RVs at Hs Lordships in June. Photo: Citizen Reporter

Three Berkeley officials, including the mayor, have called a rare special meeting Monday morning to try to stop the enforcement of laws that prohibit vehicle lodging and camping in the Hs Lordships parking lot at the waterfront.

The city manager, meanwhile, has reminded city officials that homeless encampments at the Berkeley Marina are prohibited under state law, and that the city’s Marina Fund is facing a “growing fiscal crisis” due in part to deteriorating conditions at the waterfront.

The 9:30 a.m. meeting, in council chambers at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, has one item, put forward by Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilwomen Cheryl Davila and Kate Harrison: to suspend laws that prohibit lodging in the parking lot at 199 Seawall Drive for up to 50 vehicles through at least July 31. They also want to direct the city manager to install portable restrooms and dumpsters, and allow vehicles to remain in place during the city’s two biggest events, both this month: the Fourth of July celebration and the Berkeley Kite Festival.

The city manager told council in a July 1 memo that safety and security complaints “have sharpened” over the last year as the number of car and RV campers has increased significantly at the waterfront: “The City’s security guards have been threatened, assaulted and had their personal property damaged to the point where guards have been reassigned to safety locations and … procedures have been revised to protect the security staff.” Complaints from restaurant and hotel visitors have also been on the rise, according to the city.

“Marina berthers have reported multiple and increasing numbers of altercations and threats around use of the slip-holder restrooms and showers. Garbage, debris, and human waste have substantially increased. Restrooms have been repeatedly vandalized,” according to the memo, as has a “gate arm” the city has been using to attempt to regulate parking in certain areas. The city also has documented complaints about discarded hypodermic needles, “growing amounts of human feces” in the parking lot and public urination.

Arreguín, Davila and Harrison indicated in their agenda item that they believe the city’s existing homeless shelter crisis provides the legal framework to suspend rules at the marina that prohibit lodging. There are an estimated 1,000 unsheltered people who live in Berkeley, and city officials have invested a significant amount of money in a variety of new services and programs for them, with yet more efforts still underway.

Some waterfront parking lot residents have told city officials in numerous council meetings this year that they keep to themselves and are not to blame for issues that have arisen at the marina.

In May, the city cleared out a number of RVs that had clustered in growing numbers across from the Hilton DoubleTree hotel at the Berkeley Marina in recent months. Many of those vehicles then moved into the Hs Lordships parking lot, and some city officials, including the mayor, pledged to find an appropriate place for them to go.

Last week, the Berkeley City Council discussed a proposal — also from Arreguín, Davila and Harrison — to establish a “vehicle dweller park” in the city. Ultimately, however, after a lengthy discussion, officials did not vote on the proposal. The mayor said he would create an “informal task force” to develop the idea and work with staff to find “a location for vehicle dweller parking.”

According to a June 27 memo from the city manager to council, “the growing concentration of people living … in their vehicles” at the waterfront has been a “critical issue affecting operations and revenues.” The population, according to city staff, “has grown to over 200 vehicles per night, including 115 vehicles at the Hs. Lordships parking lot alone.”

The city manager said there’s an “immediate capital need” at the waterfront for $3.8 million to fix marina streets, docks and facilities. There’s also “an annual structural deficit of $760,000 that is projected to require a General Fund subsidy of $1.2 million” to the Marina Fund by fiscal year 2021. (City staff took a relatively detailed look at the fiscal problems facing the Marina Fund in April.)

“The number of leased berths has decreased significantly over the past 20 months, further eroding important revenues,” the city manager wrote last week. “Departing tenants report compromised safety due to vehicle campers as a primary reason. The operators of Waterfront restaurants, including Skates, have reported a rise in problematic disturbances affecting their clientele. The DoubleTree hotel recently filed a formal complaint stating that the large group of nearby vehicle dwellers and visible negative behaviors prevented potential clients from booking rooms and negatively affected much needed investment in the property.”

Negotiations are underway with the DoubleTree and Skates, but the “situation is … hampering the City negotiating team’s ability to get the best leases,” according to the memo. Meanwhile, Hs Lordships closed Sunday after nearly 50 years in business. The city manager wrote that the restaurant’s lease does not expire until August 2019, and “The notification of early closing came as a surprise.”

The city says finding a new tenant for the restaurant “is vital,” and that brokers have told the city “the ongoing presence of vehicle dwellers at the adjacent lot undermines any ability to find a tenant.”

There’s also the issue of the the California State Lands Commission, “which oversees the Public Trust land comprising the Marina and Waterfront.” The body “has informed the City that an encampment or vehicle dwelling on the land would not be a permitted use of the Public Trust land.” The commission has told the city previously that uses at the marina “must be related to water-dependent uses,” and benefit all people, not just the local municipality.

The city manager also raised environmental concerns due to the growing residential population near the San Francisco Bay. Thus far, there has been no measured contamination as a result of increased marina occupancy, but monthly evaluations to monitor for waste have begun. Should issues arise, the city’s status as a “Clean Marina” could be at risk, according to staff.

Several community members expressed concern in recent days about the timing and lack of broad notification for Monday’s council meeting.

“They have bypassed the Parks and Waterfront Commission, which has taken no action on this matter,” one local resident wrote, of council. “Nobody was noticed even through the email lists.”

Another person, Barbara Gilbert, who wrote to council with her complaints about the process, called Monday’s session a “Stealth Meeting,” and said the city should have done more to alert the public.

“I only learned of this meeting Sunday evening by a fluke,” she wrote. “This important matter will be discussed when few can listen and before the general public can weigh in. This is no way to run a City and treat its residents.”

In the July 1 memo from City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, she wrote that the city did allow an RV park called “Rainbow Village” to open at the waterfront in 1985 under the auspices of an “urgency ordinance.” There was room to camp for 50 or more RVs and other vehicles, and the city provided a sink.

Within a few months, the marina hotel owner at the time sued over the use, and a judge ordered the city to shut down the camp because it violated Public Trust rules. Two months later, two people were fatally shot at the camp. The city closed Rainbow Village for good the following year.

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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 of the Year...