Public Comment

Commentary: A Developers’ Shell Game

By John Curl
Tuesday October 09, 2007

A far-reaching attack on the zoning protections of West Berkeley is being contrived by a small group of developers and real estate brokers. It is coming at us disguised as a either a new West Berkeley Business Improvement District (BID) or a Community Benefits District (CBD), which the organizers would control and use to lobby for zoning changes to gentrify the industrial areas. This lobbying would be financed by taxes collected from the many West Berkeley businesses and residents opposed to their goals. That’s the cleverest part of their plan: it makes the potential victims pay for it. And they’ve already gotten $10,000 from the city to organize it. The group behind it calls themselves the West Berkeley Business Alliance (WBBA), but their organization does not in any way represent industries, artisans and artists, which make up the majority of businesses in that area.  

The original proposal clearly stated that funds collected would be used to lobby the city on “economic development strategies. Outreach to political reps, city officials, ...attend public hearings. Hiring professionals [to] advise on land use issues, input on West Berkeley Plan.” There was $60,000 in their original first year budget plan targeted for these lobbying tasks. Despite repeated requests to remove land-use lobbying from their proposal, they have refused to rule it out.  

The BID would be instituted by a “weighted vote” of either commercial property owners, businesses or a combination of the two, depending how the district is based. The CBD would additionally include residential properties. Votes would be valued by the size of property holdings and/or gross receipts. Instituting a property-based CBD process would result in the sixteen largest property owners alone having enough “weight” to decide the final vote. Three-and-a-half percent of property owners would be able to institute the tax, but all would have to pay, as stipulated by state laws governing such districts. Even if the other ninety-six-and-a-half percent voted against, it would not matter. A BID would have a different, but essentially similar and grossly disproportionate weighted voting composition. This violates every principle of democracy that this country has ever stood for. The City Council must approve the BID or CBD. 

In a business-based BID, landlords would be treated as businesses, and taxed according to their gross receipts. But they wouldn’t really have to pay their assessments, because these taxes would in most cases be passed on to their tenants. So businesses that rent would get a double hit: taxed according to their own gross receipts, and also forced to pay their landlord’s taxes.  

This gambit is just the latest in a series of assaults on industries, artisans, and artists from the WBBA, which since its inception has been campaigning to weaken the land use protections of the West Berkeley Plan. These protections are at the heart of the plan, and are key to maintaining and safeguarding the strong and diverse economic reality that is working well in West Berkeley, providing city revenue, local jobs, and a synergistic environment that benefits of the entire city and region.  

The proposal on the table up to now has been a Community Benefits District (CBD), which includes West Berkeley homeowners. Due to massive opposition from these residents and small businesses in the area, the WBBA and the city are talking about possibly excluding homeowners and reconfiguring the CBD as a business-only BID, but there is nothing to verify this buzz. The original proposal also covered all the industrial zones of West Berkeley, but due to strong opposition in the northern section it was cut back to include only the area south of University Avenue. Since this action the WBBA has put the inclusion of the northern section back on the table in a possible “second stage” effort. This proposal ultimately puts all of West Berkeley at risk.  

BIDs are usually formed around commercial areas, where retail merchants share contiguous storefronts, common goals, and proportional sizes. But West Berkeley is a widely diverse area, in which all the stakeholders do not share the same problems, concerns and priorities, and where the largest property owners are at least 500 times the size of the smallest. What developers consider improvements are often destructive to the environment which artisanal and industrial businesses, and residents consider vital and need to thrive.  

Besides lobbying for land-use policies, the BID or CBD would also handle a bunch of mom-and-apple-pie areas, like neighborhood cleanliness and security. Of course neighborhoods can always be improved, but the anti-democratic CBD or BID is not the vehicle to accomplish such improvements. 

The office of Councilmember Darryl Moore, in conjunction with the city’s Office of Economic Development and the BID-CBD steering committee (i.e., the developers) have set up a community meeting to discuss the proposal. The meeting will take place on  

Oct. 16 at 7 p.m., at Rosa Parks Elementary School, 920 Allston Way.  

I urge you all to attend and to contact the mayor, City Council, and city manager, and tell them your thoughts on this offense to democracy.  


John Curl is chair of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC).