The Berkeley City Council (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso

Tension was high Tuesday night as the Berkeley City Council debated interim uses for the Premier Cru site slated to become affordable housing, as well as plans to build homeless housing on the existing city parking lot on Berkeley Way.

Officials made no significant moves on either project. They spent much of the five-hour meeting debating the details and the process, at times prompting pushback from staff, which has reportedly struggled to keep up with an onslaught of council referrals outside of ongoing prioritization and commission efforts.

The discussion got particularly heated during consideration of an otherwise uncontroversial item to re-affirm the city’s plans to one day build affordable housing on University Avenue where the Premier Cru wine shop used to operate. Councilwoman Sophie Hahn said word had somehow spread that housing was not the goal, and Tuesday’s item was designed to correct that confusion. Hahn went on to say that the city should give some warehouse space there, in the short term, to a local group working to help feed many of Berkeley’s low-income and senior residents. But, while other council members said they firmly support that group’s work, they questioned the allocation process, since no one else has had a chance to ask for space.

Councilman Kriss Worthington was the most outspoken of the bunch. He said Hahn’s “surprise motion” — which did not appear in the agenda — was an affront to government transparency: “To surprise the council members, the management and certainly all the members of the public that a brand new action never proposed, never considered, would suddenly be voted on is a horrible abuse of transparency and fairness.”

City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley told council she could not support a request from a single group without presenting the opportunity to the broader community. She said she wasn’t even sure that was legal.

“Using public resources without a competitive process, I’m just not certain I would recommend that for all of you,” she said. “We have not done our due process in this regard. I think there are multiple issues here, and I just want to state that on the record.”

Williams-Ridley said Hahn’s motion also lacked sufficient detail — describing a footprint as “small” without including specific dimensions, for example — and that it did not take into account debt payments the city needs to make on the property.

Hahn said she thought the city had, in the past, granted space as she had suggested. Mayor Jesse Arreguín concurred, and said nothing was inappropriate about it. Ultimately, however, after the city manager’s remarks along with similar concerns raised by other council members, the mayor withdrew his support for the Hahn motion, which then lacked the support to proceed.

Council ultimately voted unanimously to affirm prior plans to use the Premier Cru site for affordable housing one day. In the interim, however, officials urged the city manager to move ahead expeditiously to find a mix of other occupants for the site, some of whom could potentially bring in revenue for the city. Council members also asked the city manager to pursue talks with the volunteer group that hopes to use warehouse space at the property and, ideally, find a way to support its efforts.

Berkeley Way put off until March

The Premier Cru discussion, which began at about 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, wasn’t the first time conflict arose on the dais. An earlier item on plans to build homeless and affordable housing on the Berkeley Way parking lot also led to some uncomfortable moments. The city is working with two outside agencies, Bridge Housing and the Berkeley Food & Housing Project, to come up with an ambitious plan to offer homeless housing and services at Berkeley Way.

An update was on the agenda, but Worthington initially suggested it should be postponed because, as he understood it, there was nothing new to report.

Hahn objected to his suggestion, and said council needs to be able to vote on plans sooner rather than later: “I want us to solve the problems and get this project built before another set of problems presents itself.” She also said she was “disappointed” that the project status is where it is.

“Part of how we get … complex projects done is to be a little bit of a bulldozer,” Hahn said. “If we start this process again and let the tail wag the dog on this project, it’ll take us another 10 years.”

City Manager Williams-Ridley bristled in response to some of Hahn’s remarks.

“No one has wagged a tail. They have worked their butts off,” she told council, regarding city staff in several departments, who have worked closely with council members on the plans at length. “Understand: We are by no means taking a backseat and watching things go by. We’re working hard to figure it out.”

Williams-Ridley also pushed back hard on a deadline for a staff report put forward by downtown representative Councilwoman Kate Harrison.

“Putting dates in front of us and knowing that we cannot meet those dates, that is unfair to this team,” said Williams-Ridley, adding that officials might want to ask staffers when they could realistically return with the requested information. “They’ve worked hard for all of you, and I think they deserve that respect.”

