Berkeley ponders paid parking to aid cash-strapped Marina Fund

One council member called paid parking “a no-brainer” and others said it would align with the city’s climate goals.

A swimmer looks out on the water from the beach at the Berkeley Marina, Nov. 5, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

Berkeley officials say the city must find new ways to boost revenue at the Berkeley Marina, which has struggled in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and an ongoing structural deficit.

Paid parking, solar and wind power, increasing the parks tax and reconfiguring the harbor for larger boats were among a raft of ideas discussed Nov. 16 by the Berkeley City Council. While many of these concepts are still early in the planning stages, paid parking — which may be a controversial change for many park users — seemed to garner broad support from the dais.

“That seems like kind of a no-brainer to me. We should charge the kind of amounts that we charge in other places in Berkeley,” said Councilmember Sophie Hahn. “I think the parking is one of the big negatives in the whole marina experience.”

Hahn said she’d like the city to convert some of the parking to green spaces, while other officials said they would be open to putting solar panels on the waterfront’s sprawling parking lots. The marina has 1,700 public parking spots.

“The harbor area is basically like a mall surrounded by parking spots,” said Parks Commission Chair, and former council member, Gordon Wozniak. “It’s a parking mall.”

Wozniak said the city could charge $1 a day and make up to $600,000 a year, or charge $2 a day and make the same amount with 50% occupancy. He suggested that short-term parking might be free, while long-term parking might involve a fee: “I know people don’t like to charge for parking, but I want to raise the issue,” he said.

Numerous council members seemed to embrace the paid parking concept, although it will certainly bear much more discussion and public process before any changes take place. Last week’s discussion was hypothetical.

Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, whose district includes a portion of the waterfront, said she very much agreed in concept with charging for parking; she recently proposed adding parking enforcement in Berkeley on Sundays, which are currently free, or expanding enforcement hours on other days.

But she told her colleagues that she later learned the situation was somewhat more complex than she first imagined.

“The cost of enforcement is not small — because it’s staff, and staff has substantial labor costs,” Kesarwani said. “It’s not the panacea I was hoping it was at our last meeting.”

Mayor Jesse Arreguín said providing so much free parking creates disincentives for people to bike or take public transit to the marina. That creates a situation that’s at odds with the city’s climate goals to reduce greenhouse gases. And that’s not the only drawback, he added.

“We’re losing revenue that could go into helping balance the Marina Fund,” he said.

And there is little time to waste. The Marina Fund has been estimated to have unfunded infrastructure needs totalling $100 million and its reserves are essentially empty. City officials said they want to make changes to build that reserve back up.

The marina’s fiscal challenges prompted council members recently to push the state for a $15 million earmark for Berkeley in the upcoming fiscal year. In their proposal, officials noted that the city has made recent investments of $26 million with an eye toward fixing up the waterfront and making it more financially viable in the long run.

Even before the Nov. 16 meeting, the original proposal on the table that night — to shift several million dollars each year in hotel taxes from the General Fund to the Marina Fund — had been deemed to be a non-starter. The Parks and Waterfront Commission had proposed the concept, but council members and city staff had largely nixed it at a budget meeting in September.

There is, however, broad agreement that the current fiscal arrangement at the Berkeley Marina needs a fix. Council members said it didn’t seem fair that the city takes a huge chunk of the marina’s income while also requiring it to cover substantial infrastructure projects from its own coffers.

“We can’t just rob Peter to pay Paul,” said Councilmember Kate Harrison. She urged city staff and colleagues to look at processes underway to find more money for marina trash collection and paving to determine whether the waterfront might benefit in the short term: “They’re things we should not let go by while we have a chance.”

Wozniak said his goal last week had been to share a range of ideas with council members so they could come up with a path forward.

“I think we need to think outside the box and find a package of solutions,” Arreguín told him.

Council voted unanimously Nov. 16 to discuss the ideas in more depth at its Budget & Finance policy committee. No date for that discussion has been set.

In the short term, the city has allocated $3.55 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to help keep the Marina Fund afloat.

The city is also engaged in a multi-year effort, the Berkeley Marina Area Specific Plan (BMASP), “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 change and promoting environmental stewardship.” That work is ongoing.

That BMASP process has 16 more months to go, parks director Scott Ferris told council members last week. The next big community meeting is expected to come in the first quarter of 2022 and will focus on possible sources of revenue generation.

“Things are on the table: hotels, restaurants, we’ve talked about parking, special events. We’re also looking at potential sites for a lot of those things, and where they could be located,” Ferris told officials. “We’re not ready to share a lot of that with the public yet. We will be soon.”

Mark your calendar

On Dec. 7, the City Council is slated to hold a worksession on plans to rebuild the shuttered Berkeley Pier and bring large-scale ferry service to the waterfront. The agenda will be posted on the city website when it becomes available.

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.