Berkeley’s “New” Downtown: Behind the Brand

by Zelda Bronstein on April 30, 2012

“We want to fundamentally change perceptions about Downtown.” The speaker, Downtown Berkeley Association Executive Director John Caner, was addressing the 300 or so people crowded in the Shattuck Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom on the morning of April 3 to celebrate the DBA’s launch of the “new” Downtown. Perceptions that Caner and his colleagues hope to change are the widely held views of Downtown as unkempt, unsafe and unpleasant. Accordingly, the ballroom audience was regaled with accounts of recent, intensified efforts at cleaning, beautification and “hospitality” –think: visitor assistance and loiterer rousting – along with celebrations of Mayor Tom Bates – “his vision for the Downtown has made this all possible,” Caner enthused – and the University of California’s new projects in the area. The event left me in a state of ambivalence.

Like everyone else in Berkeley, I’m cheered by the prospect of a more attractive and prosperous Downtown. I’ve even made a modest personal contribution toward realizing that vision: my first assignment as a Berkeley planning commissioner in the late Nineties was to help oversee the Downtown Streetscape Project, which installed bump-outs, decorative streetlights and new trees on Shattuck and University Avenues.

So on April 3, I was pleased to see photos of downtown streets being power washed five nights a week between 10 pm and 6 am. I was also glad to hear that the past three months have seen the removal of an estimated 8,500 pounds of trash and over 25,000 gum stains. Ditto for the news that 71 fire hydrants, 232 traffic poles, 194 light poles, 92 trash bins, and 18 postal boxes have been painted; 92 news racks cleaned and weeded; 307 tree wells weeded and graded; and 180 flower baskets and 88 Downtown banners hung. One glaring misstep: painting the tops of the big round planters chartreuse (tacky). Otherwise, the area looks much better.

But there’s more to the “new” Downtown” than beautification, and some of it isn’t either pretty or clean.

Privatizing City Services With an Anti-Union Firm

Since Berkeley has a public works department with 287 workers, you might think that the sixteen men and women sprucing up Downtown are city staff. Instead, they are employees of Block by Block, a private, for-profit firm based in Louisville, Kentucky. According to its website, Block by Block provides “safety, cleaning, hospitality and outreach solutions” in 37 cities across the country, including New York, Pasadena, San Antonio, Santa Monica and Oakland. The company doesn’t work for cities, however; it contracts with local downtown improvement districts, property-based associations whose members have agreed to tax themselves to fund services to supplement those provided by their municipal governments.

In Berkeley, Block by Block was hired by the Downtown Property Based Improvement District (PBID). The PBID encompasses 25 blocks bounded by Delaware Street to the north, Oxford and Fulton to the east, MLK, Jr. Way to the west and Dwight Way to the south. (You might not have realized that Downtown extends north of Hearst; by reaching up to Delaware, the PBID architects captured taxes from an extra block of businesses.)

Within those 25 blocks are properties owned by 187 landlords and housing about 850 business tenants. Those properties include city land – Old City Hall, the Main Branch of the public library, the Civic Center Building, the Center Street parking garage, the Public Safety Building and six other parcels. Like other non-profit and government property owners in the district, the city is assessed at lower rates (there are premium and standard levels) than commercial and residential owners.

In a mail-in election held last June, Downtown property owners approved the PBID for a five-year term. Managed by the DBA, the PBID went into operation in January 2012 with a first-year budget of $1.2 million, of which $665,000 will go to Block by Block. With assessments of $105,018, the City of Berkeley was the largest single contributor to that budget.

There’s nothing unusual about the City’s outsourcing work; at almost every meeting, the Council approves contracts with private vendors. And outsourcing seems like a good idea when it’s used for occasional projects that require skills or equipment that the city doesn’t ordinarily need.

But outsourcing is a bad idea when it’s used to lower costs by employing non-union workers for public services that are in constant demand – for example, keeping city streets clean and safe. It’s a really bad idea when the private vendor is anti-union, which brings us to Block by Block.

As Darwin Bond reported in the East Bay Express last January, when Block by Block’s “security ambassadors” tried to unionize in Pittsburgh in 2009, the company

opposed the card check process, pressing instead for a secret ballot election, a procedure that gives employers more tools to scuttle pro-union outcomes. Block by Block management barred employees from wearing union buttons or talking to the media, and according to reports in the Pittsburgh Gazette, even conducted surveillance and called the police on some of [its] own ambassadors who passed out pro-union literature in front of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s offices.

Bond also described SMS Holdings’ efforts over the past decade to lobby federal legislators “to privatize thousands of government jobs. Paying minimum-wage levels (and, in some workplaces, even less), SMS Holdings has been able to skim enormous profit margins off of outsourced local and federal jobs.” In 2008, the company posted over $300 million in revenues.

At the April 3 launch, Block by Block Regional Vice President for the Pacific Region Scott Crandall told me that the permanent “Host Ambassadors” working in Downtown Berkeley are paid $13.50/hour, which works out to $27,000 a year. That’s more than both the California minimum wage of $8/hour and the Living Wage of $12.76/hour that Berkeley requires its vendors to pay as a minimum to employees who, like Block by Block workers, receive health benefits.

