Local business owners approve funding for Downtown improvement

A plan to improve the Downtown’s public areas with new construction, new business and cleaner streets was approved via mail-in vote after the Berkeley City Council’s Tuesday meeting.

Under the plan — which was approved by a 71.03 percent majority of local business owners — the city will establish the Downtown Berkeley Property-Based Business Improvement District and allocate more than $6.5 million over five years to renovate the area concentrated along Shattuck Avenue between Dwight Way and Delaware Street.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin — whose district includes the new improvement area — said the Downtown area could become more competitive and enticing to visitors and residents if input from all the district’s businesses is involved.

“The outstanding issue is who gets to make the decisions about how money is going to be spent and what it will be spent on,” Arreguin said. “Small business owners are really integral to the Downtown area, and we need their voice in the decision-making process.”

For these small business owners, the plan’s emphasis on beautification and maintenance will help introduce crucial foot traffic to the area, according to Dean Kao, who owns the game store Eudemonia.

“One of the most common complaints among gatherings of small business owners is cleanliness,” Kao said. “The concern with Downtown has always been cleanliness, and the fact that (Downtown is) so dirty hurts our business.”

Specific provisions of the plan include cleaning teams to provide graffiti removal, new landscaping and street signs and more efficient parking initiatives.
David Corson-Knowles, a management team member at Gather Restaurant, acknowledged Berkeley’s tradition of small, local businesses, saying in an email that he sees the district as a means of preserving the city’s unique atmosphere.

“Because of individual decisions to invest in our local economy, Gather was proud to be able to open in the midst of the recession,” Corson-Knowles said in the email. “I hope that further improvements by the city will accelerate this trend.”

The plan is the product of a three-year effort by the Downtown Berkeley Association, a group composed of local business owners that is also set to manage the services planned for the new district. The association created an October 2009 Strategic Action Plan to address challenges in the district including increased vacancy, a lack of safety and loss of retail.

The association hired a consulting firm in April 2010 to help conduct roundtable discussions involving over 200 city residents and business owners to brainstorm improvements for the district. By April 2011, the association presented petitions from enough property owners to formally establish the district.

Improvements and maintenance of the district will be financed primarily through “assessments” on properties within the district. Other proposed means of acquiring funds include a December 2010 request to raise Downtown parking fees by 25 cents per hour to help finance measures to make Downtown more attractive.

“I’m glad this initiative is successful,” Arreguin said. “Right now, there are a lot more people walking around at night, and there is more vibrancy Downtown, but it could be better, more exciting.”