The race for Berkeley’s District 8 seat, soon to be vacated by City Councilman Gordon Wozniak, is the most competitive of the 2014 election season. Four candidates are vying for the post: George Beier, Michael Alvarez Cohen, Lori Droste, and Jacquelyn McCormick.
The Downtown Berkeley Association recently sent a set of questions to the four candidates. They mostly focused on their vision of the downtown, although one asked about the city’s finances. We publish their responses below:
What is your vision for the downtown and its role in the city?
Downtown Berkeley is the heart of our City. It should function as our civic living room where diverse communities come together to shop, to experience the arts, to entertain themselves, and to meet people. Berkeley is also a job-rich community — the housing downtown should reflect this, with a mix of students, professionals, and empty-nester retirees in apartments and condominiums. We must also strive to retain our ethnic and economic diversity.
Michael Alvarez Cohen
My vision for our Downtown is that it becomes a vibrant center for our city and the region based on our Downtown establishing a unique combination of four world-class attributes related to learning, playing, living and working. Each attribute is outlined below.
Learning: Our Downtown is already a world-class center for learning due to its adjacency and integration with Cal.
Playing: Our Downtown has been emerging as a world-class destination for playing based on its restaurants, entertainment and cultural attractions – including the imminent new University museum.
Living: Our Downtown is on track to become a world-class location for living based on the housing projects that are in the pipeline (approved by the ZAB), and housing projects that are in the development phase (pre approval).
Working: Our Downtown has the potential to become a world-class cluster for careers in the innovation economy. I’m helping to lead initiatives that will achieve this potential, and I have a track record of award winning success in this area. For example, I co-founded and am on the steering team for the Berkeley Startup Cluster; I co-founded the East Bay Innovation Center in West Berkeley; and I conceived, co-championed and ramped-up the Skydeck startup accelerator. I’m working on a new initiative that I code-named the Berkeley City/University Collaborative for Development and Commercialization (Berkeley CU-CDC
The success of Downtown Berkeley is critical to the future of Berkeley. My vision for Downtown consists of a vibrant, walkable, safe, useful, convenient, comfortable heart of the city. Although downtown Berkeley has made great strides in the past few years, it still suffers from some persistent problems, namely the existence/perception of antisocial street behavior and visitor inaccessibility.
I believe the most important priority to make Downtown more exciting is to create more housing which will directly affect our economy. We need to increase housing in our downtown that can appeal to both millennials and empty nesters. As more people choose to live downtown, demand for a variety of retail and office space will ensue. I represent the demographic of individuals who want to live downtown. We need to have a voice on City Council for those individuals.
There should also be more entertainment options, especially ones that cater to the young professionals and families. This market is still untapped in Berkeley. We could have a specific weeknight with special promotions. We also could hold free concerts in Civic Center Park.
Downtown could also benefit from a void analysis to see what the retail demands look like. I would imagine that a mid-sized supermarket, a clothing boutique, and something akin to the Ferry Building which could feature local artisans would be popular. Of course, this requires some updating of the zoning code but I think people would get behind it. I currently am serving on the Housing Advisory Commission’s subcommittee to examine inefficient sections of our zoning code.
There is no reason our Downtown cannot be a vital, vibrant destination for everyone in the city and the region. While we should be building housing around transit we need to also provide the infrastructure of services to support the residents – especially if they don’t have cars. All the new development should be comprehensively planned, including vibrant retail space with more cultural arts – planned, leased and ready to open when the project is completed. Bodegas, childcare services, health services and open spaces should be incorporated. We cannot build housing without accommodating families of middle to lower incomes that could truly benefit by living closer to their jobs. Streetscape could be modified with center medians large enough to house small kiosk operations that would link the wide span of Shattuck Avenue. Let’s do some work on visioning what Shattuck COULD look like: renderings, virtual walk-throughs that could get the community excited about the future of our downtown.
What is your position on the Downtown Initiative?
Michael Alvarez Cohen
I don’t support Measure R. I’ve been on Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board for eight years, and for the past two years I was unanimously elected as Chair. Accordingly, I have a great deal of experience with our Downtown Plan (and more experience than all the other District 8 city council candidates).
Over the past few years our Downtown has been improving, and I’m optimistic about its trajectory under the current Downtown Plan. However, our current Downtown Plan has opportunities for refinement. These periodic refinements are a normal process in land-use, and therefore they should be implemented via the normal planning process.
In contrast, Measure R comprises a large, complex set of changes. Implementing those changes as a ballot measure is not prudent because: (1) we have to accept all or none of the changes, and (2) if we approve the ballot, then we can’t readily refine the plan through the normal planning process.
