Berkeley’s Sacramento Street corridor on the rise

Berkeley city staff are taking aim at a South Berkeley neighborhood that has struggled economically in recent years by teaming up with residents, as well as business and property owners, to make improvements hoped to make a difference in the near-term along Sacramento Street.

Last week, some 30 people attended a meeting at San Pablo Park to review possible changes and collect community feedback for efforts that are underway. Among attendees were the city’s director of public works, Andrew Clough; director of parks and recreation, Scott Ferris; public works engineer Ahsan Kazmi; Jim Hynes, assistant to the city manager; and Berkeley Police Capt. Erik Upson.

(One attendee, Zach Franklin, created the video above to tell the stories behind several local businesses and institutions around Sacramento Street and Ashby Avenue.)

The city invited stakeholders to attend the Oct. 24 meeting and “Be part of the future of Sacramento Street” to discuss how to make the corridor “a friendlier place to work, shop and live.”

Michael Caplan, who runs the city’s Office of Economic Development, said this year’s work built on conversations that started in 2011 and 2012 to address how to tackle some of the area’s longterm, chronic problems.

In March, that effort was rekindled after a neighborhood group, the CalJulia neighbors, called a meeting to figure out how to make some of their ideas to improve the neighborhood a reality. City staff attended that meeting, and came away from the session with plans to carry the momentum forward.

Since then, the Office of Economic Development has been working with neighbors and the Sacramento Street Merchants Association “to identify challenges and opportunities” in the area “to try to crystallize the three No. 1 priorities” that could guide an action plan. City staff have met with five neighborhood groups as well as the merchants’ association to collect input.

And one city staffer, Elizabeth Garcia, has mapped all the vacancies on Sacramento — from Dwight to Alcatraz — to have a better understanding of the area’s economic needs and the status quo. Garcia has been building relationships with local property owners and real estate brokers to try to fill those spaces. (City vacancies are listed online here.)

She thanked those in attendance for their input in recent months: “Your participation and input has really driven this process,” Garcia said.

City staff said some of the primary neighborhood challenges identified this year have included long-term business vacancies, a lack of healthy products for sale, a dearth of trees on Sacramento south of Dwight, casual drug dealing, problems with parking enforcement, open containers and public drinking, and “problematic street behavior.”

Thursday, Caplan said various department heads were in attendance to help “frame the next steps” in response to questions and ideas from the group about how to address those challenges, as well as several others.

(View NOSH: Lorin District Restaurant Guide in a larger map.)

Attendees said, if they had their choice, they’d love to see businesses on Sacramento such as an ice cream or frozen yogurt shop, art studios or sporting equipment. Gardening products and gifts, after-school enrichment activities, and more restaurants were also suggested. Two restaurants have recently opened on Sacramento, and two others are in the works, with many others that have either opened or are planned nearby on Alcatraz Avenue and Adeline Street in the Lorin District. A new halal market is also slated to move in on Sacramento, on the same block as Take 5 Café and Moxy Beer Garden, along with another cafe north of Ashby called Nanna’s House.

A banner at Sacramento and Julia streets focuses on the environment. Photo: Kaia Diringer

A banner at Sacramento and Julia streets focuses on the environment. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Included on a list of possible opportunities for neighborhood growth were the installation of additional street banners, the organization of a Saturday stroll or other family-friendly events, the creation of a dog park at San Pablo Park, the investigation of public art in the medians, and the possibility of multiple parklets along Sacramento.

Garcia outlined a range of plans already in motion or projects that have been completed recently, such as a new mural on Sacramento north of Ashby; a “call for artists” to decorate several nearby utility boxes; last weekend’s Berkeley Project Day; and a new website that’s being designed for members of the local merchants’ association.

City staff also described a new effort underway to spruce up one local liquor store, and help its owner offer healthier alternatives to junk food and alcohol. The city is seeking grant funding for that project, and the owner has already agreed to participate if the city secures the money needed to follow through with those plans.

Community activist and local resident Laura Menard told city staff that the most important step the city could take is “solid and reliable code enforcement when we see problem properties.” In the past, she said, enforcement has been “inconsistent and unreliable,” which has led to many persistent issues despite neighborhood efforts.

She also said the neighborhood needs to work on becoming a destination for residents who live in other parts of the city, whether via food truck events such as Off the Grid, or other festivals or flea markets.

Councilman Darryl Moore, who represents the district, said he’d like to see better maintenance to address constantly full trash receptacles and less-than-adequate street sweeping.

