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West Berkeley Tax District Questioned

By Judith Scherr
Friday August 03, 2007

Bringing beauty to Berkeley’s ugly Ashby Avenue gateway, cleaning sidewalks, adding security, removing graffiti, creating an improved local transportation system emulating the popular Emery Go Round are just a few of the reasons South West Berkeley’s commercial property owners want to create an assessment district, says Marco Li Mandri, president of New City America and consultant on the South West Berkeley Community Benefits District (CBD) project. 

The CBD, being planned by members of the West Berkeley Business Alliance with Li Mandri’s help, would be funded by taxing every property owner in the district and would benefit each owner in proportion to the tax levied, with the larger property owners taxed more heavily. Following a complex formula, the larger the property, the more weight the owner will have in deciding if the district is to be established. 

Some homeowners and others within the proposed district boundaries, however, are beginning to organize against the proposal, arguing that the city already provides adequate services, for which they pay high taxes. 

District skeptics say the commercial property owners have not asked homeowners to participate in writing the plan and contend that giving a greater say in establishing the district to bigger property owners is undemocratic.  

Skeptics also argue that in return for fees they do not want to pay in the first place, that—even though it is not immediately proposed—eventually the CBD managers will likely try to push through zoning changes that will encourage runaway development, turning the city’s southwest corner into a mirror image of neighboring Emeryville. 

The proposed CBD originated with the West Berkeley Business Alliance (WBBA), a group of individuals who own commercial property in the area. They’ve teamed up with Li Mandri, whose New City America has given birth to more than 40 assessment districts. The city kicked in $10,000 and the WBBA loaned another $50,000 to hire Li Mandri to create the district. WBBA funding is to be paid back from the CBD. 

The CBD is a unique form of a Property Business Improvement District (PBID), a concept regulated by California law that generally includes only owners of commercial properties. Under the state statute, property owners within a PBID pay into it according to their size.  

Similarly, the creation of a West Berkeley CBD will depend on a majority vote by property owners in the district, with votes weighted by the size of their parcels. 

The uniqueness of a CBD is that it takes the concept of a Property Business Improvement District and adds in the people who live there, Li Mandri said. “If we’re going to create a district to have multiple uses, we have to have something that encompasses multiple needs,” he told the Daily Planet, pointing to the common desire for cleanliness, security and transportation. 

The city’s Acting Economic Development Manager Michael Caplan told the Daily Planet that the state law is designed to prevent individuals from opting out and taking a “free ride,” benefiting from district services while paying nothing.  


The proposed district 

The precise weight-per-property-owner and differing tax zones within the district are being developed by the WBBA steering committee and Li Mandri. Preliminary data shows 81 homeowners within the district to be assessed at a rate of $180 per parcel. That means they would have a 2 percent (collective—though they vote separately) vote when deciding whether the district should be established. 

“The bigger the property of the person, the more their vote counts. It doesn’t seem democratic to me,” photographer Judy Dater told the Daily Planet on Monday. Dater and her husband own a small home near Allston Way and Fifth Street and a nearby studio where Dater works.  

Dater said she and her neighbors are circulating petitions to oppose the district, hoping that the mayor and council will listen to them. 

Eighth Street resident Sara Klise also opposes the district. “If Bayer and Wareham want [the district] they’ll get it. My vote counts for nothing,” she told the Daily Planet.  

Wareham Development of San Rafael owns at least eight properties in the proposed district and would have, according to its size, about 8 percent of the decision-making power over whether the district is to be created.  

Bayer, whose parent company is based in Leverkusen, Germany, would comprise a separate division within the district—calculated differently because of the different benefits it would accrue from the district, given that it is gated and already has its own security personnel, Caplan said. The gated portion would be weighted at 9 percent and assessed $51,620.  

The city, which owns Aquatic Park, would also constitute a unique zone. It would be taxed at $29,997 and weighted at 5 percent. It is not clear yet where city funds would come from or who would be responsible for casting the city vote for or against the district. 

Unlike property taxes, “Nobody is exempt,” Li Mandri said. Churches, nonprofits, the city and the state, including UC Berkeley-owned property, would be taxed.  

“You pay according to the benefit you receive,” Caplan said.  

The proposed CBD includes properties roughly from University Avenue south to Emeryville and from Aquatic Park and the bay east to San Pablo Avenue south of Grayson Street, east to Tenth Street between Dwight Way and Grayson and east to the west side of Sixth Street from Dwight Way to University.  


Who benefits 

Michael Goldin, who chairs the steering committee putting together the CBD, lives in the proposed district and owns and has developed a number of properties there. He says the services provided by the new district will be good for both residents and businesses.  

With a $160,000 budget for security—within a proposed $600,000 budget—Goldin says the area will be made safe for everyone.  

“I live here,” he said. “I don’t let my kids go out at night. In the hills people walk down the street at night.” 

