City acts to make it easier to do business in Berkeley

Proposed zoning amendments for Solano Avenue and other Berkeley business districts should make life easier for merchants opening or expanding their businesses if they are implemented

Merchants in Berkeley may have an easier time in future opening or expanding a business if eight retail zoning amendments that were approved at Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting go on to be implemented.

The city’s approval was interpreted by John DeClercq, co-CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, as a symbolic shift in tone for Berkeley. “Berkeley really does want to be more business-friendly. We have to get rid of the bogeyman. Berkeley needs to open its arms to business,” he said.

All 18 of the city’s merchant associations were surveyed over a two-week period about eight amendments identified by the city’s planning staff.

Five amendments seen as being the easiest to implement, and having the greatest potential impact, involve sidewalk seating, and instituting a straightforward over-the-counter fee to apply for it; allowing ground floors to be used for offices such as insurance agencies; lowering the review process period for restaurants to obtain a beer and wine permit from 6-12 months to 2-4 months; simplifying the review process for new restaurant applications; and lowering the review process for pedestrian-oriented businesses such as banks and exercise studios. (Read the survey for a full description of the proposed amendments.)

The five amendments received strong support among the survey’s 175 respondents to date. The three other amendments which were approved concern suspending quotas on Solano Avenue for four years; a change in zoning on San Pablo and Ashby and extending late-night hours from 10:00pm to 11:00pm.

As Berkeleyside reported earlier this year — and discussed with the community at our Local Business Forum in January — complex and time-consuming zoning laws have contributed to Berkeley’s reputation as a city in which it is difficult to do business. It took Robin Dalrymple nearly a year to get her iScream ice-cream shop open on Solano Avenue, for example, because of the permit hoops she was required to jump through.

The move to reconsider retail zoning was spurred by a survey conducted last year by councilmember Laurie Capitelli among residents and merchants on Solano Avenue. Business district leaders Roland Peterson (Telegraph), John Caner (Downtown), Heather Hensley (North Shattuck) and Allen Cain (Solano) have been vocal in their support of the proposed amendments.

DeClercq at the Chamber of Commerce said he applauded the actions of the Planning Commission as a strong commitment to welcome more small businesses into Berkeley and assist them to succeed. “We’ve all heard the horror stories of how difficult it is to get a business open in Berkeley,” he said. “And we have to do something to get all those vacant spaces leased.”

DeClercq added that these city-wide moves would not affect neighborhood systems. “A lot of Berkeley is correct in protecting neighborhood niche issues. These items are good for the whole city without disturbing local sensitivities.”

The Planning Commission will next consider specific language to implement these guidelines and then recommend the zoning amendments to the City Council.  The Council will then have the opportunity to put the changes into action.

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  • Bruce Love

    It was a few years ago during work on a parcel tax proposal lead by Supervisor Avalos suggested adding a vacancy tax to the proposal, but ran into the problem of “vacancy” not being an assessed characteristic of the property.

  • The Sharkey

    So it’s not current at all, and you have no idea what Egan may have learned in the years since then.

    If you don’t mind me asking, what is your legal and economic background from which you are able to conclude that a vacant retail parcel tax would be illegal despite others saying it’s possible? What Law School did you attend? What Economics program did you graduate from?

  • Charles_Siegel

    On most commercial corridors, these mixed-use projects may be 5 stories under current zoning. In general, developers cannot go over 5 stories without shifting to a more expensive form of construction instead of wood-framed construction, so a density bonus would generally not work economically.

    I would definitely be in favor of this sort density bonus on commercial corridors where the current zoning allows less than 5 stories.

    (There is also a new construction method that lets them go to 6 stories, using a bolt-together steel frame, which was used for the affordable housing building of the Brower Center. If this proves to be popular, we could also have this sort of density bonus letting them go to six stories, and I would also back that generally.)

    We would still need some way to enforce the agreement not to keep the storefronts vacant, which they would make to get the density bonus – such as a fine if the storefronts remain vacant for a long time.

    This would be a voluntary agreement, so I presume it would be legal. However, there may be a someone on this site who has a theory about why it is illegal.

    In fact, if this sort of density bonus is legal, you could keep the current building envelope and have a similar sort of voluntary agreement, by downzoning to three or four stories for those who do not provide retail and giving the density bonus to 5 stories for those who do provide retail.

  • Bruce Love

    This would be a voluntary agreement, so I presume it would be legal. However, there may be a someone on this site who has a theory about why it is illegal.

    I’ve pointed out more than once that you can do it that way. You can find a model for it in Petaluma:

    http://www.petaluma360.com/article/20100114/COMMUNITY/100119729

    Note, however, that the vacancy penalty structured that way goes away after a small number of years and is imposed on the owner/developer, not attached to the property itself.

    The deal would be something like:

    “We’ll let you build to 5 stories but the groundfloor has to be retail and if it doesn’t make $X in tax revenue over the first 3 years, you are on the hook for the difference (plus a penalty).”

    Add in lots of fancy stuff about how performance is measured, what happens if the property is sold, etc. etc.

    I don’t think it would be effective public policy. It’d be easy to “game” such a contract and evade the penalty without creating any real social value in that retail space. Plus I think that downtown, at least, we have too much retail space already — we want less, not more. Plus since the condition can’t be attached to the property, in perpetuity, it is at most a short-term win for the City.

    But, yes, the City could write a contract like that.