Residents also brought up traffic congestion and a lack of streetlights as areas of concern.

Caplan thanked the group for their ideas, and noted that, at this time, the city is looking for “things we can pretty much do quickly because we’ve got some momentum right now.” He said the city plans to start implementing changes from the action plan over the next month or two.

Learn more about the CalJulia neighborhood group at http://caljulia.wordpress.com. For more information about the city’s plans for Sacramento Street, call city staffer Elizabeth Garcia at 510-981-7536, or email her at edgarcia@cityofberkeley.info

Related:
Duo to open Creekwood restaurant in South Berkeley (10.24.13)
Calling all artists: Chances to make your mark in Berkeley (09.19.13)
Sacramento Street mural honors history, brightens area (08.16.13)
Partners to open Take 5 Café as new Berkeley hub (07.31.13)
South Berkeley neighbors ask city for help to improve (04.19.13)
New beer garden, burger spot for South Berkeley (03.15.13)
New street banners give Berkeley neighborhoods identity (03.04.13)
Neighborhood revival: Kick-starting the Lorin district (04.27.10)

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

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  • bgal4

    I attended and counted at least a dozen city staff members in attendance. The community involvement was low.

    Emilie thanks for the inclusion of my concerns, there is a strong connection to the story of Telegraph blight, failed code enforcement practices.

    i.e. before giving the liquor store a $$ grant to sell produce ( tried many times and failed) please attach enforceable operating standards for all alcohol outlets (deemed approved laws grandfather existing outlets into use permits designed to regulate for environmental harm) such as limits on selling airplane bottles, singles, malt liquor, drug paraphernalia, basically the products which encourage street inebriates and nuisance activity.

  • nobody was there, just…

    Beggers can’t be choosers, I guess, but I wish you had been able to get interviews at a barber shop, with people using the laundromat, restaurants, etc. I feel as if this report treats very many of the locals and local life around here as invisible.

  • guest

    Big Props for putting together the vacancy list at

    http://berkeley.cityapplications.com/publicproperty.aspx?Type=29

    I often wonder what could go in these spots at the corner of University and California. There used to be a bike shop there. I see the landlord is asking some steep rent. I would like a corner grocery store, or to get my bike shop back, but at that price, it is not happening.

    1601 University Ave. 3,444 $6,000/mo.
    1615 University Ave. 4,600 $5,290/mo.

    Maybe if we charge the landlord a blight fee for keeping an empty building, the rents would go down like a Swedish auction, and we could get some businesses in there.

  • guest

    And if you were wondering how much it costs the landlord to sit and wait, check the tax bill, 1601 University is only assessed for $275k, and paying only $7676 per year property taxes. Landlord would like to rent it for $200 / day, but is paying only $22 / day to sit and wait.

  • neo-feudalism: not just theory

    Maybe if we charge the landlord a blight fee for keeping an empty building,

    This idea goes round and round and has been looked at by commissioners, council members, city staff….

    The sad fact of the matter is that California law (after the Jarvis-led reforms) is very strict about municipal taxes and fees. The amount a city can charge a property owner for blight is, in essense, no more than the city actually spends, on that specific property, alleviating blight. The city can recoup the actual small cost of sending a police officer to make sure the windows aren’t broken or sending public works to scrub some graffiti — but that’s about it. Consequently, there is no lawful opportunity to impose a punitive vacancy tax such as might force rents to come down.

    State law has got us coming and going: No punitive vacancy taxes permitted; No involuntary commercial rent control permitted. We are permitted “home rule” under current state law only to the extent we don’t get in the way our brave rentiers.

  • B2B

    Discouraging that the City doesn’t seem to have any control over what liquor stores sell. Bing’s (Delaware and S.P.) refuses to discontinue selling airline bottles, for example, and in spite of the murder in front of their building (and COB & BPD pressure), hasn’t replaced any of the blown out lights or cleared the windows for better visibility. I bring this up, because yeah, don’t give any grant $$ to any liquor store that isn’t actively participating in IMPROVING the neighborhood, rather than contributing to it’s problems.

  • EBGuy

    Corner grocery store… well we can dream. I suppose since Andronico’s shut down, it could, in theory happen. Miss Wild Oats, Tuk Tuk Thai… sigh.

  • guest

    As anyone who has actually studied economics and isn’t in the Tea Party
    can tell you, communities often levy a tax on negative externalities
    (e.g. we tax the sale of gasoline because it pollutes our air). Since
    empty storefronts have a negative effect on the community (blight, reduced
    commerce, harder to start a small business), it would seem reasonable to
    enact a tax that discourages landlords to leave units empty and evict
    small businesses in favor of finding a higher-paying corporation to fill the space.

