Item 20 as passed, and my comments

Here's what the Berkeley City Council actually passed on May 11, from the City web page. The vote was 8:0, with one absentee.

From: Councilmembers Spring, Woolley and Olds

Recommendation: Concur with the comments in the letter from the Sierra Club and Citizens for the Eastshore State Parks opposing additional hotel development in the Berkeley Marina and requests the City Manager communicate Council's position opposing additional hotel development and unrelated larger commercial development to the Waterfront, Planning and Parks and Recreation Commissions as well as City staff working on this project; and request that the parties look at ways to conserve open space and recreational uses at the waterfront as well as exploring grant funding opportunities.

Contact: Dona Spring, Councilmember District 4, 644-6266; Diane Woolley, Councilmember District 5, 644-6294; Betty Olds, Councilmember District 6, 644-6399

Action: Removed from the Consent Calendar by Councilmember Spring. Moved, seconded, carried (Olds/Woolley; Absent Armstrong) recommendation amended as noted above. Council also directed the City Manager to report on the scope of the plan and any follow-up actions that will need to take place.

My comments:

On my suggestion they added the reference to development other than hotels, although they used the words "large commercial development" which became "unrelated larger commercial development" in the written version.

The intent of the additional words is to avoid an unintended consequence: If the plan singles out hotels but does not restrict other forms of development, there seems to be a strong likelihood that economic necessity will force the proliferation of restaurants and commercial retail, causing much greater impact on open space, habitat, traffic, and parking while generating less usable public revenue. From my point of few a modest hotel development is far more desirable than turning the marina into another Pier 39, but at least both possibilities are now off the table. Both will be re-examined if economic reality is allowed to enter the debate.

But the question remains: why is the Council unanimously opposed to any hotel proposal, while most of the planning staff and commissioners involved in the planning process appear to be willing to consider, if not actively support, this option?

The source of this large discrepancy seems to be one of visualization. The Sierra Club and the Council, from their language, seem to imagine another hotel complex on the scale of the Marina Radisson occupying a large tract of open space. In fact, the development proposal was only going to be about one quarter the size of the existing Radisson, and would be sited on an under- utilized parking lot.

But by pre-empting the planning process just before reaching the first milestone, the Council was never able to see the graphical representation of these development options, and has made a decision based on abstract concepts that might not apply to the details of this particular plan.

Furthermore, there are several low-impact architectural solutions that are not easily visualized unless put down on paper. New structures could be on pilings over the rip-rap and Bay, similar to Skates or most of His Lordships. Or they could be partially subterranean, or they could float. All of these architectural approaches involve virtually no loss of existing open space, and could incorporate valuable elements of public access and waterfront views. But we will never be able to explore them due to the preemptive direction from the Council.

Most disturbing is the comment from Councilmember Diane Woolley to the effect that "This planning process began with the question of how to raise money for the marina and that is a flawed process from the beginning." (as quoted in the Berkeley Voice, May 13 1999).

Actually, it was public sentiment at the workshops that led to the strong economic component of the Marina Plan. Participants repeatedly asked the consultants and the planning staff to provide projected costs, revenue, and financial impact data for various options. They did not want to repeat the wasted efforts of previous planning projects, in which these factors were not given priority. The workshop participants genuinely believed that their work would be taken seriously, and wanted to make sure that it was grounded in reality. Indeed, any plan that does not consider how to "raise money" must be considered "flawed from the beginning," in the context of a marina operating at a substantial deficit.

The council's best answer to the question of how to keep the marina afloat financially appears to be that the marina should "get grants." But this is problematic for several reasons, the most important being that grant revenue is not sustainable. Grants generally require matching funds, have a limited term, and result in new facilities or programs that increase the ongoing maintenance and administrative burden long after the grant has expired. Experienced grant-writers advise that "money is attracted to money." That is, an entity with the discretionary cash to pursue interesting projects has a good chance of getting grants that help with these projects. But finding grant money to keep a losing operation in the black is an unlikely prospect.

And grant money is not really new money. We can be parochial about our problems and say, "if grant money has to be spent somewhere, why not here?" Or we can think for the larger community, beyond Berkeley, and say, "If we have the capability to create new money here on the waterfront, isn't the greater public better served if the grant money is spent elsewhere?"

That's why I'm lukewarm at best to grant funding. We should pursue it where it seems to be a good fit for the programs that we would like to run, but it is not realistic to see grant funding as the primary answer to the marina's financial difficulties.

Where do we go from here? The ball is clearly on the Council's side of the court with respect to marina funding. The Marina Plan will certainly be a useful document, especially in terms of "place holders" that provide planning-level endorsements of public-serving improvements and amenities, even if these can only be implemented when and if private or public money appears for them. The adoption of a Marina Plan will also break the construction moratorium that has made minor structural improvements and remodeling very cumbersome for marina organizations and businesses.

But the central issue of economic viability has been set aside.