Sales taxes paid by downtown Berkeley retail stores fell 10 percent between June 2004 and June 2005, according to city figures.
“A full 10 percent is amazing. No, it’s alarming,” said Wells Lawson of Strategic Economics, recently hired by the city as a consultant to downtown development.
Downtown taxes lost to the city came to about $100,000 this year. City-wide, retail sales taxes fell in every business district except Solano Avenue. Even Fourth Street, regarded as Berkeley’s best-designed and best-run business district, showed a small fall-off.
Dave Fogarty, city coordinator of community development, and others blamed Internet sales.
“This is significant in Berkeley, because almost everyone in Berkeley now has access to the Internet,” Fogarty said.
Supporting this view are figures showing that, while downtown retail sales taxes plunged, taxes from downtown restaurants continue to slowly increase.
Downtown has other problems though, according to a presentation Dec. 1 attended by about 50 developers, planners, and business owners. Dena Belzer of Strategic Economics, which has also been hired by the city to redesign downtown’s BART plaza, listed the most prominent problems with downtown:
• Blocks that are too long. “Sometimes when I go there, it takes me a while to figure out where I am,” said Belzer, who lives in Berkeley.
• Cars using Shattuck Avenue as a thoroughfare and making alarming “turning movements.”
• Too many property owners—250 in downtown—who tend to interact as adversaries rather than cooperatively creating a sense of coherence.
• Lack of inviting public spaces.
Confronted with this, past planners haven’t always done well. An early and controversial idea was to cut down trees along Shattuck Avenue so merchants’ signs would be visible. This idea failed to take into account that Berkeley residents tend to like trees better than advertising.
A similar oversight occurred in the case of the Farmers’ Market, open every Saturday on Center Street next to Martin Luther King Jr. Park. Partly conceived as a way to attract customers to downtown, it has only succeeded in attracting customers to the Farmers’ Market.
“People who go there just stay there. They want to be near green,” said Assistant City Manager Michael Kaplan.
Lawson of Strategic Economics said the planning firm intends to be circumspect concerning the BART plaza.
“There’s a whole theory of design that says, ‘Don’t lay anything down officially until you see how people will really use the space,’” he said.
Landscape architects have a term for this: “desire paths.” Architects discovered that after they had designed and built a park and laid in their carefully planned pathways, people didn’t use them but wore into the grass their own “desire paths.”f