Planners Reject Ban on Fast Food Chains on Telegraph

By Richard Brenneman
Friday May 11, 2007

If a Burger King wants to set up shop on Telegraph Avenue, the Berkeley Planning Commission decided Wednesday night that they’re not inclined to block it, though they don’t expect the fast food chain to open up on Berkeley’s emblematic commercial street. 

The issue before the commission was a staff proposal drawn up in response to comments commissioners made at the March 28 meeting after they voted 5-4 to adopt new rules that would ease quota-busting on the avenue. 

Those changes are currently slated to go before the City Council for final adoption on June 12. 

The existing ordinance, adopted in 1985, sets strict quotas on the numbers and types of business allowed in the Telegraph Commercial District. 

Immediately after the March vote, commissioners Susan Wengraf and Harry Pollack said they might be willing to reconsider the requirements for findings in the revised ordinance they’d just approved. Findings spell out the reasons for granting variances from existing quotas. 

The main concerns of commissioners were about the “quick service” restaurant category, zoning-code-speak for fast food eateries. 

Associate Planner Jordan Harrison drew up a series of four options that could tighten the proposed rules to make it more difficult to open quick service and other so-called “formula restaurants” in the district. 

The choices ranged from an outright ban to the no-change option ultimately accepted. 

A lawyer representing the owners of the Granada Building at the southeast corner of Telegraph and Bancroft Way told commissioners her clients were “strongly opposed to any new restrictions on business in the area.” 

Robia Chang, representing Munger Properties, said a ban on formula restaurants “would present itself as another barrier to businesses.” 

Roland Peterson, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, said his organization “opposes all quotas in the district. A ban on formula restaurants is just another restriction on business,” and contradicts efforts of Mayor Tom Bates and City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli to aid the district, he said. 

“I am an immediate past president of the California Downtown Association,” he said, “and we have found that the most successful downtowns have a mixture of formula and unique restaurants.” 

While Wengraf said she thought that with a little editing the commission might be able to adopt a recommendation to forward to the council, in the end the commissioners decided not to act. 

Vice Chair Larry Gurley said there probably wasn’t any reason to worry, noting that city Planning Manager Mark Rhoades had told the commission earlier that Berkeley was perhaps the only town in the U.S. where Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken had closed their franchises. 

The permit regulations changes as now proposed will make it easier for new businesses to avoid the quotas, and for property owners to subdivide previously mandated minimum spaces into smaller spaces for rental to multiple tenants. 


West Berkeley car sales 

Do proposed zoning ordinance amendments proposed to allow car dealers to set up shop in West Berkeley also open the door to commercializing the city’s last remaining manufacturing and light industrial districts? 

Rick Auerbach said he thinks they do, but commissioners said he was worrying for naught. 

At issue are the zoning law changes sought by Mayor Tom Bates as a way of keeping car dealers— and their hefty sales tax revenues—from fleeing the city. 

Auto manufacturers have told the city they want dealerships “freeway close,” as their ads often say, but current zoning law bars them from locating in the M and MULI zones that govern most city property immediately to the east of Interstate 80. 

Auerbach, who spoke as a representative of West Berkeley Artists and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), said his group “is sympathetic to auto businesses locating in West Berkeley,” but concerned that the wording of the changes would allow other businesses to settle in. 

Because retail rents are higher than industrial rents, WEBAIC members have opposed opening up more of the area to commercial use because they fear higher rents could drive out small industries, artists and artisans. 

He said he was also concerned that the large size of the parcels the proposal allows for dealerships could lead car retailers to buy up multiple properties and consolidate them, destroying existing buildings in the process. 

“I am not happy about this in many ways,” said Commissioner Gene Poschman. His colleague Harry Pollack said concerns that the wording would open up the area to other retailers were misplaced, but “there might be a better way to phrase it.” 

Commissioners agreed, however, that the dealers couldn’t let would-be buyers test drive prospective purchases in the nearby neighborhood. 

“You couldn’t say that all test drivers should be conducted in Albany?” quipped Gurley. 

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Pollack. 

In the end, the commission voted unanimously to schedule a public hearing on the ordinance changes at an upcoming meeting. 


ABAG quotas 

Poschman took the final moments of the meeting to direct another round of criticism at the housing quotas imposed by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). 

While the regional government agency doesn’t demand construction of all the units in the quotas it imposes, it does insist that local governments be willing to permit the full development if private builders apply—with possible loss of some state and federal funding if municipalities and county governments refuse. 

Poschman said Berkeley is penalized with higher quotas than many other cities because of ABAG policies that set larger numbers for cities with rail transit, adding that Berkeley also seemed to go out of its way to meet quotas while Newark had built none of the below-market-rate housing in its ABAG quota. 

“They must know something we don’t,” he said. Five other Bay Area communities had built less than 10 percent of their affordable housing quotas, and 11 others hadn’t built half. In addition, he said, the city was also obligated under state law to meet the housing needs generated by UC Berkeley. 

The city is currently in the process of challenging the latest proposed quota, which would apply through 2012.