorium before making a recommendation to City Council to life the restriction. They decided to schedule a public hearing on the matter, at an undetermined date.
Several commissioners expressed concern that lifting the moratorium would result in an influx of chain restaurants in the downtown.
“The balance of business is one of the wonderful things about this city,” said Commissioner Zelda Bronstein, noting that Berkeley’s General Plan calls for Berkeley to limit the development of chain stores.
Burton, however, said the city was prohibited from discriminating against any applicant and that he could not promise that chain restaurants would be excluded if the moratorium ended.
Although the Downtown Business Association, run by local merchants, supports lifting the moratorium, several University Avenue restaurant owners said they could not afford more competition.
“A lot of restaurants are going out business because there are too many,” said Manuche Fany, operator of Round Table Pizza. “The moratorium supports restaurant owners and helps us keep stores open and paying taxes to the city.”
Mehdi Kashef of Au Coquelet Cafe said that without a moratorium the city would fail to bring in different types of retailers. “It’s not in the public’s interest to have 10 shops serving the same thing on different plates,” he said.
The merchants have allies in City Council, which voted unanimously for the moratorium in 1999.
Councilmember Dona Spring, who represents downtown Berkeley, said that lifting the moratorium would unfairly blight University Avenue, while other major thoroughfares maintained strict limits
“Why should University Avenue become the dumping ground for fast food,” she asked, noting that College and Solano Avenues have quotas on the number of allowable fast food restaurants, and San Pablo Avenue has an outright ban.
Burton insisted that lifting the moratorium would not signify a city endorsement of fast food restaurants, but would only return fair market conditions to a thriving section of town.
“The quality of restaurants in the downtown has substantially improved,” Burton said.