Measure R will stall the momentum that our Downtown is experiencing, and it will impede our ability to maintain a normal process of periodically refining our Downtown land-use. Consequently I don’t support Measure R.
I am opposed to the Downtown Initiative.
I support Measure R. The community benefits that were promised to Berkeley in 2010 should be mandated. That is what we thought we were getting when we overwhelmingly approved the original measure – providing those benefits should not be voluntary. And I make this statement as someone with over 30 years of commercial real estate experience. There is no reason that the developers who wrote the original measure in 2010 should not deliver on their “promises”. Yes, delivering these benefits will have an impact on the profit that they put in their pockets – but Berkeley has expanded our zoning for downtown to provide them with this opportunity to develop and make a substantial amount of money. It is “industry standard” to expect developers to give more to get more. And they still make a healthy profit. Will some of the current developers walk away from their plans? Perhaps. But there will be others right behind them that will gladly step up to the opportunity to build in downtown Berkeley.
I am against the initiative. Some parts of the Downtown Initiative are good: public bathrooms, a greater pool of workers making the prevailing wage, more local hires, more parking downtown. However, taken as a whole, I believe the package will stop development downtown. The downtown hotel project is “on hold” and I think the developer is serious about cancelling the project should the downtown initiative pass. Also, the only way to change anything is to go back to the ballot. So if the council wants to change the rules regarding any component of the plan, such as bicycle parking, they have to put that decision on the ballot. We cannot govern our city this way.
What is your perception regarding parking in the Downtown? And how would this impact your opinion on land use issues in the Downtown (e.g., Berkeley Way lot, new development)?
Parking is a very complicated issue that I have experience in addressing due to my public policy background. I worked in the City of Oakland to address parking problems and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Downtown Berkeley suffers from a parking management problem and unclear user information. We should employ evidence-based practices that increase the availability of parking and travel alternatives. Land use is an important component when addressing parking issues. A few land use options to address parking shortages are:
- regulating and pricing parking spaces appropriately to ensure parking viability
- improving pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure
- developing an overflow parking plan
- encouraging the use of public transit
- increase user information
“Go-Berkeley” has helped – at least from my perspective; and I go downtown often. That being said, if we want our residents who live in the hills and in West Berkeley to come to our Downtown we need to provide parking that is accessible and well signed. Too many of our residents shop outside of Berkeley because of parking convenience and that does nothing to help Berkeley’s economic growth. Part of this year’s Measure R – Downtown Initiative incents developers to add parking for the public in exchange for added penthouse apartment space.
I have repeatedly called for increased parking downtown in my interviews with various endorsement groups, with voters, and in my candidate’s statement for the ballot. Without parking, we will not have successful businesses.
I have knocked on the doors of over 1000 people in District 8 and asked people where they shop. Almost to a person they said “Walnut Creek” or “Emeryville”. I asked why they didn’t shop downtown and they said “no parking”. In other words, many people are driving a long way to shop.
I would support the development of a parking garage on the Berkeley Way lot if a multiservice center is built there. We’re going to lose the Center St garage during its period of renovation / earthquake retrofitting. The proposed UC Theater will be a large entertainment venue competing for parking with other downtown uses. This will worsen the parking situation downtown.
Michael Alvarez Cohen
I see the Downtown as a regional destination, not just a city center. Accordingly, all of its channels of transportation should be robust. These channels include, first and foremost, public transit; but also include driving – and that requires parking. I have observed that city and regional downtown centers such as Palo Alto, Santa Cruz and Santa Monica have ample parking. Therefore, I think that our Downtown should have augmented smart, environmentally friendly parking options. For example, our augmented parking should include more car sharing spots, electric charging stations, and also parking fees that give discounts to low or no-emission vehicles.
What are your thoughts regarding the persistent street behavior challenges in the Downtown, Telegraph and other areas in the City?
We cannot criminalize the homeless nor should we single them out through enforcement. Our homeless and transient population is a regional issue and Berkeley’s leadership should be leading on creating solutions to deal with it. There are many resources, both city and non-profit, that are willing and able to help but there is not collaborated effort to bring those services together. The current Homelessness Task Force and the Downtown Business Association are working on this issue but we need Berkeley’s leadership to get behind them and set this work as a priority for the city.
I think it’s important to focus on behavior (public intoxication, drug use, violence, etc.) and not the individual. Having said that, I would support a temporary ordinance banning sitting on the sidewalk for certain areas. For example, I would make it illegal to sit/lie on Telegraph on the blocks from Dwight to Bancroft for the next 6 months with an evaluation period after that.
