With almost no public examination a private, developer-driven organization with $10,000 in funding from the city has targeted a new property assessment for large swaths of West Berkeley. Bringing into question our foundational tenets of “one person, one vote,” and “no taxation without representation,” this effort appears to find its basis in that ever popular mutation of the golden rule: whoever owns the gold (property) makes the rules.
The West Berkeley Business Alliance (WBBA), comprised mostly of West Berkeley’s largest and most active development and real estate interests is proposing:
• A significant assessment on every piece of residential and commercial property in the industrial zones (including mixed-use residential) from University Avenue south to the Emeryville border in order to create a Community Benefits District (CBD);
• That this taxpayer-funded district act as a lobbying organization to “give input on proposed zoning issues” and “advocate on land use conflicts”;
• That this district be approved through a “weighted” petition and voting process where the “weight” of one’s vote is determined by how much property one owns;
• That the approval process provide no vote for businesses who are tenants, yet they can be required to pay the assessment if their lease, as is common, allows taxes and assessments to be passed through;
• That this district address issues that are arguably the responsibility of the city, including “security, parking, graffiti, sidewalk and street cleaning, tree planting, angled parking, storm system maintenance” and “social services to curb anti-social behavior in the public rights of way;”
• That the governing structure, although open in theory to all property owners, be one that historically has proven to be dominated by the largest interests that can pay their representatives to consistently participate;
• That instead of holding workshops to educate the public on an issue of such importance, the project be moved along rapidly with almost no community outreach
The now-complete first stage of this process, a WBBA commissioned survey to gauge support for a Community Benefit District, was sent to West Berkeley’s industrial zone property owners in February. The survey’s WBBA authors were, among others, West Berkeley’s largest developer, Rich Robbins of Wareham Corporation, Steven Block, Don Yost and John Norheim, the most active commercial brokers in West Berkeley, and Doug Herst, whose Peerless development is presently being promoted. The survey posited that “security, parking, cleanliness, and infrastructure deterioration have all become… challenging,” and “in response to these challenges”…WBBA ”had settled on the assessment district model,” and went on to pose 10 questions regarding these issues.
Interestingly, the survey did not address costs, but the little now known about them points to their being significant. Marco Li Mandri of New city America, the consultant hired by the WBBA to establish the proposed district, declined to give a figure of what a commercial or industrial property owner might pay, but said that a typical 1,000-square-foot house on a 3,000-square-foot lot would pay $180-$360 a year. Steven Goldin of the WBBA stated that $150 would be typical for a residence. These amounts may seem trivial to some, yet are significant sums for many residents in the mixed-use residential (MUR) zone who bought homes when these were affordable, working-class neighborhoods but could never dream of buying in now.
The results of the survey, the approval process’s first stage, revealed so much opposition north of University Avenue that this area has been excluded from the proposed district. In the next stage, all property owners within the WBBA’s “finalized” boundaries will receive a petition. Here the process becomes curiouser and curiouser. According to Mr. Li Mandri, this petition is mandated by the California constitution to be “weighted,” where the more property one owns the more “weight” one’s signature receives. The exact “weight” is determined by a formula (created by the WBBA’s CBD steering committee) potentially involving lot and building size, use, and linear feet of street frontage. If over 30 percent (by “weight,” not number) of property owners sign the petition, the City Council will vote on whether to conduct the third and final stage, a mail-in ballot vote. Having already given the WBBA $10,000 to jump-start the process, this approval would seem foregone. With the final vote also “weighted,” one property owner’s single vote, let’s say Wareham (with tens of acres and hundreds of thousands of square feet of built space) can take precedence over hundreds of residents and small property owners, requiring whole neighborhoods that might vote no on the assessment to pay it against their will. Another crucial point left unmentioned in the survey is that many businesses who rent, with no say in the approval process, will nevertheless be required by their commercial leases to pay the assessment.
The proposal that this taxpayer-funded CBD act as a lobbying entity on land use and development issues is highly unusual. Of the 43 districts that Li Mandri has been involved with, only two concern themselves with these issues which are outside the traditional concerns of these districts, cleanliness, beautification and security. Land use in West Berkeley is a hotly contested subject with varied opinions on the efficacy and future of the West Berkeley Plan. Through their advocacy and membership the WBBA has consistently demonstrated the perspective of development and real estate interests. This is their right, but asking taxpayers to fund these efforts is not. The following list of some of the WBBA’s activities would seem a reasonable indication of their future efforts and highlights the question of whether the public funding of an entity under control of this advocacy group is proper or in the public interest.
• When 37 businesses along Ashby Avenue, together with the vast majority of residents in the immediate vicinity of the West Berkeley Bowl, requested that the city and Bowl consider traffic mitigations and a store no larger than other Berkeley supermarkets, the WBBA insisted the Bowl be approved as proposed, with no concern for the economic, safety, and traffic issues raised.
• WBBA played a seminal role in efforts to change the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance to more easily facilitate development by reducing its ability to protect historic structures.
• Against the interests of 100 industrial and artisan business and their 2,000 employees along the Gilman and Ashby corridors, the WBBA supports changing the zoning to retail, potentially further endangering the economic health of the city’s struggling retail districts.
• WBBA members have been involved in the eviction of the Durkee tenants, the threatened eviction of the Fantasy filmmakers, and played various roles in the situations that resulted in the loss of the Nexus and Drayage artists.
Though the structure of the CBD appears democratic, the demonstrated history of such entities reveals a different story. Controlling authority lies in a non-profit management corporation overseen by an open (to assessed property owners) advisory board, but experience shows that those with the largest stakes, like development interests, pay their representatives to consistently participate, thus assuring organizational control. Average citizens with family and work have little time or energy to consistently volunteer, making their participation sporadic and ineffectual. The WBBA’s confidence in ultimate control of the CBD is evidenced by their investment of tens of thousands of dollars (beyond allocated city monies) in its creation and their control of the process through their CBD steering committee.
Though the CBD states it will fund services “over and above those currently provided by the city,” all proposed services, save transportation, are already within the city’s purview. Would newly harvested monies be better directed to the city where there already exists a transparent, democratic process in place for their allocation? Except for the controversial “social services to curb anti-social behavior in the public rights of way,” the cleanliness, beautification and security concerns are valid, but do most West Berkeley property owners see them as deserving of more of their hard earned dollars than they already pay the city for such services? Security is an ongoing concern, but unlike a gated community, West Berkeley has requested more police as a solution, not security guards with questionable training, background, and no real public oversight.
Most assessment districts are traditionally structured as Business Improvement Districts (BID), where the businesses are similar and thus share similar concerns. This CBD encompasses such a large, diverse area that any homogeneity is precluded and structural conflict is the likely result. Finally:
Should a taxpayer-funded, developer inspired private organization be empowered to lobby the city on development issues?
Who pays and how much?
Who gets to vote on the CBD’s creation, and is that vote fair?
Should a private organization or the city be responsible for the proposed tasks?
Is organizational and fiscal control of the proposed CBD truly democratic?
This commentary is hopefully just the beginning of a much-needed discussion to answer these and other questions. On a topic with potentially profound economic and social consequences for our community one might expect the sponsoring organization to hold interactive educational public workshops, but this hasn’t occurred. WEBAIC, West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, representing the interests of hundreds of businesses and their thousands of employees in West Berkeley, calls for slowing down this process enough to allow for a full and transparent examination of the proposed Community Benefits District. Berkeley deserves no less.
Rick Auerbach writes on behalf of WEBAIC, a non-profit trade organization representing West Berkeley industry, artisans, and artists, originally created with assistance from the city of Berkeley. WEBAIC receives no funding from any governmental source.