A few Southwest Berkeley residents concerned about a proposed Community Benefits District (CBD)—an area where property owners will be taxed for particular services—called a meeting at the end of August to ask their neighbors what they think of the plan.
More than 100 people came to the meeting at the Ecole Bilingue on Aug. 27 and, with the exception of a handful of supporters—mostly CBD steering committee members—expressed “enthusiastic” opposition to its formation, according to Sara Klise, one of the organizers of the neighborhood meeting.
The first formal step toward creating the district was to be before the City Council Tuesday—a new ordinance enabling CBDs in Berkeley. However, Wednesday evening, Michael Caplan, acting manager of the economic development division, said in an email that consideration of the ordinance would be postponed.
The West Berkeley Business Alliance (WBBA) steering committee, proposing the district, understands “this got off to a bad start [and] realize[s] that everyone would benefit if they reassess their approach on this, take a step back, and do more substantive public outreach to the community and potential assessees,” Caplan’s email says.
In the meantime, the residents, small-business owners and small businesses who rent space within the proposed district—roughly between University Avenue south to the Oakland-Emeryville border and San Pablo Avenue west to the Bay—are continuing their efforts to fight creation of the district.
Organizers of the Aug. 27 meeting are calling a second meeting Monday evening to begin to fashion what Klise is calling a “plan of action.” The meeting will be at the
Ecole Bilingue, 1009 Heinz St. at 7 p.m.
The West Berkeley Business Alliance (WBBA) has controlled the effort to create the assessment district. The CBD steering committee, made up uniquely of WBBA members, has mostly bankrolled the $60,000 effort. They’ve been working for about a year with the help of city staff, $10,000 from the city and consultant Marco Li Mandri from San Diego-based New City America.
The idea behind the CBD is to collect an assessment from all property owners within district boundaries; assessments would vary according to property size. Some of the services the CBD may fund, according to draft steering committee documents, include security, beautification, transportation and planning activities related to possible zoning changes.
Creation of the district would be by vote of the property owners within the district. The vote would be weighted, with the owners of larger properties having a vote proportional to the size of their properties.
People showed strong opposition to the district at the Aug. 27 meeting, Klise said, noting, “They talked about getting together and hiring an attorney.” Some wanted to put the funds they would otherwise be paying to the district into fighting it, she added.
All were welcomed at the meeting and members of the CBD steering committee were given time to make a presentation, Klise said, underscoring that the community meeting was open, in direct contrast to the CBD steering committee meetings, which have been closed to the public.
Klise did manage to attend one meeting uninvited and said she wasn’t told to leave. However, an email from consultant Li Mandri confirmed that CBD steering committee meetings are restricted.
Responding to a Daily Planet query, Li Mandri wrote in an Aug. 10 email: “Yes [they are restricted to the steering committee] until we finalize the plan. The purpose of the Steering Committee is not to debate the existence of the district, but rather to determine what the district will be. We need to finalize the plan because people will want to know what services would it fund and who would be included. Once it has been finalized it will be an open document and we will have a public meeting or meetings to discuss it. We are not there yet.”
Klise said neighborhood and small businesses people who attended the neighborhood meeting were “furious” that they might be forced to pay for services that they didn’t want in the first place.
“Not only do I have to pay, I get no say in anything that happens,” Klise said, referring to the weighted voting.
The neighborhood meeting proved to the WBBA members present that opponents were “not the 10 crazy people they were making us out to be,” Klise said.
Understanding the mounting opposition, the WBBA steering committee could decide not to form a CBD, but to create a simple Business Improvement District (BID), taxing only the commercial property owners.
Councilmember Darryl Moore told the Daily Planet on Thursday that he is thinking along these lines: “I prefer to see a BID developed in West Berkeley that would include the business community and not residents,” he said.
There are several BIDS in Berkeley: downtown, Solano Avenue, Telegraph Avenue and North Berkeley.
If residents get taken out of the equation, Klise said the neighborhood group will have a decision to make: “Do we stay [in the fight] and help the small businesses?” She noted that small businesses do not need the proposed shuttle buses and many do not care about paying to spruce up the neighborhood, as they do not have customers who visit their sites.
The property owners will pass on the tax to the businesses, Klise said. “Five hundred to six hundred dollars affects them—those are small businesses.”
John Curl rents his woodworking space in West Berkeley. Rents will be increased to pay for the assessment, but those business owners who don’t own their properties won’t have a say in its establishment, Curl told the Daily Planet on Thursday.
Curl added that the city is not giving information on the district to business owners who don’t own their properties. “Nobody’s coming to you, telling you about this,” he said. “Nobody’s going to notice us.”
If the large West Berkeley landlords don’t put together the CBD, they will likely find another way to do what they want to do, Curl said.
“This is just part of their strategy to gentrify West Berkeley,” he said. “They don’t give up. If they can’t do this, they’ll come back another way. There’s a lot of cards in their deck and they keep playing different cards.”
As for the artists, residents and small business owners in the area, “We’re almost always in reaction mode,” Curl said.
Moore said that in conjunction with the city’s Economic Development Division, he is planning a community meeting toward the end of September to address the Community Benefits District question.
The enabling ordinance will likely not come back before the council until after that meeting.
The draft ordinance as it is now written modifies the current ordinance establishing Business Improvement Districts. It allows creation of CBDs funded by both commercial and residential property owners and prevents a single land owner from controlling more than 20 percent of the weighted decision-making process (although there is no such landlord in the proposed CBD). It creates the district for 20 years, though normally BIDS have a life of 10 years, and it provides for repayment of the funds lent to start the project.
For information on the neighborhood organizing efforts opposing the CBD, go to http://pottercreek.wordpress.com. For information on the CBD, call Marco Li Mandri at 619-233-5009.