Proposed zoning amendments for Solano Avenue and other Berkeley business districts should make life easier for merchants opening or expanding their businesses if they are implemented

Merchants in Berkeley may have an easier time in future opening or expanding a business if eight retail zoning amendments that were approved at Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting go on to be implemented.

The city’s approval was interpreted by John DeClercq, co-CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, as a symbolic shift in tone for Berkeley. “Berkeley really does want to be more business-friendly. We have to get rid of the bogeyman. Berkeley needs to open its arms to business,” he said.

All 18 of the city’s merchant associations were surveyed over a two-week period about eight amendments identified by the city’s planning staff.

Five amendments seen as being the easiest to implement, and having the greatest potential impact, involve sidewalk seating, and instituting a straightforward over-the-counter fee to apply for it; allowing ground floors to be used for offices such as insurance agencies; lowering the review process period for restaurants to obtain a beer and wine permit from 6-12 months to 2-4 months; simplifying the review process for new restaurant applications; and lowering the review process for pedestrian-oriented businesses such as banks and exercise studios. (Read the survey for a full description of the proposed amendments.)

The five amendments received strong support among the survey’s 175 respondents to date. The three other amendments which were approved concern suspending quotas on Solano Avenue for four years; a change in zoning on San Pablo and Ashby and extending late-night hours from 10:00pm to 11:00pm.

As Berkeleyside reported earlier this year — and discussed with the community at our Local Business Forum in January — complex and time-consuming zoning laws have contributed to Berkeley’s reputation as a city in which it is difficult to do business. It took Robin Dalrymple nearly a year to get her iScream ice-cream shop open on Solano Avenue, for example, because of the permit hoops she was required to jump through.

The move to reconsider retail zoning was spurred by a survey conducted last year by councilmember Laurie Capitelli among residents and merchants on Solano Avenue. Business district leaders Roland Peterson (Telegraph), John Caner (Downtown), Heather Hensley (North Shattuck) and Allen Cain (Solano) have been vocal in their support of the proposed amendments.

DeClercq at the Chamber of Commerce said he applauded the actions of the Planning Commission as a strong commitment to welcome more small businesses into Berkeley and assist them to succeed. “We’ve all heard the horror stories of how difficult it is to get a business open in Berkeley,” he said. “And we have to do something to get all those vacant spaces leased.”

DeClercq added that these city-wide moves would not affect neighborhood systems. “A lot of Berkeley is correct in protecting neighborhood niche issues. These items are good for the whole city without disturbing local sensitivities.”

The Planning Commission will next consider specific language to implement these guidelines and then recommend the zoning amendments to the City Council.  The Council will then have the opportunity to put the changes into action.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...