“It was a shock,” Tom Bates told the New York Times, “that an institution like Cody’s was closing.” What’s really shocking is the mayor’s surprise at this turn of events. Since Mr. Bates took office in December 2002, the precarious state of independent bookstores and the deterioration of Telegraph Avenue have been obvious to anyone who cared to look. Tom Bates simply hasn’t paid attention. It’s a safe bet that if Andy Ross hadn’t announced in May that Cody’s flagship would close in July, and if the mayor weren’t up for re-election in four and a half months, Mr. Bates would still be ignoring both Telly and its struggling merchants, just as he’s ignored the city’s other neighborhood shopping districts and small businesses—when he hasn’t actually harmed them.
At the City Council’s June 13 meeting, Tom Bates made the most blatantly anti-business move yet of his mayoralty: He turned a blind eye to a petition signed by Ashby Lumber, Scharffen Berger Chocolate, Inkworks Press, Urban Ore and 23 other businesses in the vicinity of 920 Heinz St., the site of the coming West Berkeley Bowl. The petitioners had asked the city to do an economic impact analysis before acting on the new Bowl. The mayor also failed to acknowledge the request of the West Berkeley Traffic and Safety Coalition, made up of businesses and residents, that the city approve a smaller (68,815 square feet) neighborhood-scale store and insist on traffic mitigations.
Everyone agrees that the West Berkeley residents want, need and deserve a neighborhood grocery. But at 91,000 square feet, the new facility will be no neighborhood market; it’s a regional superstore over twice as big as the existing Bowl. The environmental impact report says the project will generate 50,000 vehicle trips a week. Traffic at Ashby and Seventh Street is already often backed up for blocks. Those 50,000 weekly auto trips will make it that much harder for customers and suppliers to reach nearby businesses.
You’d think a mayor would do everything possible to protect his city’s longtime, stable firms with hundreds of employees, especially when business is leaving that city in alarming numbers. Next month, Berkeley will lose not only Cody’s on Telegraph but Radston’s, which has been selling office supplies on Shattuck Avenue for 98 years. Next year Ifshin’s Violins, reportedly the largest violinmaker in the western United States, will move from its 25-year location on University Avenue to El Cerrito. Last June Phoenix Optical, another one-of-a-kind retailer, departed its 47-year site in downtown Berkeley for a College Avenue storefront in Rockridge. Since Tom Bates became mayor, Berkeley has lost two other respected and venerable independent bookstores, Shambhala and Easy Going. At the same time, many of the storefronts in the big, new mixed-used projects that have sprung up all over town are plastered with “For Lease” signs.
Against this dismaying backdrop, Mayor Bates’ snubbing of the 27 West Berkeley companies seems bizarre, until you realize that with one exception (auto dealers), the only kind of business he’s promoted for the past three and a half years has been big real estate development. (Before entering public office, Mr. Bates worked in real estate.) The coming Wal-Mart-sized Bowl is the opening wedge of his stated plan to commercialize Gilman and Ashby west of San Pablo. Those two streets back up against areas that are home to a hundred manufacturing firms and thousands of jobs. Turning west Gilman and west Ashby into retail strip malls would hit Berkeley business with a double whammy: First, it would drive up rents and thereby drive out both industry and the artists and artisans who depend on industrial zoning to keep their rents affordable. Second, it would pull customers away from the city’s neighborhood shopping districts.
I expect Mayor Bates to defend this scheme by pointing to City Hall’s fiscal straits and observing that retail yields much more sales tax than manufacturing. But government is supposed to serve the citizenry, not the other way around. Instead of changing Berkeley’s economy in order to support the city’s government, we ought to change the city’s government in order to better support Berkeley’s economic specialties—neighborhood commercial districts stocked with unique, locally owned shops; and a rich array of light industry, artists and artisans, ranging from bakeries to woodworkers to printers to musical instrument-makers. Yes, the city needs revenue—keeping our auto dealerships in town is a priority—and it needs development. But pursuit of those goals must respect and enhance Berkeley’s unique character, economic and otherwise.
As Berkeley mayor, I will:
• Replace the current ad hoc, piecemeal approach to business with long-range, comprehensive economic policymaking and planning. Consider the cumulative, neighborhood- and city-wide impacts of proposed development. The delays in getting business permits are legendary; cut the red tape. At the same time protect community control of quality of life and public space. For large projects, run a stakeholder-based planning process modeled on the admirable 2004 UC Hotel/Conference Center Citizens Advisory Group. Balance the need for revenue with the city’s other economic goals, including the promotion of a strong industrial base; support for independent, locally owned and neighborhood-serving business; and the provision of varied jobs with a range of skill levels for Berkeley residents.
• Make Berkeley businesses more accessible. Set parking meters to a minimum of 90 minutes. Make UC’s many under-used parking facilities easier for the general public to use. Install computerized signage directing motorists to currently available parking in downtown’s private and public garages. Reduce and perhaps eliminate guaranteed parking for city employees in commercial districts. Promote alternatives to the car: fund a free shoppers’ shuttle; install bicycle parking for customers in city garages, lots and other available locations; provide safe and convenient pedestrian crossings in business districts.
• Implement effective street safety and civility programs throughout the city, not just on Telegraph. Enforce existing city laws against aggressive behavior in public. Add mental health workers to help people whose behavior is problematic. Restore the beat cop to the Alcatraz/Adeline shopping district. Adequately patrol Downtown. Work with UC and city police to prevent drug dealing. Institute genuine community policing.
• Promote Berkeley’s unique merchants and neighborhood shopping districts through imaginative, year-round marketing events. How about an annual citywide “Independents’ Day” celebration that featured the city’s local owned and operated shops? Or a Berkeley Booksellers’ Fair? Berkeley has some of the best textile arts stores in the nation. Why not stage a yearly Berkeley in Stitches festival that publicizes our fabric, knitting and other needlecraft businesses?
• Uphold the industrial zoning that keeps West Berkeley affordable to the city’s hundreds of manufacturing firms and numerous artisans and artists.
• Help artists find affordable space. Enforce the Arts & Crafts ordinance, which requires landlords who evict artists and artisans to find their former tenants comparable space in West Berkeley. Help artists buy their own buildings.
• Debunk the myth that Berkeley industry is dead. Display the products of Berkeley manufacturers, artists and artisans on a rotating basis in an attractive, high-visibility venue. Hold a yearly Berkeley Industrial and Artisanal Exposition that shows off the things that are made in Berkeley and the people and businesses that make them.
• Do more local procurement. The city government should be purchasing locally produced goods and services, fiscal and other relevant considerations permitting. Today Berkeley businesses get extra points only for bids of $25,000 or less. Expand the Buy Berkeley policy to cover bids over $25,000. Regularly monitor the city’s purchases of locally-produced goods and services, and make the results a matter of public record.
• Revive the Office of Economic Development. This once-energetic and innovative city bureau has shrunk to a shadow of its former self. The OED no longer does general business retention. Its citywide loan and façade improvement programs have lapsed. A reinvigorated OED should supplement the work of the various business improvement districts (BIDs) with citywide support for Berkeley enterprise. Hire staff that know how to do business attraction and retention, and have them do it.
Former Planning Commission Chair Zelda Bronstein is a candidate for mayor of Berkeley (www.zeldaformayor.org).
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