Staring in the face of a potential $1.4 million loss in annual sales tax revenue, Berkeley Planning Commissioners decided to look further into a plan to set up portions of West Berkeley as auto sales zones after hearing a bleak preliminary report from city staff at the commission’s regular meeting Wednesday night.
The changes are being urged by Mayor Tom Bates.
On a motion from commission member Susan Wengraf, commissioners authorized a workshop in which city staff, residents, auto dealer representatives, and other interested parties would be able to share information and give their views on the subject. No date was set for the workshop.
“While I’m very supportive of the West Berkeley Plan, for $1.5 million I might just cave in,” Commissioner Gene Poschman said in supporting moving forward with a study of the proposal.
But at least preliminarily, neither staff nor commissioners appeared in favor of a large concentration of dealers in one auto mall-type location or large tracts of land for individual dealerships, either.
“We won’t be necessarily looking at four acre sites,” said Land Use Planning Manager Mark Rhoades. “We’d try to get the sizes down considerably.”
Planning Commission Chairperson Harry Pollack said, “None of us have a vision of big, sprawling lots. We’d like this to be as unsprawled as possible.”
No auto dealer appeared at Wednesday’s commission meeting to make their case, and no resident spoke specifically against the proposed study. Both of those situations are expected to change as the proposal moves forward.
Berkeley has five new-vehicle dealerships accounting for 11 percent of the city’s sales tax revenue. The largest, Weatherford BMW, is located at the foot of Ashby Avenue. Three others—McKevitt Volvo Nissan, Berkeley Honda, and Toyota of Berkeley—are located along a small stretch of Shattuck Avenue between Channing Way and Derby Street, and the fifth, McNevin Cadillac & Volkswagen, is on San Pablo Avenue north of University Avenue.
Berkeley Community Development Project Coordinator Dave Fogarty told commissioners that because of economic pressures coming principally from the dealership’s national offices, the city is at significant risk of losing four of the five.
Fogarty said that Weatherford BMW is on property owned by Berkeley Toyota, with a lease set to expire in four years. He said that Weatherford is “definitely pursuing an alternative site in Berkeley” and already has a potential property in mind.
He noted that the dealership is being wooed by Oakland, which is looking towards a possible relocation of its Broadway Auto Row to property that formerly formed part of the Oakland Army Base.
According to Fogarty, two of the remaining dealerships are in short-term leased space.
“They’re reluctant to invest in property that they don’t own or they can’t get a long-term lease on,” he said, and reported that the dealerships are under pressure to relocate to “more competitive locations” either inside or outside Berkeley, with the Volvo portion of the McKevitt dealership looking at moving to Emeryville.
One of those other auto dealers “is also pursuing property in West Berkeley, but it would be a leap of faith for them to do so without a change in zoning,” Fogarty said.
Only Toyota is likely to remain in Berkeley if the circumstances do not change, Fogarty said, with a probable move to its Ashby property once Weatherford BMW’s lease ends.
New auto sales are limited to restricted areas of Berkeley, with a staff reporter from Assistant City Planner Jordan Harrison noting that “few sites available in these areas suit the needs of dealerships.”
In addition, Harrison wrote that several of the available locations that were originally zoned for new auto sales “do not seem appropriate for auto uses today, as this large land use does not fit in well with the urban design or neighborhood context of these areas, particularly along Shattuck, Telegraph and University avenues.”
Planning staff suggested several possible zoning changes, but said it was too early in the process to make recommendations. Among the suggested possible zoning changes to entice auto dealerships to stay in Berkeley were:
• Allowing large auto dealerships in West Berkeley around each of the I-80 exits and as far east as 10th Street.
• Focusing the dealerships north of Virginia Street and mainly west of Third Street.
• Allowing dealerships in specific “overlay” districts along Frontage Road and Second Street and within close proximity to the Gilman and Ashby Avenue interchanges with I-80.
• Allowing dealerships within 2,000 feet of the Gilman and Ashby I-80 interchanges, but not near University Avenue or along Frontage Road or Second Street.›