  • neo-feudalism: not just theory

    I’m with you on that but state law isn’t on our side.

  • guest

    How do you know? Are you a lawyer?

  • bgal4

    very discouraging, especially because there is a legal way forward which numerous other CA cities have implemented with positive results.

  • -disappointed

    Community involvement was low because the community wasn’t invited. I own a home on Sacramento and heard nothing about this meeting.

  • neo-feudalism: not just theory

    I helped someone who was researching the topic. Later, two council members and some staff told me they had independently found the same thing. There is still talk of trying to do a vacancy fee but these are severe restrictions on how high that fee can be.

  • leilah

    You nailed it–together with a jujitsu academy and a non-descript small liquor store without off-street parking, those businesses provide absolutely no visual appeal or general attraction for any of probably 4000-5000 cars/hour passing through that intersection between 10 am to 6 pm weekdays. Compounding the problem is that new customers will be discouraged from patronizing the area until many of the existing denizens are eliminated, yet it’s the existing denizens–i.e, some of the surrounding neighborhoods which produce these folks–upon which most of the current businesses rely for their survival … and its everyone else who suffers …

  • bgal4

    No retail would come in due to violent crime and gang activity. It is only in the last few years that violent crime has been reduced. I think the real problem is still with us, the reliance on incremental change rather than substantial strategy which follows the guidelines outlined in federal Weed and Seed grant programs. It was residents who drove the “weed” out crime strategy, often with certain city staff undermining the progress. The ” seeds” are now being planted trying to attract new commercial ventures.

    The back story on how BioDiesel came in after Candy’s Car Wash folded illustrates the issues well.

  • guest

    So your suggestion is that entire neighborhood; current residents and small businesses; be wiped out and replaced?

  • leilah

    There is no “suggestion” in anything that I said–and a statement that a significant amount of the area’s current customers and loiterers act to discourage new customers and businesses is hardly a revelation.

    South Berkeley/Sacramento Street-area residents begged for an end to the pool hall and juke joint environment which claimed the 3000 block of Sacramento (at Ashby) from the ’50′s thru the ’80′s, and heralded the razing of the block to make way for the construction of low-income housing. But what was considered a win-win situation in the late-80′s became a case of “watch out what you ask for” 20-30 years later: what could be the major node of commercial activity in the area has been virtually preempted by the location of ground-floor, low-income housing. Of the three major SB intersections along Sacramento (Dwight/Sac, Ashby/Sac and Alcatraz/Sac), all have sizable housing facilities dedicated to individuals with incomes at 35% of area median income–not a demographic which really attracts new businesses … nor the business loans which often enable them.

    Of all of actions which the City/City staff can take to attract new, community-supporting businesses, the most effective will be (a) have the BPD continue to clamp-down on illegal activities and enforce “stay-away orders” for probationers and parollees, (b) if it hasn’t happened already, have community residents identify a preferred list of businesses that should be encouraged to locate along this commercial strip and (c) offer substantial incentives for “preferred” businesses to locate in this area: permit expediting, fee waivers, a business tax moratorium, low-/no-interest facade improvements loans, etc. This IS a suggestion (or three) …

  • No pretend-experts, please.

    Ted Egan, San Francisco’s Chief Economist, thinks it’s possible. I am more inclined to believe the opinions of an expert in the field than I am to believe the opinions of a layman who did some weekend research into the subject.

    http://openbook.sfgov.org/webreports/details3.aspx?id=1255

  • Charles_Siegel

    That link leads to a report on SF’s payroll tax exclusion for mid-market, which encourages new offices to locate there (including Twitter). For news about this tax exclusion, see

    http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2011/04/05/twitter-payroll-tax-market.html

    It is easy legally to exempt people from taxes (as they have done in mid-market) but it is not easy to increase taxes in California under Proposition 13.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_13_%281978%29

  • neo-feudalism: not just theory

    Did you give the wrong link?

    The link you gave points to an analysis of regressively suspending a municipal payroll tax, in some areas, as an incentive to encourage businesses to locate in those areas.

    The main concern in that situation was whether San Francisco’s payroll tax, as applied to Twitter’s post-IPO stock option compensation, would be so high that Twitter would leave the city rather than expand within the city.

    To retain Twitter, San Francisco wound up giving a tax break to a bunch of newly minted millionaires.

