Bonita House is opening a new youth center downtown in January. Photo: Kate Rauch

Downtown Berkeley business owners and neighbors expressed frustration last week that a service center for young adults with mental illness and substance abuse problems was approved for University Avenue near Martin Luther King Jr. Way without community input.

While many of the roughly 30 people gathered at the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday to discuss the issue praised the nonprofit opening the center, Bonita House, and its mission and goals for the new program, they also said they felt blindsided by a business license process that included no public review, and questioned the location. They also said their businesses would be better served if another retail store came into the site.

The new “Wellness Center” is slated to open in January 2018 at the former Blick Art Materials at 1909 University Ave., which has sat vacant for more than a year.

“In this particular corridor, we’ve been plagued by lots of problems — social, economic downturn, homelessness, and violence. Those of us who’ve weathered the storm are getting very weary,” said Sonia Mestayer-Collins, owner Hot Tubs of Berkeley, located next door to the site.

“I believe in what you’re doing. I applaud you for it,” she said. “But I have serious questions about where it will be placed. I don’t understand why this process [getting input] wasn’t [done] before you signed a lease. I have serious concerns.”

Sonia Mestayer-Collins, the owner of Hot Tubs of Berkeley, is concerned about the impact Bonita House’s new program will have on her business. Photo: Kate Rauch
Sonia Mestayer-Collins, the owner of Hot Tubs of Berkeley, is concerned about the impact Bonita House’s new program will have on her business. Photo: Kate Rauch

In addition to merchants and neighbors, meeting attendees included Lorna Jones, Bonita House executive director; John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association; Jordan Klein, Berkeley’s economic development director; Paul Buddenhagen, the city’s director of Health, Housing & Community Services; and City Councilwoman Kate Harrison, who represents the area, among others.

Bonita House was founded in 1971 as “a humane alternative to traditional psychiatric institutionalization,” according to its website. In 1991, it started to specialize in adults with a “dual-diagnosis” of serious psychiatric disabilities and substance use disorders. It runs several mental health and substance abuse programs in Berkeley and Oakland from outpatient case management to residential treatment. The new program, geared for young people from 18 to 25, will provide assistance with employment, housing, medication management, counseling, and socialization. The program is funded by grants from Alameda County Behavioral Health and Berkeley Mental Health.

Bonita House has received many awards and recognition for its approach to treatment. The Federal Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration conducted a three-year study of Bonita House and determined its programs “effected significant positive changes in the lives of people served by the program,” according to the organization’s website. Clients had fewer crisis visits, psychiatric hospital admissions and the amount of time they stayed in hospitals was reduced, the study concluded.

The program’s aim is to reach young people ready for positive change, said Jones, Bonita’s executive director. “We’re very excited, very excited to have the opportunity to develop a much-needed wellness center in the city of Berkeley,” she said. The nonprofit operates a smaller wellness program in South Berkeley.

Bonita House is opening a new youth center downtown in January. Photo: Kate Rauch

According to Klein, the acting economic development director, approval of the new use didn’t require a public hearing under Berkeley zoning regulations for the downtown commercial district. “Bonita House was approved as a medical office,” he said. It received a zoning certificate and a business license, which must be renewed annually.

“I’m sympathetic in that retailers and small businesses and restaurants in a commercial district rely on densely co-located complementary retail in order to thrive, and they see this use as one less store that could house a complementary use,” Klein said. “In terms of their fear of negative impacts… I’m not as convinced. I’m encouraged by the operators of Bonita House demonstrated the commitment to being a good neighbor.”

Most at the meeting, which was organized by the Downtown Berkeley Association, a city-supported fee-based organization charged with promoting and enhancing economic vitality, said they felt betrayed by the city for not seeking their views.

“The issue isn’t with Bonita House; you’re doing amazing work,” said Caner, of the downtown association. “It’s with the city — that this occurred without community input.”

The association, he said, would prefer a retail use at the site. “But I understand the lease is signed. We’d like to make the best of what some might see as a challenging situation.”

Several attendees questioned the value of adding another social service program to a neighborhood that’s already home to many, saying this draws people with struggles, who spill into the streets.

“We have a tremendous problem with substance abuse in the area. Your [Bonita House] goals and mission are phenomenal. But I have serious problems with your location, based on what we’ve seen over the years,” said Josh Maddox, a neighbor.

Resident Zoe agreed: “We are not strangers to the issues, we are not unsupportive, we are not against helping people, but we live and work and we’re neighbors in the area,” she said.

“I understand the issues but I also don’t want people on my property who don’t belong there. I don’t want them to be arrested or homeless. I want them to be helped, but I also know there’s a greater impact when we bring more and more services to the area.”

Jones tried to reassure neighbors: “We’re going to be a resource, that’s how we’re viewing ourselves, we’re a resource for the community and not a blight or an additional problem.”

Jones is organizing a community task force to help guide program development and neighbor relations and encouraged people to join. She said the effectiveness of the program depends in part on being a good neighbor. “Being open and listening and meeting and interacting is going to be critically important for the success of this program,” she said.

Councilwoman Harrison said she supports the project but respects the objections to a process that did not include public input. This can be looked into, she said. “That’s a long-term thing, I’m not going to lie to you and say it’s going to happen tomorrow — because it’s not.”

Meanwhile, Harrison said she hopes people will consider joining the task force “to help mitigate as many of the problems we can foresee.”

Neighbor Maddox raised his hand.

“I’d like to turn this into a win-win. If this is a done deal, which it appears to be,” he said, “I’d like to be part of the task force.”

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...