Gordon Wozniak has been a Berkeley council member for District 8, where I live, since 2002. In the recent flap over the city council voting to adhere to UN resolutions that have nothing to do with municipalities, I thought Wozniak ‘s remarks were among the more sensible at the time (although he joined the unanimous vote in favor). So late last week I went to the city’s offices on Milvia to have a conversation with Wozniak about the issues confronting Berkeley.
Our conversation ranged over a number of topics, but we concentrated on two areas: development and Berkeley’s attitude towards business, and the budgetary outlook for the city.
Berkeleyside: Berkeley has a reputation as being unfriendly towards business. Is that fair?
Wozniak: Berkeley’s attitude towards business is that we’re so special that they’ll put up with anything. We make it hard enough that we scare away a lot of businesses that might fit in Berkeley.
It takes $60 and a letter to appeal a project. And an appeal may cost the city $3,000 to $5,000 in staff time, and it may cost the businessperson a few thousand dollars as well as their time. The problem is that if you make it very difficult the people you discourage are the first timers and the little guys. The big companies know how to navigate the system. It’s not that we’re making it hard for Target. We’re making it hard for neighborhood businesses.
A few years ago the East Bay Express published a great story about a tale of two cities. Target wanted to build in Albany at the same time that Berkeley Bowl wanted to open a new store in west Berkeley. Target was up and running quickly and it took years for Berkeley Bowl to get through.
Berkeleyside: Is there any push to change the process?
Wozniak: There’s some movement. You have to change a lot of history. People want to have a say and speak out. You want that to be possible, but you don’t want one person to be able to stop things. In Berkeley one person can throw sand in and delay things. Businesses want a level of certainty and we don’t provide that.
I hear over and over again that it’s not a pleasant experience getting a use permit in Berkeley. The city should be doing exit interviews with people who don’t get through.
Berkeleyside: Is that the root of the problem with plans to revive downtown?
Wozniak: Downtown is a big issue. Most people want a vibrant downtown, but there are differences in how you achieve it. We don’t have an anchor. What is it that will bring people into our downtown?
The arts district is doing well, but I don’t think that helps the retailers that much. It’s more something that helps restaurants. An awful lot of Berkeley residents’ disposable income goes to Walnut Creek, Emeryville and San Francisco.
We don’t have a business plan. We don’t have an economic development plan, or a business model for the downtown that will attract people to it.
Berkeleyside: I know in some areas like the Elmwood there are complex quotas for businesses. Is that a problem?
Wozniak: Our quotas were fixed 25 years ago when business conditions were very different. It protects some existing businesses but it also keeps new businesses from coming in. Ici [the wildly popular ice cream store on College Avenue] couldn’t have tables because the quotas forced them to classify themselves as take-away only.
Berkeleyside: What other issues are looming for the city?
Wozniak: Retirement costs are something we need to focus on. We are going to see a big leap in average pension costs for the city. They’ll go up 50 to 60% in 2013 from the $25 million we’re paying now [because of losses in Calpers’ investment funds]. With police and fire we’ll be paying 50% of salary into pensions.
That’s a few years out so there’s time to do something about it. At the moment revenues aren’t projected to increase, so we either have to find ways to increase revenues, like attract more businesses to Berkeley, or reduce expenses either through cuts or increasing efficiency.
These are complicated, messy things and it’s hard to get people focused on it. The city has been very generous over the years, but we’re going to have to do something about it soon.