The new Fiat dealership is moving into the old Nissan showroom. Photo: Tracey Taylor

In the 1980s, Berkeley instituted zoning changes to prohibit new car sales and other auto-oriented uses in the South Shattuck corridor. The thinking was that industry trends would push dealerships to bigger sites near the I-80 freeway, and that prime property near the downtown could find other uses.

That’s not how things turned out. South Shattuck remains Berkeley’s auto row, with Toyota, Honda and Volvo shortly to be joined by Fiat. All are in long-established car sales facilities. Only one West Berkeley that might suit an auto dealer has come on the market after rezoning, and attempts by a dealer to purchase that failed.

As a result, the Toyota, Honda and Volvo dealers wrote to the City Council in July asking for the 1980s zoning provision to be removed. Tim Southwick of Toyota of Berkeley, Fred Lavery from McKevitt Volvo and Tim Beinke from Berkeley Honda wrote: “We need flexibility for possible relocation or modest expansions of our dealerships… Options to relocate elsewhere in Berkeley are very limited to non-existent.”

It isn’t just a lack of suitable sites in West Berkeley. California’s New Motor Vehicle Board prohibits dealers from locating within 10 miles of another dealer of the same make; both Toyota and Honda would likely face a protest under that regulation if they moved near I-80.

Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Max Anderson, as a result, are proposing at tonight’s City Council meeting to refer to the Planning Commission a zoning ordinance amendment which would allow auto dealers to become a conforming use on South Shattuck, “including the ability to lease or purchase additional property as necessary”.

Auto dealerships are consistently among the largest sales tax revenue generators in Berkeley. Two years ago, the City Council approved $500,000 in building permit fee waivers as an inducement to keep Weatherford BMW — usually the largest sales tax revenue generator in the city — in Berkeley.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...