    We were talking, on the other hand, about the idea of taxes levied on vacant retail spaces in order to encourage lower rents, and how state law severely restricts such taxes. Perhaps there is some relevant passage in that report you meant to cite?

  • sounds compelling to me

    Relevant text is on page 3 of his report:

    …the City could structure a parcel tax on vacant commercial property, which would not apply to occupied commercial property. This would encourage owners of vacant commercial property to be flexible on rent, and thereby maximize occupancy and employment in the city.

    He says that it would have to be approved by the voters, thanks to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Prop 218 but that should be easy to do in a city as liberal as Berkeley.

    The only obstacle is a lack of political willpower.

  • guest

    Relevant text is on page 3 of his report:

    …the City could structure a parcel tax on vacant
    commercial property, which would not apply to occupied commercial
    property. This would encourage owners of vacant commercial property to
    be flexible on rent, and thereby maximize occupancy and employment in
    the city.

    He says that it would have to be approved by the voters, thanks to
    the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Prop 218 but that should be
    easy to do in a city as liberal as Berkeley.

    The only obstacle is a lack of political willpower.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Sounds compelling to me too. I hope Berkeley puts this sort of tax before the voters.

    I think lack of information might be a problem as well as lack of will power, so if you have free time, you might want to:
    – Try contacting Ted Egan to see if he has any longer documents with this opinion.

    – Send those documents to our city councilmembers.
    – Maybe write a Berkeleyside op-ed about the subject.

  • neo-feudalism: not just theory

    structure a parcel tax on vacant commercial property, which could not apply to occupied commercial property.

    I understand the confusion but Egan is talking about a very different concern: a large amount of vacated office space and under-developed property, concentrated in a small area.

    In Berkeley, the situation is different. The interest has mainly been in on imposing a fee or tax on empty retail spaces that dot active commercial corridors.

    Here is why that difference matters:

    The closest allowable legal basis for a parcel tax of this kind would be a “use basis”. It doesn’t work, though.

    The problem is that there isn’t really a legally relevant difference in use between an occupied retail space, and one that is between tenants. Berkeley could create a new tax on all the retail spaces in one of our commercial corridors, but it couldn’t selectively tax spaces that are between tenants.

    In contrast, Egan’s idea might make some sense in the San Francisco situation he was talking about:

    If the tenants he wants to attract to big office buildings can be
    construed as a new category of use, then a special tax on the existing
    use categories in that small area would do the trick.

    The incentive
    would work this way: If you (landlord of a big office building) want to get out of this parcel
    tax then find a way to attract tenants who will help redevelop in this area
    and get approved for new uses to which the special tax does not apply.

    Such a trick wouldn’t apply to Berkeley’s retail vacancy problem, though. New taxes on existing retail use categories would equally hurt businesses that are already there.

  • Stop trying to play expert.

    I understand the confusion but Egan is talking about a very different
    concern: a large amount of vacated office space and under-developed
    property, concentrated in a small area.

    No, he isn’t. You are putting words in his mouth to create straw men arguments for you to knock down with weak, opinion-based arguments that have no basis in the law or local ordinances.

    By your own admission you are not an expert in or educated about these matters so unless you can find an authoritative source that backs up your claims please stop.

  • Deja Vu
  • guest

    understand the confusion but Egan is talking about a very different
    concern: a large amount of vacated office space and under-developed
    property, concentrated in a small area.

    The linked paper does not make this distinction at all. The rest of your comment is irrelevant since it seems to be based on something that is not actually in the text under consideration.

  • neo-feudalism: not just theory

    Clearly we disagree about what the document says but anyone who cares can read it for context (link below).

    In all seriousness if you believe you know of a legally viable strategy for imposing a punitive retail vacancy tax in Berkeley I suggest you spell out the details to Jesse Arreguin’s office. I don’t speak for him but I think he has taken the lead on the issue and would be grateful to hear of a way to do it. (To be useful, it probably has to be a little more specific than “structure a parcel tax”.)

    In fact, I think if you want to you can become semi-famous throughout California because Berkeley isn’t the only municipality that has looked into whether a punitive retail vacancy tax was possible.

    Earlier you said that only political will stood in the way. I do agree with that, by the way, but not in the way you meant. A change in law at the state level would do the trick.

    http://openbook.sfgov.org/webreports/details3.aspx?id=1255

  • Round in circles we go…

    This continues to feel like a repeat of 3 years ago. You still have no authoritative evidence to support your opinion and that the only evidence presented in this discussion continues to be comments from UC Berkeley Economics professor and former Chief Economist of San Francisco Ted Egan saying that it is definitely possible but that it is difficult to enact since it goes against the interests of developers & commercial property owners who are usually large political donors.

