It is still possible that RVs will return to the marina, per a City Council vote Tuesday to keep the option on the table. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

After several days of back and forth, Berkeley officials have decided to ask the state if it’s legal to locate an RV “safe parking” operation at the city’s waterfront.

A nearly three-hour City Council discussion Tuesday resulted in little change to Berkeley’s overall plans for RV dwellers — or to the immediate conditions that growing population faces — but mainly focused on the polarizing prospect of looking into the marina for the pre-approved safe-parking program.

When the council earlier this year banned RVs from parking in Berkeley overnight, officials pledged to create a place where particularly vulnerable people could park for three months while looking for permanent housing. The city has already contracted with Bay Area Community Services to identify families and others for the program, which will include on-site services and security.

But officials say they’ve searched high and low for an appropriate place without locking down a location. Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani have said they’re in serious talks with a private owner over a potential spot, but have been cryptic about the details.

For Tuesday’s meeting, Arreguín, Kesarwani and Councilwoman Kate Harrison had initially proposed asking staff to look into all possibilities, including the Berkeley Marina. The original Tuesday agenda item would have directed the city manager to ask the State Lands Commission whether an RV park at the waterfront would be legal. When the city booted a large group of RVs out of that area last year, officials explained that the state public trust doctrine requires only statewide and “water-dependent uses” within the marina bounds. The initial council proposal set for Tuesday was to ask the state whether Berkeley could get an exemption based on its declaration of a homelessness emergency.

Then, the mayor told participants in a community meeting over this past weekend that the waterfront option had been “taken off the table” based on public input and fiscal concerns. Kesarwani later submitted a new proposal to pursue the three-month program without any mention of the marina.

At Tuesday’s meeting, however, Harrison said the city should revisit the marina possibility, a move Kesarwani called a “bait and switch on the community.”

people lined up along a wall. One holds a protest sign.
During an hour-long public comment period, community members lined up to talk RVs. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The proposal to direct staff to search for a location for the safe-parking site eventually passed with the marina element included, prompting Kesarwani, along with Councilwomen Lori Droste and Susan Wengraf, to ultimately abstain from voting on her own proposal.

A majority of council members said that, while they don’t like the idea of a marina RV park, they simply wanted to ask the state whether that could even be possible as a last resort.

“It’s asking a freaking question,” said an impassioned Councilwoman Cheryl Davila. “We need to know the damn answer.”

Councilman Rigel Robinson said he visited Oakland’s brand new safe-parking site, talking to the grateful unhoused people who’d found some stability and security there. He came away committed to doing something similar as soon as possible for people living in their vehicles in Berkeley, he said.

“The marina’s certainly not a perfect location. But if there is no other option, I want to empower our staff to leave no stone unturned,” Robinson said to applause from the audience.

That marina “stone,” while not completely unturned, has a least been lifted at the edges.

In 2017 then-City Attorney Zach Cowan asked the State Lands Commission whether the city could have a sanctioned tent encampment at the waterfront. The commission responded that such a camp would appear to violate the state rules. Some officials and staff Tuesday indicated they were unaware of that exchange.

The Berkeley Marina is facing a fiscal crisis. Photo: Paul Kamen

Even if the marina turns out to be a legal location, however, some council members said it was still an inappropriate site. It would be a risk to send out the message that the city was pursuing it, they said.

Those officials called up Parks Director Scott Ferris to describe the fiscal crisis at the marina.

Ferris rattled off stark statistics, predicting a $1 million structural deficit this year, and estimating $110 million in unfunded maintenance problems. Especially with berthers leaving in unusual numbers, the marina is not raking in the revenue it needs to, Ferris said, and the city is in precarious and important negotiations with businesses over renewing their leases there. Some officials and staff said the city could stand to lose significant revenue if those leases didn’t come through.

“We’re in the process of negotiating a lease at Hs Lordships,” said Wengraf. “Trust me, that won’t happen if there’s an RV park there.”

“I do believe we are in a crisis situation where we have to explore all options,” said Kesarwani, whose West Berkeley district currently hosts the most RVs. “I wanted to explore the marina. And that is what I did over the last few weeks…I listened and heard from you, and I feel that it is not responsible to locate the safe RV site at the marina, because of the health and safety concerns I heard from marina stakeholders, but also because of the fiscal risks to the city and to those businesses.”

All council members tried to assure the public that they are dead-set on creating a place for RV dwellers who have no other option to find some refuge. 

That did little to comfort some of the members of the public who made emotional pleas to the council to extend the three-month period, consider every possible location, and expand who’s eligible for the program — if not lift the ban entirely.

One woman said she’d raised her grandchildren in a Berkeley house for years, until she “escaped violence” and bought herself an RV.

A woman speaks at a podium, her face obscured by a protest sign.
Yesica Prado tells the council it’s hypocritical for promoting its sanctuary policies while kicking out RV dwellers. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Yesica Prado tells the council it’s hypocritical for promoting its sanctuary policies while kicking out RV dwellers. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Another, Yesica Prado, said she immigrated to the U.S. with her family as a child, under difficult conditions and without papers. After starting at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism on a scholarship, she found herself living on the streets before raising funds to buy an RV.

“It was my refuge, my sanctuary, my home,” Prado said. “Today, Berkeley welcomes our immigrant community — and it might welcome me too, but only if I didn’t live in my RV. Isn’t it ironic? The city might hang a colorful banner on the administration building claiming ‘sanctuary city’ but not act on those values.”

Prado has become a spokeswoman for a group of RV dwellers and advocates who call themselves the Berkeley Friends on Wheels. Berkeley has an estimated 200 RVs currently, and the brand new EveryOneHome homeless count uncovered upwards of 2,800 people living in vehicles throughout Alameda County. That figure represented a 124% increase over the vehicle dwellers counted in 2017.

Other speakers said Berkeley shouldn’t pour resources into what they called an unsanitary RV park — or at least not at the struggling marina.

“Why is this being rammed down our throats,” asked one woman about what’s become a multi-meeting saga. “RVs have the ability to leave” for a nearby trailer park, she said.

Eventually, most of those in Berkeley will have to leave — at least between the hours of 2-5 a.m.

But enforcement of the ban won’t begin until the safe-parking site is up and running, Arreguín told Berkeleyside after the meeting.

“We want to make sure these people, these vulnerable people, have a place first,” he said.

Per a vote earlier in the year, enforcement was also initially predicated on the establishment of a separate two-week permit system.

The council immediately scrapped that proposal at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, with Arreguín calling it “not a very good idea.”

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...