Opinion: To save the underfunded but popular Berkeley Marina, add a waterfront hotel and improve security

Berkeley doesn’t need to spend $1.2M to study what to do with the Marina. Adding a hotel could wipe out the Marina Fund’s deficit and bring needed activity to that part of the shoreline.

The impound dock at the Berkeley Marina. Most of these boats are older fiberglass sailboats in the 22-27 ft. size range that are not worth as much as the delinquent fees on their berths, so the owners have walked away. Despite periodic attempts by the city to auction them off, most of these old boats are headed for the landfill. The vacancy rate for berths for this size boat is above 50%. Photo: Paul Kamen

Is the Berkeley Marina worth saving?

The Berkeley Marina, a 100-acre park with seven miles of trails and many nature activities, is run under an “Enterprise Fund” that is, by statute, kept isolated from the city’s General Fund. The annual Marina Fund budget is $7.2 million. The Marina was completed in essentially its present form in the mid-1960s and has been financially self-sustaining. Until now. The marina is facing a structural deficit of somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million per year. The fund will be bankrupt in 2021, according to a Dec. 13 city report.

(See also the recent Berkeleyside article on the Berkeley Marina’s financial situation)

Is the Berkeley Marina worth saving? Let’s review the amenities and services that the Berkeley Marina now supports:

  • 1,000 private boat berths, all sizes and types, representing a wide range of budgets.
  • 100 Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC)-permitted low-cost residential units on live-aboard boats. (This is not a scalable solution to low-cost housing, but it does demonstrate the feasibility of “tiny” residential units, especially in conjunction with shared public facilities.)
  • 13 BCDC-permitted houseboats. (Non-navigable live-aboard floating structures, with shore connections to utilities and sewage lines.)
  • A very low-cost sailing & windsurfing club (Cal Sailing Club). Providing free sailing access to several thousand visitors/year and very low-cost sailing lessons, plus sailing ops for youth and camp groups.
  • A very low-cost paddling club (Berkeley Racing Canoe Center). Providing free on-the-water dragon boat paddling to several thousand people/year, all ages, plus donated excursions to support multiple local non-profits, youth and camp groups, plus very inexpensive access to club-owned kayaks and outriggers.
  • Multiple shoreline parks, picnic areas and scenic vista points.
  • Miles of marina paths and trails including paths in Cesar Chavez Park.
    The level 1.3-mile perimeter trail in Cesar Chavez Park is especially popular with seniors.
  • Shorebird Nature Center. Hosting environmental education programs, featuring the Straw Bale Building and other environmentally progressive youth programs.
  • Adventure Playground. A very popular and unique play area.
  • Two popular commercial sailing schools:
    Cal Adventures, offering small boat, kayak and windsurfer rentals and instruction in the South Cove, and OCSC, offering market-rate big-boat sailing instruction and charters.
  • Pegasus Foundation. Year-round sailing youth program on a 51-ft classic sailboat at no cost to participants.
  • The recreational beach in the South Cove, near the Shorebird Nature Center
  • Berkeley Yacht Club.
    Summer youth program and free access to year-round big-boat sailing as race crew. Also offering very low-cost meeting and event space to local boating non-profits, to city departments, and other non-profit organizations.
  • Kayak polo club. Associated with the Realm Charter School.
  • Six different venues for indoor public events and meetings.
    Hotel, restaurants, yacht club, and marina conference room.
  • A large off-leash dog area in Cesar Chavez Park.
  • Protected burrowing owl habitat in Cesar Chavez Park.
  • Protected meadow habitat, part of the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park.
  • Easy pedestrian and bike access via a dedicated bicycle and pedestrian overpass.
  • Four major annual festival events hosted by the Berkeley Marina:
    (financed exclusively by the Marina Fund)
    Berkeley Bay Festival.
    Berkeley Kite Festival.
    Berkeley July 4 Festival and fireworks.
    Winter on the Waterfront winter festival.
  • Public Fishing Pier, no state fishing license required (currently closed).
    Awaiting repair or replacement at a projected cost of $21 million. A new fishing pier might be incorporated into a new ferry terminal.
  • Isolated breakwater with bird habitat.
    (Supports a nesting colony of black oystercatchers, one of only five in the Bay Area.)
  • Fish boat fleet.
    About 10 charter fishing boats, daily fishing and crabbing trips, accessible to the public at market rates.
  • Public small-scale commuter ferry service to San Francisco.
  • Excursion boat terminal supporting 4 dinner cruise boats.
    (Hornblower Charters and Events.)
  • Bait and tackle store.
  • Public boat launch ramp.
  • Public boat hoists for launching dinghies and medium-size sailboats.
  • Designated San Francisco Bay Water Trail trailhead.
    Access and launch sites for kayaks, small rowing craft, windsurfers, kiteboards and other low-cost boating modes.
  • Dry storage yard for trailer boats.
  • Full-service boatyard and boatbuilder (Berkeley Marine Center).
  • Commercial office space.A few thousand square feet near the Marina office.
  • Two low-cost cafes:
    Seabreeze, the Bait Shop, plus mobile vendors.
  • Three upscale restaurants:
    Skates, Hana Japan, and DoubleTree hotel restaurant. (Hs. Lordships has permanently closed.)
  • Head-on parking with a spectacular Bay view.
    Along the south portion of Seawall Drive, accommodating sedentary visitors to the waterfront.
  • 378-room DoubleTree hotel.
    Contributing about $1.4 million/year in lease revenue to the Marina Fund, and substantially more than that in room tax to the city’s General Fund.