    If you have any evidence to support your opinion please present it. Re-posting links I already posted do not add anything to the discussion.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I was curious about the debate over whether we could have a vacancy tax, so I emailed Ted Egan asking him. My question was:

    Some people involved in Berkeley city government are citing your work to claim that we can impose a vacancy tax to deal with the many vacant storefronts in Berkeley. …
    Others say that this would only work where there are vacant buildings and properties. It could not apply to mixed use buildings that have vacant storefronts but that have rented out the apartments above.
    Could you answer this question for us? Could it apply to individual storefronts? Also, can you tell us if you have written about it at greater length?

    He replied:

    Our office has not written any more on the subject since the economic impact report you referenced.
    Since we published that report, I have been advised that it would be unnecessary and cumbersome to structure it as a parcel tax. Instead, it could be structured more simply as an excise tax imposed on persons for the privilege of maintaining vacant commercial property in a city. There would be flexibility in defining what “vacant commercial property” means.
    I do think that any such measure would need to be carefully tailored to ensure that it did not have unintended consequences. But this is my understanding of what is possible.

    So, if the city wants to go ahead with a vacancy tax, the first step would be to get someone to analyze the legal issues at greater length than than the brief mention in the economic impact report and particularly to analyze the possibility of an excise tax (while the impact report mentions a parcel tax). But it does look likely that it would be possible.

  • Guest

    Thank you for taking the time to do this, Charles. Nice to see someone take forward action to further their argument rather than just recycling the same old nay-saying comments from 3 years ago.

  • beyond neo-feudalism

    That confirms that the parcel tax policy idea from San Francisco wasn’t the result of a legal analysis of what is permitted under state law. Saying “excise tax” doesn’t help much here because there are no transactions, goods transferred, or revenues to tax while a retail space is between tenants. As noted earlier, the city can charge a “vacancy registration fee” for city-supplied activities such as monitoring these spaces for blight but the catch is that the fee is limited to covering the actual and reasonable costs of doing those things.

    Here is a proposal that’s come up that is more carrot and less stick:

    For long-standing retail vacancies in certain commercial corridors the city or its designated agent could offer to become a tenant of last resort.

    As this tenant of last resort the city or its agent would:

    + offer to pay a guaranteed rent, though well below market rate

    + offer to share a portion of revenues from the property up to a capped amount

    + promise to vacate on reasonably short notice if requested

    + offer very short term subleases (days, weeks, small numbers of months), subdividing when possible, for non-traditional uses that are appropriate to a retail district. Examples would include pop-up businesses, galleries, seasonal wifi-equipped study lounges, and spaces for not-too-loud performances.

    It is a hard proposal to get right, though:

    * city staff isn’t in the subleasing businesses so a suitable designated agent would have to be found or created

    * politically, and for good reason, it would have to be modestly revenue-positive for the city

    * there are a lot of contracts and transactions in the system so managing transaction costs would be difficult

    * the market for such subtenancies is untested

    * the supply of landlords who would take up the offer is untested

  • Charles_Siegel

    In the real world, the way the city could proceed is as follows:
    – Hire Ted Egan or someone else to write up the legal theory behind his excise tax proposal.
    – Send that document to the city attorney for analysis.

    – If the city attorney agrees, then put the tax on the ballot.

    I hope someone in city hall is listening.

  • Chris J

    I’m sure he does, but given the stakes, there will be other ‘experts’ who will cannily argue against blight taxes. I understand a reticence to put faith in even a studied layman’s opinion, but it will ultimately be decided in a court by experts…who will probably rely on the research of near laymen/paralegals anyway.

  • rlauriston

    You should add the places on the east side of Adeline to that restaurant map. There are also several vacant retail spaces along that side of the street with planning notices regarding conversion to restaurants. There’s also at least one restaurant on Alcatraz just east of Adeline.

  • emraguso

    Thanks! Which places are you thinking of?

  • Charles_Siegel

    It is time for this issue to be hashed out again, since the council is considering a vacancy tax. http://www.dailycal.org/2014/02/28/city-council-ballot-measure-proposes-tax-vacant-storefronts/

    The article in the Daily Cal doesn’t say whether it is a tax or a fee. I would be interested to know the legal theory that supports it.