More than two years after the Berkeley City Council voted to enact rules to regulate street behavior and limit storage in public spaces, a council majority voted Thursday night to move ahead with revisions to those rules — and set the groundwork to enforce them.
Controversial regulations regarding sidewalk use that were approved during a split council vote in late 2015 were never put into place. The November 2016 election put in charge a new council majority and mayor. They sought to frame the focus and enforcement differently from the earlier draft, and allow for more public input about the best way forward. In the end, however, the goal remained largely the same. Mayor Jesse Arreguín said Thursday, during a special meeting of the City Council, that the revised policy aims to make sidewalks and other public areas accessible and welcoming to everyone without unfairly penalizing those who live on the streets.
Dozens of advocates for homeless individuals, as well as those individuals themselves, decried the new regulations, which they said they fear will create more problems for people already struggling to survive. Business owners and some members of the public, meanwhile, pleaded with city officials to do something about what one described as increasingly lawless conditions throughout Berkeley that are having a detrimental impact for too much of the community. The special meeting took place in the Longfellow Middle School auditorium in anticipation of the large crowd it was expected to draw.
The original agenda for the meeting, crafted by Arreguín and Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, included a policy on encampments, in addition to the sidewalk measures. But Arreguín announced at the beginning of the evening that more work needed to be done on the encampments piece of the legislation. He asked to postpone consideration of that element, and his suggestion met no opposition. The council discussion Thursday ultimately focused on a slightly revised draft of the sidewalk regulations, which was brought to the meeting by Councilwoman Kate Harrison.
What do the regulations entail?
The proposal would limit the storage of personal items on city sidewalks to a 9-square-foot footprint, though “cushioning material” is exempt from the rules, as long as it’s deemed to be of a size that is “reasonably needed.” (The dimensions of the storage space could be measured as “3 x 3, 4 x 2.25, 9×1, etc.,” the rules note.)
Nothing can be placed, however, in parklets or within the “path of travel” on any sidewalk: Council agreed that 6 feet must be left open on sidewalks narrower than 14 feet. For sidewalks that are 14 feet or more, the path of travel is to be at least 10 feet wide. During the day, items cannot be placed in front, or within 3 feet, of building entrances, but people are allowed to use those areas from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m.
The regulations allow sitting on sidewalks at all times, but limit when and where people can lie down. Lying down is prohibited in BART “access corridors” — within 25 feet of station entrances, and also on the west side of Shattuck Avenue between Addison Street and Allston Way; on sidewalks in residential and mixed-use residential zones; and in commercial and industrial zones from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily except Sunday, when council said everyone on the street should be allowed to sleep in until 10 a.m. City laws will continue to permit anyone to lie down in all parks during open hours.
The “path of travel” must be kept clear at all times, however. Some members of the public alleged that numerous businesses currently use the public right-of-way for signs and other unpermitted items related to commercial operations; officials asked staff to investigate those reports to ensure that everyone complies with the new rules.
The regulations note that enforcement can be done anytime the city becomes aware of violations. Written notice of violations must be provided. The mayor said citations could be waived if people sign up for services. Violations are to be designated as infractions, rather than misdemeanors, to limit criminal consequences, officials said. Some council members said they hope it’s not police, but other city staff, who handle the enforcement when possible.
Under the proposal, the city will be able to remove items that do not comply with the rules, but only when written notice has been given, and time allowed for property to be moved. If the city does remove items, they must be stored for later collection by the owner. The city said it will also provide secure storage facilities for use by those on the streets. Those details are still in the works. (An earlier proposal to provide storage was ultimately scrapped in response to neighborhood complaints, and the city is still trying to find a feasible, convenient solution.)
The regulations also note that only two dogs “shall be permitted in any 10-foot area on Commercial Sidewalks or in Parklets, except for guide dogs, signal dogs or service dogs, as provided by state law.”
Councilwoman Hahn stressed that, ideally, the remedy for most violations will be that people agree to move their items within the required 9-square-foot area outside the path of travel. In those instances, no citations or other penalties would result.
Hahn also took pains to remind meeting attendees that the city has made huge investments in services and facilities to help those on the streets, including the Pathways center on Second Street, set to open later this year, expanded access to restrooms, hand-washing stations and garbage receptacles, a more flexible and robust approach to its winter shelter program, and more.
According to data available last year, the city spends about $18 million annually in federal, state and local funds on a wide array of homelessness programs and services, and is working on a “visionary” $90 million homeless housing development on Berkeley Way. (That project has changed shape over time in response to available resources, and the current cost estimate was unavailable as of publication time.)
“No one in this room believes homelessness is a good thing,” Hahn said Thursday night. “Yet, through massive failures of our society and our way of life, it is a persistent reality in California, and across the United States. In the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation, we have yet to create a system that allocates wealth equitably, and ensures basic rights and securities to all.”
The council vote Thursday night asked the city manager to come back with an ordinance that follows the policy guidance set forward by city officials. No enforcement can be undertaken until that policy returns for further public discussion, review and a vote.
Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, who represents West Berkeley, was the lone abstention, with the other officials present voting in favor of the proposal. Davila said her main concern is the criminalization of those who don’t comply with the rules, and how that might have negative impacts on their lives.
Councilmen Ben Bartlett and Kriss Worthington were absent from the meeting.
The next Berkeley City Council meeting comes Tuesday, May 1. See the agenda.