If the Marina fund becomes insolvent, we might be able to preserve the core boat-berthing function. But nearly everything else – all the activities and amenities that serve the non-boat-owning public – will most likely go away.

The Berkeley Racing Canoe Center gave free boat rides to about 500 people during Berkeley Bay Festival, and even more on July 4. Cal Sailing Club does the same with small sailboats during Bay Fest and frequent open house events. Marina support for this kind of public access would most likely end under private management. Photo: Paul Kamen

Yes, the Berkeley Marina is worth saving. But how?

The staff report calls for a $1.2 million planning effort to revise the Berkeley Marina Area Specific Plan (BMASP), the endpoint being a “new vision” for the waterfront.

The Berkeley Marina does not need a “new vision.” It needs an additional hotel.

The Doubletree, in a good year, contributes $1.4 million of the Marina Fund’s $7.2 million budget. Another 300-room hotel would put the fund comfortably in the black and make the fund indefinitely sustainable.

With the Hs. Lordships restaurant gone, there’s room for a new hotel on the footprint of the restaurant and the adjacent parking lot. Hotel rooms with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge will be extremely lucrative; potential hotel investors have already expressed interest. Finances aside, a new hotel would be an improvement to this part of the waterfront; it would bring legitimate 24-hour activity, making it safe and accessible after hours. As it is now, Hs. Lordships parking lot is best known as the place to go for a late night gang fight.

By all accounts, a new hotel would most likely be carbon-neutral, possibly with a living roof, designed from the keel up to be resilient against sea level rise. It could be a showcase for wind and solar power and sustainable design. Viewed from the east, it could replace a surface parking lot with what appears to be a grassy hillside, and replace parked cars with landscaped paths on a living roof.

The new hotel strategy has been on the table for decades, and it’s surprising that the report seems to ignore this obvious solution. Short of continuous large subsidies flowing from the city’s General Fund to the Marina Fund, there is no other proposal that could maintain the diverse public services we now enjoy on the Berkeley Waterfront.

Vacant 25-ft berths on J-Dock. In this size category,the vacancy rate is over 50%. Demand has shifted away from this size berth since the Marina was designed. Photo: Paul Kamen

The majority of the Marina Fund income is from boat berthing, and the boat berth vacancy rate is at an all-time high, above 20%. The short-term strategy must address this issue, and this must be centered on better security. Any boat owner who has had their car hit multiple times by smash-and-grab crime is leaving Berkeley for Emeryville or Richmond, and restaurant customers aren’t coming back either after their car windows are broken in the parking lot. The Marina has only one road in and one road out, perfect for a security kiosk and a license plate reader. A sensible implementation will not restrict park access and will not compromise privacy. This is a relatively inexpensive option that could be implemented on a relatively fast timeline compared to major infrastructure upgrades.

There are other marketing deficiencies that track with the catastrophic drop in occupancy rates, specifically the failure to keep the Marina office open on Sundays or after 4 p.m. on weekdays. This appears to be ongoing fallout from two embezzlement incidents in years past, with the result that the city now requires at least two staff present whenever the Marina office is open. There are technological solutions that could address this problem, but they require some cooperation between management and staff and a common interest in improving the Marina’s public profile.

Removing the Berkeley Marina’s monthly ad from our regional sailing magazine (Latitude 38) corresponds to the beginning of the decline in berther occupancy. This is the “newspaper of record” for Bay Area sailors, and the first place we look for marina and harbor contact information. No, we don’t need to hire a marketing consultant, as the staff report recommends. We need to bring back the ads in the sailing magazine.

But that’s just re-arranging the deck chairs. The only real path to economic viability is a second hotel for revenue and some meaningful security measures to stop the boat berther exodus.

How did we get here?

How did our marina, arguably the best location for sailing on the East Bay shoreline, get into this situation?

