Overdevelopment will ruin Berkeley Marina

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I remember when the Berkeley Pier was still accessible.

I remember walking to the end and watching fishermen cast their lines. I remember seeing people on the grass having picnics and looking out to the water to find a couple of swimmers floating about. I remember the pier as a welcoming, open green space.

I also remember when the no-access gate was erected at its entry.

The pier was deemed structurally unsound during my sophomore year. Most current UC Berkeley students have not had the opportunity to walk the length of the pier. And now, with the most recent city plans for developing the marina, it may take longer before they ever get to. The plans comprise introducing a ferry terminal that will support numerous boats, expanding commercial retail by permitting restaurants, another hotel or vendors along the waterfront and retrofitting the Berkeley Pier for eventual reopening. While renewing access to the pier — a stalwart of West Berkeley from 1926 until its closing in 2015 — would be an asset, the magnitude of commercialization being proposed has the potential to change the character of the marina. Large-scale developments will increase automotive congestion and traffic and open green spaces will likely be lost or overrun. This is not something we, as a community, should allow to happen.

Development plans for the marina continue to gain momentum, especially with initial focus groups and workshops addressing marina development already complete. On Feb. 16, the plans for the development were presented. Comments from members of the public on their connections to the Berkeley Marina echoed my own. Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s response to “think transformative” about the development possibilities, however, only reflects the views of a portion of Berkeley residents.

Why do we expect the Berkeley Marina to be financially self-sufficient? No other park in Berkeley bears the same burden. The city of Berkeley acts as the steward of the public parks and libraries but expects the marina to be financially independent. Instead, Berkeley should aim to support its own parks. For comparison, Jack London Square in Oakland — which is much larger than the Berkeley Marina and has undergone a significant commercial revitalization — still requires financial support from the city.

Currently, the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel and boat-berthing fees are the largest generators of revenue at the marina, and Berkeley only earmarks about $1 million to $2 million of what it receives annually from the hotel to the marina fund. The remaining $3 million to $4 million goes to the general city fund. As public comments suggested, diverting all funds received from the DoubleTree to the marina fund would substantially offset costs of maintenance. Ultimately, more diverse financial sources should be explored as ways to sustain the marina.

The marina is used by many groups and has been for decades. The planned developments, however, would fundamentally change the park, making it less of a natural environment. Part of its appeal is that it offers open space for recreation outside. There are parks and pathways for walkers, joggers, bikers and dog owners. There is grass for picnics. And now, the pandemic has helped us remember just how important our open spaces are. Many longtime Berkeley residents have fond memories of time spent there. Its stripped-down character is part of its appeal.

We do not need another Fourth Street at the marina. Congestion is a huge concern for those wary of the development plans. In particular, the addition of a ferry terminal south of the pier could significantly increase vehicle traffic and necessitate more parking. At peak commute hours, multiple ferries could enter the marina within an hour. This will increase congestion and hazard for Bay Area swimmers and kayakers who use rocks near the shuttered Hs Lordships restaurant as an entry and exit point.

It seems that there was minimal consideration of how these changes will impact the natural environment of the marina and how Berkeley residents already interact with the space. Arreguín believes many Berkeley residents are in favor of the development. It must be acknowledged, however, that the proposed picture of progress has significant drawbacks.

The parks and habitats of the marina are sensitive to an increase in pavement, foot traffic and waste. The current fleet of San Francisco Bay ferries is diesel-powered. They cause less pollution than some modes of transportation, but not enough that the city of Berkeley should be embracing them, especially since the city adopted a climate action plan with a hard stance against greenhouse gas emissions.

The impact of noise pollution on Berkeley Marina wildlife should also be considered. The ferry sounds could disrupt aquatic animals’ abilities to source food, communicate with one another and live comfortably. So far, no plans for clean energy have been outlined for the marina development.

While the appeal of new amenities remains, the Berkeley Marina has a long history and a unique character that needs to be considered. Is commercial retail worth congested parking lots? Are more hotels and restaurants worth smaller green spaces? Is a commuter ferry system worth drowning out the bay wildlife? Not all marina development and revitalization options are bad, but in its current state, the Berkeley Marina project is a gilded proposal at best.

Ellis Kennedy is a materials science and engineering graduate student at UC Berkeley.