It felt like a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. It was that detached from reality.
This was the first public workshop to help the city develop a new master plan for the Berkeley waterfront, conducted over Zoom on Jan. 28. There were about a hundred participants. Technically this is the “Berkeley Marina Area Specific Plan,” or BMASP, and the process will span two years and cost more than $1 million just for the planning effort. Hargreaves Jones is the chosen consultant, charged with, among other tasks, developing a plan that will put the marina fund back in the black. The marina fund is an “enterprise fund” that finances the Berkeley waterfront. In theory, it’s self-supporting. All revenue (boat berthing and commercial leases) and all expenses (staffing and maintenance) are kept separate from the city’s general fund. But the marina fund has been operating at a serious deficit for the last few years, and the new plan is intended to return the waterfront to financial sustainability.
There’s a lot at stake here. The Berkeley waterfront is a diverse mix of public amenities: parks, trails, fishing pier, playgrounds, maritime commerce, boat berthing, youth education and camp programs, low-cost public boating access, all mixed with commercial businesses including restaurants, a boatyard and a hotel. If the fund goes broke, which could happen as early as next year, either the public amenities are curtailed, or the city’s general fund has to kick in major subsidies.
The public had a lot to say about what should be in the new plan, but most of the proposals for addressing the revenue shortfall landed somewhere between wishful thinking and fantasy. Ferry service, for example, is most likely revenue-negative, mainly due to parking impacts (although a ferry would be a great public amenity, especially if outside money could fund a coordinated University Avenue shuttle bus). Restaurants are hit-or-miss, and the city’s recent lack of success attracting restaurant developers should be noted. Festivals are very expensive to run and historically have helped to drain the marina fund rather than support it. And so on.
The consultants showcased the Long Beach Marina as an example of a large municipal marina done right. But comparing the Berkeley waterfront to Long Beach is nuts: Long Beach has miles of boardwalk, a dozen upscale restaurants, an aquarium, the Queen Mary, a major hotel right across the street from the harbor, a tacky tourist-oriented shopping mall, and most important of all, SoCal weather. We will never create a tourist hub like that here, even on a much smaller scale. But we could lose a lot of money trying. It’s another fantasy.
There’s really only one solution with a verifiable local track record, and that’s another hotel on the same scale as the Doubletree. It would be enough to put the marina fund comfortably in the black, and bring legitimate after-hours activity to more areas of the waterfront, improving safety and access for everyone. But it’s not like Long Beach: A new hotel would most likely be supported not by tourism but by the demand created by academic conference attendees and other visitors to UC Berkeley. It doesn’t have to be an ugly box – there are options for a low-rise structure with a living roof and in-structure parking that would actually increase green space compared to the existing site.
Berkeley is primarily a university town. We don’t have a beach culture like SoCal, we don’t have a waterfront tourist hub like San Francisco, and our wonderful mix of low-cost recreational opportunities on land and water are not revenue-generators by any stretch of any rational person’s imagination.
In a good year, the Doubletree hotel kicks in $1.4M to the marina fund via lease payments. These stay in the marina. (The Doubletree is also subsidizing the rebuilding of bumpy lower University Avenue.) However, the hotel taxes, including room tax, property tax and sales tax go uptown, and that’s somewhere above $2M/year. There have been calls to capture that revenue for the marina fund, but that’s really the same as the city’s general fund subsidizing the marina outright, and it does not have much traction as a long-term solution. Nor should it. Berkeley is the best location for a marina in the East Bay, especially for sailors. With a balanced mix of commercial activity and public-serving amenities, the marina fund could easily be self-supporting again.
Now consider the list of specific “revenue-generating” waterfront additions on which the group was asked to comment:
“The community has suggested the following revenue-generating facilities for the Berkeley Waterfront: Which of these facilities do you support? Did we miss any?”
Restore Berkeley Pier with ferry service
New Casual outdoor dining
New Recreation Businesses (climbing, trampoline park, etc)
Fish Market and Commercial Fishing Amenities
Reconfigure marina slips
Party or event space – indoor or outdoor
A “trampoline park?” That’s supposed to help end a $1M-plus annual deficit?
The additional hotel is the only option that’s reliably known to work on the scale that’s clearly needed (with restaurants, if we are optimistic, a distant second). Everything else is just rearranging the deck chairs. And they left out the quickest and lowest-cost option for improving the marina fund’s bottom line in the short term: Address the security issues that are the direct cause of the marina’s 20% vacancy rate for boat slips.
Good economic analysis is necessarily quantitative, and data-driven. The inputs need to be verifiable. But we can’t really blame the public workshop participants for promoting various pie-in-the-sky wish lists; It’s the consultant’s job to present the hard facts that will steer the discussion back to the realm of the possible.
The Hargreaves Jones consulting team includes experts in economic analysis, but there was nothing to indicate their involvement, at least not at this early stage of the process. Without an injection of some economic rigor, this is all wasted time, energy and money.
We need public input to help us choose among viable solutions, but it’s the consultant’s job to provide the data that will guide the proposals towards economic reality. Participants in the next round of public input need to be reminded that the earth is round.