Part of the problem is a history of underpricing in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s. In the mid-’70s there was a five-year waiting list for a Berkeley berth. Back then the low prices could cover the low cost of maintaining the new infrastructure, and we made the mistake of not charging market rates and not building reserve accounts for dock replacement. As a result, all dock replacement projects have been funded by loans from the California Department of Boating and Waterways (now a division of State Parks) and the Marina Fund is saddled with debt service and interest payments.

Other factors external to local management play a role. In 1981, sailboat production peaked with 77,100 new sailboats sold in the U.S. By 2010, this had collapsed to 4,300 (NMMA 2010 Recreational Boating Statistical Abstract). Moreover, The Berkeley Marina is configured with a large number of berths for smaller boats, especially for boats under 27 feet long. This made sense when the Marina was designed, but nearly all new boats in this size range are now designed for dry storage on land, not in marina berths. Complicating this is the fact that ever since the early ’60s, virtually all mass-marketed sailboats have been built of fiberglass. In the old days, wood boats had a limited useful life unless meticulously maintained. But fiberglass is forever, and the current fleet of small boats is now mostly old and mostly low-value, not worth enough to justify the cost of berthing at a high-value location like Berkeley. So when the owner of one of these older fiberglass boats decides to leave Berkeley (or more commonly, retires from sailing due to advanced age), there is little chance of a replacement moving in. Result: The Berkeley Marina’s occupancy rate for 25 and 26-foot berths is below 50%. Fortunately, the demand for berthing for boats over 30 feet is more robust.

The Marina desperately needs to reconfigure some of the docks to accommodate larger sailboats, especially the newer (and very high-value) multihull designs. Overall, the berth occupancy rate is below 80%, a historic low.

Could we privatize the Marina?

Approximately 11 years ago Marina staff and Waterfront Commissioners met with representatives from Almar, the big commercial marina management company, to explore the option of privatizing the Berkeley Marina. Privatization would bring in professional management, but also result in an immediate 20% rate hike and the elimination of all non-marina services; it would mean an end to support for non-profit activities including Shorebird Nature Center, Adventure Playground, Cal Sailing Club, Pegasus Project, Berkeley Bay Festival, July 4 Festival, Kite Festival, etc. etc. etc. These would no longer be subsidized by boat berthing revenue. Plus the city’s marina workers would be replaced by private sector employees, presumably at lower wages and reduced benefits. We decided it was better to endure the city’s bureaucratic inefficiencies and maintain public services than to allow the Marina to become the target of corporate greed.

Lining up for free sailboat rides at a Cal Sailing Club Open House. Photo: Paul Kamen

Options

It’s very clear from the facts on the ground that we have three main options:

1) Cut funding for non-essential and non-maritime functions: July 4, Bay Festival, Kite Festival, Shorebird Nature Center, Adventure Playground, subsidies or fee waivers for non-profits, etc. etc., and use private-sector contractors as much as possible to reduce staffing costs. Basically, try to run the Marina the way Almar would have run it.

2) Ask for and receive major financial support from the city’s General Fund. Initially, the request for a one-time infusion was estimated at about $4.5 million, later estimates have grown to approximately $10 million. It seems likely that “one-time” support would have to become ongoing support unless the structural deficit is addressed.

3) New hotel development. In a good year, the Doubletree contributes about $1.4 million to the Marina Fund. (Room tax revenue would be several times this amount, although taxes are not captured by the Marina Fund so the tax revenue would go uptown to the General Fund.) Another hotel on the site of Hs. Lordships would keep the Marina Fund solvent. Hotel revenue would continue to keep all of the Marina’s diverse public-serving activities viable, and the change in use patterns would enhance after-hours public access and public safety along the south Marina shoreline.

Local park advocates (specifically CESP, Citizens for East Shore Parks) have a long history of opposition to any structural development on the Berkeley shoreline. CESP deserves much credit for helping to bring nearby waterfront lands into public ownership and preventing massive commercial overdevelopment in what is now the Mclaughlin Eastshore State Park. But that battle is won, and in today’s context it’s inappropriate to paint the entire shoreline with the same open space brush. Open space is more valuable near built space, and built space is more valuable near open space. If the Berkeley waterfront is going to survive with its rich and diverse mix of public-serving parks, recreational activities and access-enhancing non-profits, then major new revenue-generating development is the only viable path forward.

We don’t need to spend $1.2 million over two years for a new Specific Area Plan in pursuit of an elusive “new vision” for the Berkeley Waterfront that is unlikely to offer a lasting economic solution. We need a simple and straightforward amendment to the existing plan to allow a new hotel.

Paul Kamen is a forensic naval architect who has berthed his small sailboat in the Berkeley Marina since 1977. He was first appointed to the waterfront commission in 1999, served six terms as commission chair, and is currently on the Parks & Waterfront Commission.