In an about-face Wednesday, the Planning Commission suspended its support of a Transportation Services Fee (TSF) program, and recommended that the City Council follow suit.
Commissioners voted 5-4 in favor of a motion urging the City Council to reject the program, which would charge developers for projects that would impact the city’s vehicular traffic. Those fees would go toward alternative transportation programs and projects.
Commissioner Harry Pollack, who made the motion, identified Berkeley’s economic downturn as a rationale for rejecting the program, saying extra costs could motivate developers to take their business elsewhere.
“Now is not the time to impose a fee like this,” he said.
Commissioners Susan Wengraf, Jordan deStaebler, James Samuels and Larry Gurley agreed. Commissioners David Stoloff, Helen Burke, Mike Sheen and Gene Poschman dissented.
In November, the commission expressed theoretical support for the program but quibbled with details of the proposed fee schedule. City staff from the transportation, planning and economic development departments compromised on a revised proposal that decreases fees overall, differentiates between new and change-of-use development, and reduces the fees for “priority uses” or projects that various city plans deem crucial to Berkeley’s economic well-being.
The monies collected through the program would support marketing and incentive campaigns to encourage alternative forms of transportation, transit service and signage improvements, and bicycle and pedestrian facilities.
But on Wednesday, a procession of public comment from members of the business and development community swayed several commissioners to rethink the program altogether.
The Telegraph Business Improvement District opposes the fees “in totality,” said Executive Director Roland Peterson, dropping the “C” word (Cody’s, the popular Telegraph Avenue bookstore slated to close in July) as evidence for why the city must do everything in its power to spur, not deter, economic development.
Developer Patrick Kennedy concurred.
“The regulatory thicket one has to go through for a small business or office is far worse now than it’s ever been,” he said. “I would like to exhort the Planning Commission to not think of yet another regulation, but think what can you prune to revitalize districts.”
Representatives from the Downtown Berkeley Association and the West Berkeley Business Association, the vice president of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce and others also lambasted the program.
According to Dave Fogarty, the city’s community economic development project coordinator, retail sales in the city of Berkeley have dropped significantly. In 2005, the city brought in about $12.8 million in sales tax revenue. In 2000, that figure was closer to $14 million—or more than $15 million when adjusted for inflation, Fogarty said.
Commissioner Burke pointed out that the city’s economy spiraled downward without the help of the TSF program. “The economic situation is somewhat independent of having a fee,” she said.
Commissioner Stoloff called Pollack’s motion “embarrassing,” and floated an alternative that would initiate the program only if sales tax dips below a threshold and certain exemptions are granted (to change-of-use projects, for example). That motion failed.
Public supporters of the TSF program were notably absent from Wednesday’s meetings. One commissioner ventured the guess that they’re saving their ammunition for City Council meetings, where the final decision will be cast. The council is expected to weigh in on the fee program July 11.