Hopeful on homelessness

CITY AFFAIRS: It’s encouraging that community leaders are considering an ambitious proposal to fight homelessness, despite differences.

Given Mayor Tom Bates and the Berkeley business community’s complicated relationship with the city’s homeless population, Berkeley City Council’s decision to further consider building a new resource and housing center located in the Downtown area for the city’s homeless population is an encouraging development.

Debated at Sept. 10’s City Council meeting, the roughly $50 million proposal to construct an environmentally sustainable building that can provide permanent residence, social services and a much needed emergency shelter is potentially a new direction for the city administration. Councilmember Jesse Arreguin assured the chamber the cost could be covered by the Berkeley Housing Trust Fund, a pool of money devoted to providing resources for Berkeley’s homeless, in addition to other sources. Because the proposal’s price tag is so substantial, squaring away the funding concerns is a clear priority.

Despite Arreguin’s promises to the contrary, the mayor and Downtown business leaders have expressed skepticism about the project’s financing, in addition to concerns about the new facility displacing more than 100 parking spaces.

Given Bates’ and the business community’s vocal support of Measure S, a failed 2012 ballot initiative that would have effectively kicked homeless people off of commercially zoned sidewalks from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., it isn’t a surprise they are apprehensive about the project.

Bates is right to be aggressive about the security of financial support for the project (and for how much the city might be on the line), and business owners in Berkeley have legitimate grievances about wiping out 112 parking spots in the notoriously parking-scarce Downtown Berkeley area.

That said, there are constructive conversations to be had about how to proceed with this project. Finding ways to integrate more parking spaces with the new facility is a must, and so is reconfiguring the streets surrounding it to allow for more parking spots. There may be a net loss of spots once the project is completed, but business owners stand to benefit from the facility in the long run; an environment with the resources necessary to accommodate the homeless population can only help local businesses.

Downtown Berkeley is a uniquely vibrant atmosphere that will attract customers regardless of whether it takes five or 10 minutes to find parking, but business owners will hurt if parking accommodations aren’t made.