Commentary: Parking, Reputation Harm Downtown By CHRIS REGALIA

Friday December 23, 2005

I was watching the news last night and saw a piece on the plight caused by the recent rains and the inadequacy of the Berkeley sewer system. The piece pointed out that the systems can’t be fixed due to the drop in sales tax revenue Berkeley is experiencing.  

This reminded me of the article by Al Winslow in the Dec. 13 Daily Planet pointing to the 10 percent drop in sales tax revenues in the past year. In that article Mr. Winslow cites several reasons for the drop as proffered by city officials and consultants. What alarms me is not the drop itself, but the fact that everyone wants to look for answers that are outside of their control to free them of blame.  

The Internet is cited as the major reason, based on the fact that “almost everyone in Berkeley has access to the Internet.” Other reasons given are that the blocks are too long, cars use Shattuck as a thoroughfare, and there are too many property owners. While these might be fine excuses, they totally miss the obvious problems facing Berkeley. 

Most every community and resident in the San Francisco Bay Area has broad access to the Internet, but is every community experiencing as significant a drop in sales tax revenue? Perhaps that is a question that should have been asked.  

As far as I know the blocks have been the same length for decades, businesses generally benefit from being on thoroughfares and property owners generally will work cooperatively when there is a benefit to doing so. 

While I don’t profess to have all the answers, it would seem that the city should look to more practical solutions to the problem. I would suggest that one of the major problems facing Berkeley is parking. People will not come and shop unless there is convenient parking. As much as a city would like people to use public transportation, the majority of consumers are going to go where they can park because they don’t want to carry packages on public transit. If you do not want to face that reality you can expect to see your business erode. I would point to the thriving businesses in downtown Walnut Creek, where you will see that the city has provided not only ample parking, but also much of it is free. Berkeley on the other hand is hiring more parking enforcement officers. 

Another issue facing Berkeley is its anti-business reputation. Before I go too much further I must point out that I am an employee of Berkeley Honda, the subject of many letters to the editor of this paper. No matter what your opinion is of the situation at Berkeley Honda it still serves to clearly illustrate the point I wish to make about the anti-business reputation. That point has nothing to do with the issues facing the union or the owners, and everything to do with the city’s position in the dispute. As a supporter of Berkeley Honda I would have been thrilled (albeit shocked) if the city had chosen to support the owners. As a reasonable and common sense businessman I am flabbergasted at the city’s support of the “boycott.” Not because I think they are on the wrong side (which I do) but because they have forfeited their opportunity to play the role that city governments should play. The only position a government should take in a labor dispute, especially at the outset (and without all of the facts), would be to remain neutral. It is by not taking sides that allows a city to be an arbiter. Being an arbiter is the only way a city can best serve all of its constituencies, and all of the constituencies deserve to be served. There are many in this community who applaud the city’s “fortitude” in standing up for the cause of the union and against the owners, and that is fine. You may not like business, but without thriving businesses a city cannot survive. Absent a city government that encourages them, businesses will go elsewhere.  

I am not saying that settlement of the Berkeley Honda situation is the answer to Berkeley’s problems. What I am saying is it is a symptom of a much deeper problem. The city chose to take sides, and the dispute is now over six months old. While it is not entirely the fault of the city for the length of time the dispute has gone on, its support has certainly fanned the flames and emboldened the protesters to reduce the rhetoric to name calling and misrepresentations. What I do fault the city for is taking a position that eradicated any possibility of playing a role in ending the dispute. In the process it has furthered its reputation as an anti-business city. 

Take a drive through Emeryville or look at the development in Albany and you will see many businesses that Berkeley has discouraged and proudly done so. I drive through Emeryville and see millions of tax dollars that should be staying in Berkeley had the city leaders found ways to make business work. Fortitude is an admirable quality but is also politically expedient. When it comes to this issue it is easy to obtain and even easier to boast about. All you have to do is say “no” to business and put a bumper sticker on your car supporting the boycott of one of the largest tax revenue generators in the city.  

I have two questions for city leaders, how much does that fortitude really cost and how do you expect to pay for it? Based on the issues raised in the television reports of the rainstorm, the answer to the first question is “an awful lot”; based on Mr. Winslow’s article, the answer to the second question is “We have no clue.” 


Chris Regalia is an employee of Berkeley Honda.