Planners Pick New Chair, Hear Economic Report

By Richard Brenneman
Friday March 16, 2007

Berkeley’s Planning Commission gained a new chair Wednesday night, when incumbent David Stoloff, elected in a controversial coup in February, resigned the post and declared James Samuels his replacement. 

Stoloff’s election sparked bitter controversy, including accusations by ousted Chair Helen Burke that he had lied about his intentions of seeking the office. 

In resigning, Stoloff said he believed he would be more effective as a commission member than as an officer—exactly the reverse of what he’d said the day after his election. 

“I wanted to be chair because I have a vision of what the Planning Commission can do, and I believe I can be the most effective in implementing it,” Stoloff said at the time. 

But Wednesday night, he said that “at this time, I believe I can be more effective as a member than as one of its officer. I resign effective at the end of the meeting ... I expect that Jim Samuels will become chair.” 

Harry Pollack immediately moved for confirmation of Samuels, seconded by Larry Gurley. 

Commissioner Michael Sheen objected, saying he felt that an election shouldn’t be held until the commission’s next meeting because the item had been noticed in the agenda only as “Reconsideration of election of Commission officers” and not as an election. 

Stoloff said that because resignations weren’t covered in the city’s handbook for commissioners, the procedures dictated by Robert’s Rules of Order applied, and no notice of an election for vice chair was required. City Planning Manager Mark Rhoades agreed. 

“To avoid an ambiguity,” Pollack made a motion to formally elect Samuels to the position. When Commissioner Gene Poschman objected, Rhoades again backed the outgoing chair. Sheen objected again, and Pollack responded, “I made the motion, we’ll see what happens. Let’s vote and e done with it.” 

Sheen responded with a substitute motion to install Samuels as interim chair pending a new election for both positions. Poschman made the second, but the motion failed 6-3, with only Burke joining in. 

Pollack’s motion to confirm Samuels passed 6-3. 

“Gene, thanks for the vote of confidence,” said Samuels. 

“It’s better than you got at DAPAC,” Poschman responded, referring to a vote at the last meeting of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee where Samuels’ nomination by Chair Will Travis to serve on a joint subcommittee of DAPAC members and representatives of the Landmarks Preservation Commission was rejected by members—though the actual appointment is up to the City Council. 

The vote for vice chair was closer. Larry Gurley beat out Sheen on a five-four vote, with Roia Ferrazares—who nominated Sheen—joining Burke, Poschman and Sheen on the vote. 


Economic report 

Acting Director Michael Caplan and Dave Fogarty of the city Office of Economic Development briefed commissioners on their efforts to chart a more accurate picture of the state of Berkeley’s retail environment. 

Initially, efforts with the city’s Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) will plan the nature, location and size of business downtown and along Telegraph Avenue, with efforts spreading to the city’s three other BIDs and eventually throughout the city. 

Citywide, sales tax revenues for the 12-month span ending Sept. 30 of $13.2 million were up for the first time since the post-9/11 economic downturn, Fogarty said. Adjusted for inflation, the 3.2 percent increase from 2001 translates to a much less impressive one percent. 

By contrast, city officials in 2001 had predicted a figure of $16.67 million for 2006. 

“Restaurants are the only sector showing any tendency for increase, Fogarty said, and compromise the city’s dominant retail sector.  

“We have double the proportion of restaurant sales you would expect for a city of this size,” Fogarty said, and with 300 eateries with Berkeley city limits, that works out to about one restaurant for every 300 citizens. 

“Miscellaneous retail,” a category that includes most items but has been dominated in Berkeley by bookstores, is weak, with Internet sales eating heavily into the traditional bricks-and-mortar trade. 

“Bookstores used to be our strongest single sector, and Berkeley accounted for 80 percent of the book sales in Alameda County,” Fogarty said. “But bookstores are one of the most vulnerable sectors of the economy.” 

Another strong sector was recorded music, but it too is being heavily impacted by the availability of music online, he said. But two Berkeley chains are doing well, Amoeba and Rasputin’s, though the owners of both complain about conditions on Telegraph Avenue, he said. 

Employment is still two percent below 2001 levels, though the total number of jobs in the city—including self-employment—is about 79,000, though not all of the positions are filled by Berkeley residents. 

The hardest-hit sector is manufacturing, where employment is down 22 percent from 2001 level, “a striking loss,” Fogarty said. 

One of Berkeley’s strengths is that of the five largest employers, four are public institutions, ranking in order from UC Berkeley, to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to the city itself and the Berkeley Unified School District. 

The first private employer to make the list comes in fifth, Summit Alta Bates Medical Center/Herrick Hospital.  

“The other sector that’s doing well is construction products,” he said, while new car sales have declined—part of a national trend. 

Entertainment, one of Berkeley’s strongest economic sectors, yields almost no sales tax revenues, Fogarty said, because play and film admissions aren’t subject to the sales tax. 

Even then, Berkeley’s movie theaters have been impacted by another new phenomenon, the 16-screen AMC Bay Street multiplex in Emeryville, which has “overwhelming dominance” in the film trade.  

“It has totally eclipsed the theaters in Jack London Square and even the older” 10-screen United Artists multiplex in Emeryville. 

Dismissing Berkeley’s United Artists seven-screen Shattuck Avenue multiplex— “no one goes there but high school students”—Fogarty said Berkeley’s Landmarks-owned theaters are doing better because their fare, weighted heavily toward independent and foreign offerings, appeals more to Berkeley adults.