But it’s 46% less than the starting salary for a city of a Berkeley groundskeeper: $24.85/hour or $51,684 annually. Salaries aside, Block by Block workers do not receive the benefits that are guaranteed to Berkeley staffers by their unions’ contracts with the city.

You can argue, as I do, that the alarming state of Berkeley finances demands that personnel costs be substantially lowered, and still hold, as I also do, that using non-union workers employed by an anti-union vendor is the wrong way to lower those costs.

The Two Faces of Hospitality

In fact, it’s not really appropriate to compare a Block by Block Berkeley ambassador to a city groundskeeper, because the former has a serious responsibility that does not appear in the groundskeeper’s job description: dispensing “hospitality” in downtown Berkeley. I put hospitality in quotes because it refers here to activities that some consider inhospitable.

Witness the photos and commentary by Lydia Gans featured on the front page of the April 6 Berkeley Daily Planet. In the first picture, a man is sleeping on a downtown planter bench, his plastic-bag-laden shopping cart by his side; in the second, he’s been awakened and sent on his way by one of the ambassadors.

The man told Gans that the ambassador had informed him that he was not allowed to be there. In the accompanying caption, Gans asks: “Are those people in the bright chartreuse shirts patrolling the downtown streets the friendly helpful folks the [PBID] tries to tell us they are? Or are they hired cops?”

Strictly speaking, the ambassadors are not cops, insofar as they’re not authorized to make arrests. Nor do they carry weapons. But they do police Downtown, insofar as they’re authorized to help the Berkeley Police Department enforce the city’s laws regulating street behavior. At the April 3 launch, Officer Stephanie Polizziani told me that the following week she would train the ambassadors at a one-day “mini-academy,” with assistance from the BART Police Department and Berkeley mental health staff.

(At the launch, Caner got a nervous laugh when he asked, “Isn’t it kind of ironic that we’re providing public safety services to the Public Safety Building?” Such provision would properly be termed scandalous, not ironic. Officer Polizziani assured me, however, that the ambassadors are not providing police headquarters with security but only keeping its walls and grounds clean and tidy.)

Is it against the law to sleep on a downtown planter bench during the day? Section 13.36.015.A. of the Berkeley Municipal Code clearly prohibits sleeping on commercial sidewalks between 7:00 am and 10:00 pm Monday through Saturday and between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm on Sundays and holidays. But according to City Attorney Zach Cowan, the BMC does not specifically forbid sleeping or lying on city planter benches. The ambassador in Gan’s photo was acting outside the law.

To whom are the ambassadors offering more conventional forms of hospitality? Presumably, to those whom Radiant Brands Chief Strategist Steven Donaldson had in mind when he told the launch audience that the DBA wants “to attract the right kind of folks,” meaning “young professionals – Cal staff and faculty, grad students, and entrepreneurs”; “established residents and suburban visitors, no kids”; “new families setting down roots”; and “international visitors.”

Apparently, the assumption here is that to attract “the right kind of folks,” you have to repel the “wrong kind,” i.e., anyone who doesn’t fit into the DBA’s four categories of desirables. As somebody who does fit into one of those categories, I suspect that to some extent, that assumption is accurate. The crucial question is, to what extent?

When Cody’s was still on Telegraph, I used to go up to the Avenue a lot. I often encountered street behavior I found unpleasant; the worst was the screaming man. I didn’t much like the panhandlers or the scruffy kids sitting on the street with their dogs, either.

But I went to Telly anyway, because I wanted to patronize Cody’s and Moe’s and the now-departed, funky but elegant little antique store next to The Reprint Mint and the Reprint Mint itself – unique shops that offered services I couldn’t find elsewhere. I realize that other people found the street ambiance too off-putting to make the trip. But like me, many were still drawn by the one-of-a-kind stores.

In the past few years – which is to say, well before Downtown was officially declared “new” – Addison Street has been thronged at night by patrons of the Berkeley Rep, the Jazzschool, the Aurora Theater and Freight & Salvage. Before the show, many of them have dined at restaurants on Shattuck or University Avenues. Moviegoers have flocked to the Shattuck, California and United Artist cinemas.

All this time, the homeless and the panhandlers have been present; people came anyway. In other words, if a commercial district has enough strong attractions, visitors will overlook street behavior they find disagreeable.

Personally threatening behavior is another matter. But even if the city enforces its laws against aggressive solicitation of money, as well as those that govern lying, sleeping and stationary dogs on commercial sidewalks (no more than two allowed in “any ten-foot area”), homeless people and panhandlers will continue to frequent Downtown.

What’s unclear is whether the district’s lively nighttime patronage can be replicated during the day in a commercial district whose once-diverse and distinctive retail sector is now dominated by food services, and whose non-retail sector is increasingly dominated by UC offices and labs. That’s an issue I hope to consider in the future.

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