Michael Alvarez Cohen
I have worked in the Downtown for a dozen years. I walk, bike, and carpool to my office. When I carpool, I park in UC Berkeley lots that are located 4-6 blocks from my office. So I frequently walk through our Downtown. Likewise, I like to take my children on bike rides to the campus, and on the way we frequently visit or pass through the Elmwood, Telegraph Ave and Peoples Park.
Due to my interest in our city’s vitality, I scrutinize street behavior. I’m saddened and frustrated by the street behavior in our Downtown and other commercial districts. Many District 8 residents have told me that they don’t visit our commercial districts – especially Downtown and Telegraph, because the street behavior makes those areas uninviting.
Therefore, I support high standards and enforcement of street behavior.
We should not tolerate anti-social street behavior. We need to make sure that businesses can thrive but also that our mentally ill and addicted population get help. I am equipped to handle this issue because I have worked firsthand with the homeless and addicted population. We also need to work with various stakeholders to address the crime that occurs in People’s Park.
Some best practices for reducing problematic street behavior include:
- Public education to discourage panhandling and contribute to vouchers or homeless organizations.
- Zero tolerance policies for anti-social and dangerous behavior
- Enforce the municipal code that prohibits pedestrian interference during the daytime. We need to make sure that disabled individuals and the elderly have safe access in our downtown.
- Evaluate existing programs using performance metrics to see how we can better serve the homeless population
What are your ideas for making Berkeley a more welcoming environment for new businesses, particularly for retail and office space in the Downtown?
I had a business with 35 employees and looked hard for a space downtown. I ended up moving the business down to 4th street because there was not adequate Class A space and parking downtown. So to bring businesses downtown, I’d focus on development of good space and parking.
The other factor for a business owner is that you want to have a place where your employees want to work. This means the area must be safe, clean, exciting, attractive, and fun. This is why, for example, downtown San Francisco works so well for many businesses. Downtown Berkeley is improving, but it’s still not a place that people really want to be. Until this problem is solved, downtown will always be struggling to attract businesses, both office and retail.
And, for retail, parking is the number 1 issue. Walnut Creek, Albany, and Emeryville have large, free parking garages. Their retail areas are booming. It’s not a coincidence.
Michael Alvarez Cohen
Check-out my An Even Better Berkeley 2020 Plan . It has a description of our economic development challenges (i.e. innovation drain), a cogent competitive strategy, and a corresponding 9-point plan. The 9-point plan is excerpted below.
1 – Educate the building owner / developer community on the opportunity for more office space – including Class A office space. I call this my “if you build it, they will stay” presentation. It was successful in West Berkeley in that it resulted in the QB3 East Bay Innovation Center.
2 – Bring fiber-based gigabit internet to our Downtown and West Berkeley (as well as other parts of our city), and establish ubiquitous WiFi in the Downtown. If Berkeley doesn’t have this infrastructure by 2018, then we won’t be competitive with other Bay Area business clusters.
3 – Expand the number of business incubators, accelerators and shared office spaces. We already have four in the Downtown; we should have at least 10. My goal is for Berkeley to have the highest concentration of shared office space – just like we are among the densest areas for hybrid car ownership and bookstores.
4 – Organize a Berkeley mentor and angel investor network for entrepreneurs (including women and underserved groups of entrepreneurs). We’ve begun doing this with the Advisory Forum of the Berkeley Startup Cluster – which I Chair. This Forum could be 10x larger.
5 – Establish more public-private partnerships for economic development – such as the three that I co-founded: Berkeley Startup Cluster, Skydeck | Berkeley, and QB3 East Bay Innovation Center. I’m working on my fourth public-private partnership, called the Berkeley City/University Collaborative for Development & Commercialization (C/U CDC). It’s modeled after the National Science Foundation’s successful Industry/University Collaborative Research Centers.
6 – Seed more entrepreneurial events in the Downtown and West Berkeley as exemplified by this list of local events. Note that at the time of this questionnaire, companies in the Berkeley Startup Cluster are listing more than 50 job opportunities.
7 – Drive awareness of Berkeley’s emerging entrepreneurial cluster in the regional and global tech communities.
8 – Model the successful Emery Go-Round shuttle by growing a Berkeley shuttle service to better integrate Downtown public transportation with West Berkeley.
9 – Continue to encourage the University to grow a tech business cluster adjacent to the campus because it bolsters Cal’s research and education missions (as well as drives economic vitality for our city).
