Civic Center Square, seen from the top of the Old City Hall Building. A coalition of local groups and advocates for the revitalization of downtown is hoping to access funding to restore the complex if Measure L is approved in the November election. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Berkeley leaders are asking voters to approve Measure L this fall, a $650 million bond that promises to repair the city’s streets, build new affordable housing, improve wildfire safety, restore crumbling public facilities, upgrade parks and prepare local infrastructure for a changing climate.

If that long list of priorities sounds familiar, it should. The Berkeley ballot has hosted an alphabet soup of bonds and tax increases to raise money for those needs over the past decade: There was Measure M for street paving in 2012, Measure F for parks in 2014, Measure T1 for streets and parks in 2016, Measure U1 in 2016 and Measure O in 2018 for affordable housing, and Measure FF for wildfire safety in 2020.

Voters approved each of those measures, and city officials say they’ve helped address the decades-in-the-making challenge posed by aging infrastructure and a severe shortage of affordable housing. But none of those efforts were big enough to match the scale of the challenge, according to Mayor Jesse Arreguín and other backers of Measure L.

Arreguín is now leading the campaign for what is by far the biggest revenue measure in Berkeley’s history, with a pledge to use $300 million from the bond to fund street paving and traffic safety work, $200 million for affordable housing and $150 million for other infrastructure needs.

This, he and other city leaders say, will be the measure that delivers the kind of sweeping improvements voters have long been hoping for, particularly when it comes to the city’s streets. If Measure L passes, they say, Berkeley’s average street rating could go from its current “at-risk” score of 58 to a “good” score of 70 over the next decade.

“Despite the generous support of our voters and the city’s very hard work in trying to address our infrastructure, we have not been able to keep up with the decline of our streets,” Arreguín said. “Costs keep increasing, and frankly the bonds and taxes we put on the ballot previously were not ambitious enough.”

The price tag for Measure L matches its big ambitions, however.

Its total cost, with interest, is estimated to top $1.1 billion, paid over 48 years with property tax increases that would average $40.91 per $100,000 of a home’s assessed value. For a home at Berkeley’s average assessed value of just under $650,000, that would translate to a $265 tax increase; someone who just bought a home at the city’s current median sale price, which Redfin pegs at close to $1.4 million, would be looking at a $563 increase.

Measure L needs to win support from two-thirds of voters to pass.

Backers have worried that steep price tag, as well as voters’ fatigue from approving taxes aimed at the same set of problems, could make it hard for Measure L to pass.

And opposition to the measure isn’t limited to those who balk at tax increases. Some of its leading opponents say they support raising more money to fix up the city’s infrastructure but take issue with how Measure L is written, with language that describes its priorities in broad terms while for the most part avoiding detailed plans for how the money would be spent.

“There is no commitment to any particular projects or any particular group of projects,” said Jim McGrath, a former member of the Parks and Waterfront Commission who campaigned to pass Measure T1, but is now spearheading the opposition to Measure L. “It’s a really big bond with no guardrails.”

Will streets finally get fixed?

The Marina stretch of University Avenue reopened earlier this summer after months of construction and repair work funded by 2016’s Measure T1. The infamous bumpy street was known for years as one of the worst in the city. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

In 2013, Berkeley’s public works department had good news for residents who were sick of dodging potholes.

The city’s streets at the time were rated “at risk” in the Bay Area’s annual Pavement Condition Index (PCI) report, but repaving work was ramping up after voters approved Measure M, a $30 million bond for road repairs. By 2018, public works staff predicted, the rating for the city’s streets would be seven points higher, a “fair” score of 65.

That never happened — instead of rising, the city’s PCI rating has stayed essentially the same over the ensuing years, even as voters approved more money to fix streets with Measure T1 in 2016.

Arreguín said Measure M provided funding that allowed the city to finally repair some streets that were in miserable condition. But, he said, “While we were fixing some streets, we didn’t have enough money for maintenance to keep other streets in good repair — so those streets fell apart.”

The desire to pair street paving with other improvements, such as more environmentally friendly landscaping and changes to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, also added to the cost of projects and limited what the bond could accomplish.

Arreguín says Measure L will be different. It pledges to spend far more money on streets, $231 million, than either of the two prior bonds, while the City Council also voted earlier this year to ramp up the annual paving budget to keep roads from deteriorating further. The measure sets aside another $69 million for pedestrian and cyclist safety work.

“We will have the money for maintenance,” Arreguín said. “That is the kind of investment the city should have been making decades ago.”

According to the mayor, Berkeley doesn’t have enough money from its existing revenue sources to take on its backlog of street maintenance needs without making deep cuts in other city services.

“We would not ask unless we really needed this funding,” Arreguín said.

McGrath and other critics say Berkeley shouldn’t rely on a bond measure to pay for street repairs in the first place — his preference would be to pass a parcel tax that would fund road work, an idea city officials considered but later dropped.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín talks during the re-opening ceremony of the 1685 Solano Ave. apartment building. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Moreover, McGrath questioned whether Berkeley’s Public Works Department would be able to handle the significant workload increase that would come from taking on so many more paving projects.

“I don’t think the city can fix the streets in 20 [or] 25 years,” he said. “You have to hire the staff — you cannot do all of this stuff with outside consultants and contractors.”

Although city staff are barred from taking official stances on ballot measures and other political campaigns, city spokesman Matthai Chakko wrote in an email that Public Works Director Liam Garland stands by his statements that Measure L could get Berkeley’s streets into the “good” pavement condition range.

