Citing decaying infrastructure and impending financial insolvency, officials pledged this week to revive the Berkeley Marina by investigating the prospect of large-scale ferry service, a new waterfront hotel and a rebuilt municipal pier, among other proposals on the table.
The marina’s budget woes have been well-documented for years, driven by both $100 million in deferred repairs and an ongoing structural deficit — the allocated budget doesn’t cover the costs — that has been exacerbated by a precipitous drop in revenue amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. That reduction, the city has said, has been caused in part by a “crime surge” that’s led to “an exodus of boaters, with more than 11% of our boating population leaving the Berkeley Marina.”
Amid those challenges, however, city leaders have been working, through both short-term repairs and long-term planning, on an effort they hope will transform the waterfront into a regional “crown jewel” while protecting the qualities that make the area so special. The vision — still very much in development — includes a partnership with the Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) to bring larger ferries to Berkeley with service estimated to begin in 2026. These new ferries, the city says, will bring more people to town, provide an influx of cash to help rebuild the shuttered Berkeley pier and also supply an important emergency route to help residents leave the city in the event of a disaster.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said during Tuesday night’s work session. “I think we can come up with a really grand, inspired plan.”
The pier alone is estimated to cost $15 million to $55 million to repair, and WETA would cover a substantial portion of those costs if it does ultimately bring large-scale ferry service to Berkeley because the new pier would be available for ferry users as well as public recreation. A range of designs are under consideration — a draft study identified 11 options — and those conversations are ongoing. The next community workshop related to the pier and ferry is slated to take place in June.
Tuesday night’s meeting was a chance for staff to provide an overview about a variety of plans and ideas related to the waterfront that are in the works and under consideration. There is still plenty of time for the community to give input, staff and officials said. One key place to share that feedback is through an online survey, which runs through March 12, that will inform the Berkeley Marina Area Specific Plan (BMASP) and help shape the marina’s future. The city is working to develop that plan with the help of internationally renowned landscape architecture and planning firm Hargreaves Jones and an extensive project team.
The goal of the plan is lofty: to “provide a path for achieving a financially self-sustainable, publicly owned marina that preserves and enhances infrastructure to support current and future community needs, while adapting to climate changes and promoting environmental stewardship.” The planning process is slated to cost about $1 million and take at least two years to complete under the current timeline.
On Tuesday night, staff told city officials about several possible ideas for reopening the Berkeley pier, which the city closed in 2015 because of structural problems, and about work to improve several streets in and around the waterfront.
That includes an overhaul of University Avenue west of the freeway to smooth out a protracted series of bumps in the road. That project is currently out to bid with construction expected to start in the spring, staff said.
As part of Tuesday night’s presentation, staff asked city officials to consider what sort of new facilities might help bring more people and money into the waterfront as part of the revitalization process. In addition to the pier and ferry, the list included a second hotel, a new restaurant, new businesses and recreation opportunities, commercial fishing amenities and more.
“I’m not ready to say no to any of them,” said Councilmember Sophie Hahn. “I really want us to think big.”
Staff also presented several ideas to increase revenue for the marina, including a parking fee, new special assessments or bond measures, and a vehicle entrance fee, among other possibilities. Multiple officials said they are unlikely to support an entrance fee, because it felt like it would be too exclusive and limit access to a treasured public space, but were open to the other concepts up for consideration.
“I hope we’re able to get what we need to with the fund without ever having to resort to that,” said Councilmember Rigel Robinson, of the entrance fee.
Berkeley marina fund still in deep trouble
The city of Berkeley has struggled “for decades” to manage the waterfront budget, according to Tuesday night’s staff report, and the fund is now “on the brink of insolvency.”
“Budget updates and fee reports dating back to the 1990s continually describe structural deficits threatening to exhaust Marina Fund reserves. These reports document a long history of Marina Fund revenues struggling to cover basic operating costs,” staff wrote. “Failure to fix this problem now could result in the need for years of annual supplements from the General Fund or potentially returning the Waterfront tidelands area back to the State, leaving Berkeley residents with little input over the Waterfront’s future.”