Jamie Hiteshew, project manager with San Francisco-based Bridge Housing, described the project as complicated because it seeks to provide housing and services to veterans, the homeless and other low-income individuals, and also provide a parking replacement for what’s on site now. There’s also a funding gap. He said there was no other news to report, however, as the groups work with the city to sort those issues out.

Council members said they would like staff to look at project costs and plans should parking be taken out of the equation altogether. From the beginning, downtown businesses have made it clear they hope the project will replace existing parking in response to concerns from visitors who say it’s tough to find open spots. But no one from the Downtown Berkeley Association, which usually represents that constituency, was on hand to voice that view Tuesday. Several speakers from the public urged council not to let parking get in the way of Berkeley Way.

Mayor Arreguín said it’s parking that is holding up the project from submitting its land-use permit application. Staff neither confirmed nor countered that assertion.

Hahn said parking is “trivial” in the face of what the city hopes to accomplish with Berkeley Way: “This project is supposed to solve one problem, one desperate pressing imperative problem, which is to bring affordable housing and housing for the homeless to Berkeley.”

Harrison said the project will cost less and could be more competitive for grants if it removes or reduces parking in the plans. She went on to say that her friends in their 70s “don’t drive to downtown” because it’s “a painful experience to drive here.”

“It’s a thing of the past,” said Harrison, noting that three of the four people who work in her office don’t know how to drive.

Staff members said they can bring back the item to council March 13, and provide an off-agenda update in mid-February. That report is set to include a parking analysis along with information about the building type and financial picture so council can make an informed decision about how to proceed, Deputy City Manager Jovan Grogan told city officials.

Fire safety ideas spark debate

Even earlier in the night, a referral from Hahn focused on “immediate measures” to address fire safety and prevention prompted discussion after Councilwoman Susan Wengraf pointed out that another lengthy council item on that subject is already under consideration, and that council is set to hear soon from the city’s volunteer Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, which has been working with the Berkeley Fire Department on its own priority list.

Wengraf said the earlier referral, from Councilman Ben Bartlett, put forward 46 possible actions, and that the volunteer commission is looking at eight actions of its own. Wengraf said the Hahn item has 14 other actions, some of which overlap with other proposals. Many of the ideas would require coordination within the city and with outside agencies, and could require extensive staff resources, she added.

“Nobody is really talking to anybody else,” Wengraf said. “What is the city manager and staff supposed to make of all these? We have limited resources, we know that…. How do we move forward to do the most important thing first?”

She went on to indicate that the Hahn item might also be redundant: “The department is already doing all these things already, and has been working on them for awhile.”

In her defense, Hahn said the three proposals “are not the same at all.” She said some of the ideas from the commission are likely to be controversial, and could bog down the process to make Berkeley safer. Hahn said she spoke with the fire chief and a commissioner to put her suggestions together, said that all her ideas could be done quickly and without much expense.

“In the spirit of collaboration, I would have loved to know that you had those concerns,” Hahn told Wengraf. “That would have been a good thing to know about before getting here.”

In response to a question from Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, Berkeley Fire Chief Dave Brannigan said one idea the city is seriously looking at for the first time, following the recent North Bay fires, is a city siren system.

“We need a way to wake people up other than police officers knocking door to door,” he told city officials.

City Manager Williams-Ridley also reminded officials that they just adopted a strategic plan, earlier this month, to set the priorities for all city staff for the next two years. She said some amount of flexibility is built in to the process, but that priorities that have been set need to be respected.

“We have a two-year budget tied to the work,” Williams-Ridley said. “We have adopted a plan of action for our Fire Department.”

Ultimately, in line with a suggestion from Williams-Ridley, council voted to bundle all three items together — the Hahn and Bartlett proposals, as well as the commission recommendations — to get a single response from staff when the commission recommendations come back.

Surveillance ordinance postponed (again); now March 13

As for other items on the agenda, council voted to postpone discussion of a new proposed ordinance focused on surveillance until March 13. The mayor had put forward what he called a compromise proposal — a middle way between the Police Review Commission referral and a joint report from the police and fire departments — and said he wanted people to have time to become familiar with it before a vote takes place.

He said he worked to address community concerns in a way that’s also legally defensible.

“My goal is to have a strong surveillance ordinance that we can actually implement,” the mayor said.

See full agenda documents and meeting video on the city website.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...