We can create a vibrant downtown by partnering with DBA, a couple of building owners, entrepreneurs, and artists to transform an entire block, preferably ones with vacant storefronts. We publically call for entries for pop-up and permanent businesses to assess the demand for business investment. Over 1 year, we should create 2-3 pop-up businesses, host several events, and recruit permanent businesses to fill the entire block (i.e. see West Village, Detroit best practices).
We can also examine ways to utilize storefront properties that have large inventory facilities which are no longer needed. We could then examine the zoning code to allow for more varied retail.
The amount of office development in the past 34 years is alarming. Berkeley is way behind other Bay Area cities in encouraging industrial and office development. Berkeley developed 1/3 fewer spaces than Alameda with 80% less square footage. Downtown really needs office space. There has only been a net rentable area growth of 4% in the past 15 years. If we attract people to our downtown, the demand for retail and work spaces will ensue.
I believe our rents are too high and new development is not providing comprehensive leasing of ground floor space when they deliver their projects. This should be a criteria for any new development in downtown. Also we could do a better job of promoting co-op businesses. I serve on our Loan Administration Board that is beginning to promote financial assistance to small business owners that could help with fixturing and expansion of their business. Berkeley is the perfect city that could serve as a hub for “co-work” space both for the arts and for smaller office environments.
What do you see as the critical management and financial issues facing the City over the next several years?
Michael Alvarez Cohen
My philosophical framework for great (not just good) governance is called the 3 Pillars of Sustainable Government: fiscal sustainability, institutional sustainability, and environmental sustainability. Governments that achieve those three pillars thrive, and those that don’t are hobbled and flounder. Sadly, Berkeley is grappling with all three pillars.
Berkeley has environmental sustainability issues in that we are falling behind on our climate action plan.
We have institutional sustainability issues as exemplified by our decaying infrastructure – including our parks.
Our city also has fiscal sustainability challenges in that our short-term budget has structural deficits, and our long-term budget has solvency issues.
Those are the high-level critical management issues that our city is facing.
I have a 3-point plan for addressing our fiscal sustainability. The 3-points are: revenues, systems and processes. Here’s a summary of the 3 points:
Revenues: We have the potential to increase our revenues by growing our number of clean jobs, and thereby increasing our commercial tax base. We have lots of opportunity for growing our commercial tax base (as highlighted in my response to question 5 above). For comparison, Palo Alto has half of our population but over $20 million more in its general fund. Likewise, Santa Monica has 90% of our population but 2x our general fund.
Systems: We need to modernize the city government’s financial systems. Our current system is based on pre-Windows software that is over 20 years old. You can’t efficiently and transparently run a large government organization without a modern enterprise resource system. Consequently, modernizing our city’s financial system is primal to improving all aspects of our city government.
Processes: We should introduce the outcome-based budgeting process to Berkeley. This process is transparent and a best practice in many leading cities.
No other District 8 city council candidate is more qualified than me to execute on the above 3-point plan. I earned a Harvard MBA. I’ve run large and small organizations. I’m also a specialist and frequent conference speaking on Gov 2.0 technology, online civic engagement, open government, and out-come based budgeting.
Looming pension obligations. We can start to address this issue by increasing revenue through economic growth and analyzing the effectiveness of our programs through performance metrics. We should examine our unfunded liabilities and come up with a strategic vision with community and stakeholder input to make sure our city is fiscally healthy.
Berkeley is facing severe financial hurdles and if we do not create a plan to deal with these challenges we will continue to lose infrastructure services and improvements and City services and staff. We have a great Climate Action Plan and Zero Waste Goals – there is no reason we cannot develop a long term Fiscal Action Plan that would have intermediate goals to address this crisis. And we must ensure that ALL stakeholders are
involved in the process. That is the only way we will be able to get buy-in and truly begin to address our financial future. These will be hard decisions for all concerned but we have the intellect and capacity to deal with the reality and come up with solutions. We can do it but we should not wait any longer to start doing so.
Berkeley has a looming pension shortfall of $4 million annually. This is going to seriously impact the General Fund. In addition, wages have been frozen for many employees for the past 3 years. Berkeley is becoming harder and harder to afford, and our infrastructure is in bad shape. Fortunately, we’re being assisted currently by a jump in the Transfer Tax, though this is temporary.
I am supporting both the Parks Tax and the Sugar Tax to earn money for parks and for the general fund. Also, as an MBA in finance from the Haas School, I look forward to becoming the budget expert on the City Council.
We will also be undergoing a sea change in our political leadership. Many of the players that have run the City (and the East Bay) are leaving the scene. Developing the next generation of leaders is of critical importance if we are going to ensure good, responsible government.
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