Security personnel hired by the CBD will not be armed, but will become new eyes and ears on the street. They will also escort anyone in the district to or from their cars in the evening, he said. 

Responding to those who say the district formation vote is undemocratic, Goldin pointed to the law. Weighted voting “is mandated by the state of California” under the property-based BID law, he said, further noting: “If we do it by weight, it will be by the amount of interest people have in the area.”  

The preliminary budget shows the expenditure of $80,000 annually for weekend clean-up and graffiti removal, something Goldin said will benefit everyone who lives and works there. 

But Dater contended: “If businesses want to clean up the streets, they should put their money together to do it. Some people don’t have a spare cent to their name.” 

Golden points out, however, that the homeowners are getting a break. The WBBA steering committee capped homeowner contributions at $180 per parcel so they would not be overburdened. “Technically [according to property size] they could pay double the fee,” Goldin said. Further, people with financial hardships will pay less or be exempted. 

“We realize that some people in the district may not be able to afford it,” he said. 

Grayson Street resident Rick Auerbach says residents were never asked to help develop the concept. “They never consulted us,” he said “Planning has been completely under the radar.” 

But Goldin points to a letter accompanying survey results sent to every property owner in the district in June. 

A paragraph at the bottom of the second page states: “We welcome any affected property owner in the study area to be involved in this CBD formation process” and gives the consultant’s phone number for information. 

Caplan underscored that what is currently on the table is simply a proposal. “There will be a series of meetings,” he said, explaining that is Li Mandri’s job to call them. “That’s one of the reasons we hired a BID consultant,” he said, adding that the City of Berkeley’s economic development division will assist at the meetings. 

Another concern the CBD proposes to address is the campsites of homeless people near the railroad tracks and people who live in RVs in the district. The budget proposes $35,000 for this issue, to be matched with $35,000 of services from the city to “deal with encampments on public and private property” the draft budget document says. 

The funds will be spent providing hotel rooms, detox, mental health and other services for the homeless who live in the area, Caplan said. 

Li Mandri points to an enhanced local transportation system as an example of a service that could benefit everyone working and living in the CBD. The proposed CBD budget includes $165,000 to expand an employee shuttle that now serves mostly Bayer employees.  

“It takes the Emery Go Round model and expands it,” Li Mandri said.  


Re-zoning off the table? 

Dater said she is concerned the CBD might push the city to change zoning laws that would allow tall buildings to sprout where now they are prohibited.  

The Daily Planet put the question to Goldin who responded: “That’s not part of this (plan).” The budget proposal confirms there are no funds set aside for rezoning efforts. 

But Dater said she fears that could emerge in subsequent years and points to a survey sent by the WBBA to all property owners in the district in February. (It appears that fewer than half the recipients responded.)  

The survey, according to Caplan, spelled out issues of concern to the WBBA steering committee including security, parking, transportation, “people demonstrating aggressive and disturbing street behavior,” cleanliness and graffiti. 

The question that caught Dater’s attention was: “Would you support property owner funded planning and economic development services to give input to proposed zoning issues that would impact West Berkeley commercial and industrial properties?”  

To Dater, than means the CBD will eventually address zoning issues. 

“If they got control over what’s built here, it could be detrimental to the neighborhood,” she said, noting that under current laws people build and the community changes, but the current pace of change is slow. “There are rules and controls (now),” she said. 

New zoning could mean “people who own property will want to build five-story buildings next to tiny houses.” 


Next steps 

A number of steps remain before the district is established. A non-profit corporation must be formed to manage the district. Its creation is in progress, Goldin said.  

The steering committee needs to poll property owners and get a 30 percent positive response rate—in a weighted vote—to go forward in the initial phase. 

The City Council must approve a new “enabling ordinance.” There is already city law for other kinds of business improvement districts, but not for one that includes residences. 

Finally, the city needs to hold a public hearing on the new district and show that more than 50 percent of the weighted vote favors the district. Creation of the district will ultimately depend on City Council approval. Li Mandri says the district will be established by the end of the year. 

Woodworker John Curl rents workspace in the proposed district. Renters, who have no voice, will be facing higher rents, passed through by landlords, he said. 

Curl told the Daily Planet he thinks the district is not about cleaning streets “which we pay for anyway. What it’s about is giving funding to an organization through public methods, getting the entire community to pay for the organization to lobby for zoning changes to the advantage of developers.” 

Interests of the community and developers compete, Curl said: “Big property owners invest in property and are looking for profit. Neighborhood people care about the community—they are there for different purposes.”  

For CBD information and steering committee meeting dates, call New City America at (619) 233-5009 or (619) 239-7140 after Aug. 6.. 

To contact those opposing the district, email: 



Photograph by Judith Scherr. South West Berkeley is characterized by single family residences tucked in among commercial properties.