In a typical year, according to staff, marina operations generate nearly $7 million. Staff said this is likely to be closer to $5 million by the end of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. According to a November 2020 staff report, the marina fund “is projected to exhaust all reserves within the next budget cycle” and will need an influx of more than $2 million to continue existing operations.
“Since COVID, lease revenues from the hotel, restaurants and commercial tenants have plummeted and safety related issues that were already significant, have become more prevalent, forcing many berthers and their associated revenue to leave,” staff wrote.
As recently as February 2020, according to the report, the situation at the marina had appeared to be stabilizing as the result of “significant investments” made by council. These included the WETA ferry agreement, the marina planning project, and millions of dollars in repairs to docks, restrooms and pilings, among other improvements.
“Prior to COVID, these improvements were making a difference. Occupancy rates were holding steady, curbing the trend of boater departures in recent years,” staff wrote. “These improvements were laying the groundwork for fee increases and increased lease revenue, and an overall improved financial picture for the Waterfront.”
But the November report also described several years of low occupancy rates for marina berths, which have cost the city more than $1 million. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, staff wrote, the occupancy level for both live-aboards and other slipholders was just 78%, down from about 85% in 2016.
Nearby marinas have occupancy rates above 90%, staff said Tuesday night.
“Starting four years ago, Marina berth revenue began to decline, as berthers left the Marina citing concerns about safety and security, many of these related to unauthorized campers and RVs, and later following an uptick in gun violence at the Marina,” staff wrote. “This has been a difficult trend to reverse.”
On the subject of public safety, staff have said previously that police began to notice an increase in crime last summer. Authorities said there were 63 police reports in August related to assaults, stolen cars and boats, burglaries, theft, vandalism and fires. In a single week, the DoubleTree reported 14 auto break-ins. The Shorebird Nature Center had its window smashed three times in three months.
Slipholders described being repeat targets of cataytic converter theft — one person was targeted three times — and said they had taken to carrying a canoe paddle for safety when venturing to the bathroom at night. A recreation staff member overseeing a group of children in Shorebird Park found a knife and machete during one of their programs.
In August alone, six slipholders left the Berkeley Marina because of problems related to safety and encampments, the city said.
A 42-page crime prevention analysis by the Berkeley Police Department found that better visibility and lighting, as well as better maintenance, would help address a number of the public safety issues. Staff has also recommended the installation of security cameras, and the hiring of security staff, to help keep a closer eye on the area.
One issue that came up repeatedly Tuesday related to how the city handles the marina budget. Under state rules, revenues generated at the marina must be spent at the marina. But this does not apply to taxes. So, each year, several million dollars in taxes paid by guests who stay at the DoubleTree Berkeley Marina hotel are diverted into the city’s general fund and used for other city services. (The city said a chunk of this money is used for police and fire operations, including those which take place at the waterfront.)
Several members of the public said the marina would not be in such financial straits if the city did not divert this money. Officials acknowledged the challenge and said that, if a new hotel is built on the waterfront, they would like to see a larger portion of the new taxes go to the marina fund.
What’s next on the horizon for the Berkeley Marina?
On Tuesday night, council members said they were excited to see improvements at the marina as a result of the BMASP process and other municipal investments going forward.
They urged community members to participate in the process and said their concerns would be heard. But they also asked meeting attendees, many of whom had spoken out against the ferry, to reconsider.
Councilmember Susan Wengraf noted that, not so long ago, the land that is now Cesar Chavez Park used to be a garbage dump, and that it had been transformed by people who had the foresight and vision to create something new.
“Let’s carry that with us when we talk about transforming the marina,” she said. “We can do it. If we set our minds on the goal, we can really make this happen. And I think we’re the right council to do it.”