Public Comment

Commentary: West Berkeley BID is Not Mom and Apple Pie

By Dan Knapp
Friday October 26, 2007

In his Oct. 19 letter to the editor, Steven Donaldson didn’t mention that he is one of the West Berkeley property owners trying to set up a new tax to fund privatizing city services. He posed instead as just another interested neighborhood guy, who no doubt attended the “Town Hall Meeting” partly to register his support for the tax and partly to observe the antics of dozens of “folks” whose earnest and articulate arguments he professes never to understand. Indeed, in 12 paragraphs of Steven’s prose, he never engages his opponents’ arguments at all. It’s as if we had nothing to say. But of course we did. 

His metaphor of landowners digging into their own wallets to pay for all this “improvement” has a homey feel, but it’s wrong. The fact is that the people who will pay the tax he wants funneled to his Business Improvement District (BID) will largely be the tenant businesses who occupy the land and who work hard for the money they make. The primary mechanism that will ensure the profit transfer is the all-too-common triple net lease, which when signed requires the commercial tenant to pay the landlord’s property taxes. Even without a triple-net, the increased cost will surely find itself into the monthly rent figure that these tenants pay. 

Much is made by Mr. Donaldson and his WBBA allies of the theme “there’s only one Berkeley beat officer for all of West Berkeley after midnight.” In my nearly three decades of operating a business in West Berkeley I have had many occasions in the early morning hours to be rousted out of bed by our burglar alarm service. Berkeley police always get to the site before me. In fact, the beat officer has a key to our business, so she or he is usually already inside, and hardly ever alone. And on occasions when there has been a real burglar onsite, there have always been at least three or four other officers present to help apprehend the suspect. These Berkeley police officers are fine people; polite, competent, well-equipped. I’ve had the privilege of meeting a bunch of them, albeit at unusual hours. So maybe one beat officer for West Berkeley is sufficient, no?  

Mr. Donaldson thinks taxing Berkeley small businesses to fund a privatized security system run by landowners is just ducky, but I think it sounds like a Middle Eastern militia or worse. At the town hall meeting, when I got my chance to speak to the neighbors, I said I would be willing as a small business owner to pay additional taxes to fund additional city services if they are needed, but not to fund a duplicative service controlled by a BID. Sounds too much like Blackwater! 

The fact is that in our area of West Berkeley, south of Ashby Avenue, the businesses take care of their own streets and sidewalks. With few exceptions, we mostly paint out graffitti as it happens. We even repair our own potholes, thanks to a new bagged asphalt patch product that is simple, cheap, and effective. We don’t want to look like a slum, so we pick up trash. We’re recyclers, so most of what we pick up goes for beneficial reuse, but we’d prefer for people to use proper containers and not the streets for their discards. Trash is inefficient and irresponsible. We weedwhip our weeds and replace them when possible with tough ornamentals. We employ a cottage industry of private security services to give us clues as to when police services are to be called and when not.  

Mr. Donaldson’s assurances that the BID will not be used to lobby for landowner interests fall flat in the face of the rules giving the biggest property owners control of the tax money. How are such promises to be monitored, enforced, adjudicated? The City Council is too busy to do it. Besides, what a wonderful invitation to downstream conflict as people debate whether an infraction has occurred!  

Indeed, the WBBA is and has been part of what seems a triumvirate consisting of certain city Economic Development staff and City Councilmembers who are working to destroy the West Berkeley Plan and replace it with a wrecking ball for the local artisanal and industrial economy. Manufacturers and materials recovery enterprises are joining the ranks of the artisans who are pushing back.  


Dan Knapp is a co-founder of Urban Ore, Inc. in West Berkeley.