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Residents, Small Business Oppose West Berkeley Tax District

By Judith Scherr
Friday October 19, 2007

The councilmember who called Tuesday night’s town hall meeting in southwest Berkeley said in a postcard sent to some southwest Berkeley property owners that a tax assessment district proposal that was to be under discussion at the meeting had been withdrawn and that discussion should focus instead on ways to make the area cleaner, safer and less congested. 

But most of the 125 or so people who came to the event at Rosa Parks School made it clear that their main concern continued to be the West Berkeley Business Alliance (WBBA) proposal for a Community Benefits District.  

And that’s what they wanted to talk about.  

Even representatives of the WBBA said the assessment district proposal was still very much alive, although they were refashioning it, trying to eliminate as many homeowners from the district as they could. 

The district, as originally  

conceived by the WBBA, would stretch roughly from Univer- 

sity Avenue to the Oakland/ Emeryville border and from San Pablo Avenue to the bay. It would be formulated under a state law giving the largest property owners the biggest say in the district decision-making. The purpose is to generate funds to pay for services beyond those provided by the city, aiming at attacking crime, graffiti, illegal dumping and homeless encampments.  

Early drafts of the plan included lobbying the city around zoning issues—developers would like more flexible zoning in the area. But WBBA says it’s taken that out of the proposal. 

Rick Auerbach, as spokesperson for the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Com-panies (WBAIC), was given five minutes to address the meeting.  

Condemning the concept that large property owners would be the decisionmakers, he said: “A tiny minority of approximately 4 percent—15 property owners—can impose the assessment on the remaining 96 percent of the property owners. It violates the basic tenets of our country—one person, one vote—and validates the worst aspects of our society, where those who have the most wealth hold almost all the decision-making power.” 

Auerbach further lashed out at the small group that has been meeting for about a year to put together the district: community requests to participate in the WBBA meetings were ignored, he said, further pointing to widely divergent interests between residents and small businesses on the one hand and the large property owners on the other.  

“This group makes its living when properties change hands for ever-higher land values,” he said. “The present West Berkeley plan, the lifeblood for industries, artisans and the residential community, is seen by them as an impediment to these efforts.” 

Representing the Potter Creek Neighborhood Association, Sarah Klise also had five minutes to state the group’s concerns. Like WBAIC, Potter Creek residents fear that “our voices become quieted by the interests of the smallest few who also happen to be the largest landowners,” she said. 

Klise said she and her neighbors regard their neighborhood differently from the WBBA: “We will hear from city officials tonight [the police chief and representatives from various departments spoke after her] who say we live in a neglected, abandoned and crime-ridden neighborhood … To them I say we live in a diverse, rich, thriving, growing and artistic neighborhood that I call gloriously funky.” 

Klise went on to quote an article written by WBBA consultant Marco LiMandri, in which LiMandri said: “’We need to manage residential downtowns in totality, just as the mall companies manage a mall.’  

“Managing our funky Potter Creek neighborhood like a mall is ridiculous,” said Klise, who then took a poll among attendees on the question of an assessment district: 16 persons favored it, 68 persons opposed it, and 12 persons wanted more information.  

Although Councilmember Darryl Moore had written in the invitation to the meeting that the WBBA “has withdrawn its proposal to create a West Berkeley Community Benefits District”—and Michael Caplan, economic development division acting director had told the Daily Planet the same—Michael Goldin, one of the founders of the WBBA, made it clear that his organization was moving forward with the proposal, while changing it to eliminate residents to the degree possible. 

During his time to address the meeting, Goldin promised that as many of the residents as possible would be “lined out” of the final map and that those remaining would have a minimal tax to pay. 

“This is a legal issue, which we would leave to the consultants,” he said. “We believe that most of Potter Creek can be lined out as well as several other residential clusters in the district.”  

Further, Goldin said fears that the assessed funds would be used to advocate for a change in zoning are unfounded. “We will put in writing that the PBID will not address zoning issues.” (PBID refers to Property Business Improvement District, a common tax assessment district generally comprised of commercial property owners, such as the one operating on Telegraph Avenue. A Community Benefits District is a PBID that includes homeowners.) 

As for weighting the decision to form the district based on property size, “The vote is mandated by state law and there is nothing we can do about it,” he said. 

The crowd expressed anger at the lack of democracy in the proposal—and also, in the lack of democracy they perceived at the meeting, where only about half the number of people who wanted to speak were permitted to do so. Two sessions of public comment were scheduled. The first was cut off after thirty minutes by moderator Taj Johns and the second was stopped after only a few speakers, at exactly 9 p.m. 

At the outset, Moore had welcomed his constituents, saying: “It’s key for me to listen and for city staff to listen.” Johns cut the meeting off in consultation with Moore, citing the fact that some of the speakers had not followed the ground rules, going beyond the two minutes given to them.  

(In a phone interview Monday—and as reported in Tuesday’s Planet—Interim Economic Development Division Director Michael Caplan had said there would be ample time for the public to comment and that the meeting would run beyond the allotted two hours so that could happen.)  

More than a dozen members of the public were left lining up at two microphones, unable to comment when the moderator abruptly ended the meeting. 

During the public comment time that was permitted, a major concern raised by several speakers was that a tax assessment on property owners would be immediately passed through to the small businesses that rent their spaces. 

The question of gentrification was also raised by several speakers.  

“Ever since Tom Bates got into office, we have experienced constant pressure from developers to gentrify West Berkeley,” said John Curl, of WBAIC. “From the point of view of renters, it’s a power grab by a few property owners who want to gentrify West Berkelely and move us out of town.” 

Representatives from businesses speaking against the assessment included those from Inkworks, a printing collective, Pacific Coast Chemical and Urban Ore. 

A handful of people spoke in favor of the assessment district, including Chris Barlow representing San Rafael-based Wareham, which owns a number of West Berkeley properties.  

Developer Ali Kashani, who also owns property in West Berkeley, also spoke in favor of the district, arguing that people have to accept change.  

“Change is happening,” he said. “People don’t like change. The BID is a good idea.” 

Area resident Jack Von Euw was one of the last speakers. He offered practical solutions to the problems of crime and dirty streets: “One solution is to get to know your neighbors,” he said. “Tell them if you leave town.” 

As for clean streets, Von Euw said: “Get a broom.” Graffiti? “Get a gallon of paint.”