“He is confident we could get to a PCI of 70 or above by 2033,” Chakko said.

Housing funds will supplement Measure O

The Jordan Court senior housing project in North Berkeley, which opened in May 2022, was the first to open with use of Measure O funds. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

The bond would set aside $200 million for housing, with the intention of creating 1,500 affordable units for low-income and homeless residents.

If the measure passes, that money could be used in the city’s housing trust fund to finance future affordable projects.

Both affordable housing developers and nonprofits, like land trusts, can finance projects through the trust fund. One recent example is the Stuart Street Co-Op, in which the Bay Area Community Land Trust and the McGee Avenue Baptist Church teamed up to refurbish a dilapidated eight-unit apartment building. It was the first project to receive funding through the city’s small sites program (reserved for projects smaller than 25 units), which chipped in $1 million toward the renovation. The program also pitched in $3.9 million toward the building purchase and renovation of a 13-unit apartment where tenants had been subject to an Ellis Act eviction in 2019.

The majority of funding for affordable housing projects in Berkeley currently comes from Measure O, a $135 million bond measure Berkeley voters approved in 2018 alongside Measure P, an increased property transfer tax for homeless services projected to generate $6 million to $8 million per year. Arreguín said the city has not yet issued all of the bonds for Measure O, but all of the funding has been committed to projects.

That includes around $27 million from Measure O and the housing trust fund for the Hope Center and Bridge Housing at 2012 Berkeley Way, which is currently welcoming residents, as well as senior housing in North Berkeley at Jordan Court (the first to open with Measure O funds) and educator housing in the works for Berkeley Unified School District employees on San Pablo Avenue.

The city has also committed $53 million in Measure O funds for housing at the North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations.

If Measure L passes, “you’re going to see a lot more affordable housing built and preserved over the years,” Arreguín said, adding that as with infrastructure, “we’re dealing with a problem that was generations in the making.”

McGrath and other critics question the desire to pour additional money into housing without specific project allocations for where it will go. The council hasn’t yet decided how it’s going to allocate the bond money if it’s successful. It could be grouped with other bond measures in one bucket, for example, that’s available to draw for any affordable housing project, or just added to the city’s housing trust.

“If I saw a coherent plan, I probably would vote for it,” McGrath said.

A sign supporting Measure L was placed outside the 1685 Solano Ave. apartment building. The building was subject to an Ellis Act eviction nearly three years ago and prompted the city to acquire the property to turn it into affordable housing, The project was championed by Berkeley’s Mayor Jesse Arreguin. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/ CatchLight.

Critics also question whether there has been enough oversight of spending from prior measures. They use Measure P as an example, saying the council used it partially to “balance” last year’s budget by paying for some homeless services already under the general fund, instead of distinct, new programs.

The city says it intended from the outset to put Measure P toward the existing Pathways Center on Second Street, where it used $1.5 million, as well as money for Dorothy Day services like the drop-in center and mental health transports (which will eventually be transitioned into a Specialized Care Unit). For new projects, it used $1 million for the Grayson shelter, which is set to close soon, as well as $5 million for Project Homekey.

Arreguín emphasized that while some Measure P money has gone to existing programs and ongoing service hubs that are sometimes paid for in the general fund, the bulk of the money has gone to creating new homeless services.

Other infrastructure needs get $150M

A person walks by Berkeley’s Old City Hall Building in Downtown. File photo: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/ CatchLight

City officials have proposed spending $50 million out of the third pot of Measure L funding for work to move utility lines underground along certain wildfire evacuation routes. Doing so could help keep those critical streets clear if residents need to flee from a wildfire in the Berkeley Hills, supporters say.

The remaining $100 million from the “other infrastructure improvements” category is up for grabs — and there are plenty of ideas for what to do with it.

The city’s stormwater systems have nearly $250 million in maintenance needs, and could face further stress as climate change leads to more intense rain storms; downtown boosters and preservation groups want funding to fix up Berkeley’s Civic Center, which could cost tens of millions of dollars; others want a pool at San Pablo Park; and a planning process is underway for improvements at the Marina, including work to rebuild the Berkeley Pier.

A boat sails near the Berkeley Pier in October 2021. Marina improvements, including work rebuilding the pier, may receive funding if Measure L is approved. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Proponents of the measure point to those projects as potential beneficiaries of the bond, but there is no firm commitment in the measure spelling out how much money they would get if it passes, or whether they’d be funded at all.

Like with housing, that lack of specificity is a red flag to McGrath.

“What are the priorities? It’s just not there,” he said.

McGrath also took issue with some of the potential spending. He said the city needs to develop a more robust plan for the Marina first, and further study whether moving utilities underground is the best way to improve wildfire evacuations in the hills.

Measure L’s spending will be guided by a robust public process, Arreguín said, as well as the city’s Vision 2050 Framework, which was the result of an 18-month planning effort for how to address infrastructure needs.

Arreguín said 2016’s Measure T1 similarly did not spell out exactly how it would spend its funding. And while that bond couldn’t match the scope of the problems it took on, Arreguín argues it has been successful in delivering improvements to parks, streets and other public facilities.

“It would not be appropriate for the council to predetermine what should get funded — that should be informed by public input,” he said. “We’re going to use the same process we used in [Measure] T1, and that’s been successful.”

The deadline to register to vote online or by mail in Alameda County is Oct. 24, and the election is Tuesday, Nov. 8. We put together a guide to the essentials of how to register and vote, what’s on the ballot, voters’ rights and more.

Here are some other helpful election resources:

See complete 2022 election coverage on Berkeleyside.

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Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...