City Council to consider definition of ‘culture’
Bicycle advocate Jason Meggs stepped up to the lectern during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s City Council meeting and placed a portable tape recorder next to the public address system microphone.
“EHHH, EHHH, EHHH EHHH, EHHH.”
“That’s the sound of the gapping maw of death,” Meggs said referring to the recorded warning sound made at downtown garages when a vehicle is about to exit to the street. “That is the sound that warns pedestrians to give up their God-given right to walk down the sidewalk.”
Meggs, along with about 50 other bicycle and pedestrian advocates, attended the meeting to support a controversial Draft General Plan policy that calls for a two-year moratorium on downtown parking studies.
The policy, known as T-35, is designed to encourage commuters and visitors to use alternate transportation in getting to the downtown area, thereby taking pressure off the existing parking garages.
Bicycle and pedestrian advocates have argued strongly that increasing parking will increase traffic by encouraging more people to use their cars.
T-35 has been strongly opposed by downtown business owners concerned that the influx of new businesses, such as the Auroa Theater, Freight and Salvage Coffee House and the newly remodeled Central Library, will put too much pressure on existing garages.
The council is now reviewing the nine sections of the draft plan and has agreed to approve the Housing, Land Use and Transportation sections by next Tuesday.
The council set aside the plan’s more controversial issues, like T-35, so it could move quickly approve 14 of 20 staff-recommended amendments. The amendments the council approved, nearly all by unanimous votes, were generally minor changes such as language corrections.
The council will delve into the parking study policy, as well as a series of controversial land use issues such as an amendment written by the Ecocity Builders and the definition of “cultural facility” on Tuesday prior to approving the three elements.
Council urged to be “visionary”
Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition Events Coordinator Sarah Syed urged the council to create a more “visionary” downtown plan and then submitted approximately 120 postcards signed by people who support policy T-35.
Syed said the large showing of T-35 supporters was to balance an equally large showing of business representatives who spoke during the Draft General Plan public hearing last month.
“The council hadn’t heard from the public on this issue,” she said after the meeting. “The public hearing was dominated by business owners, managers and their employees, especially from the YMCA.”
YMCA Executive Director Fran Gallati said the YMCA is against T-35 because the downtown businesses are expanding and its important to at least be able to study possible parking issues.
“The downtown is rapidly becoming a vibrant place that has a lot to offer the community,” he said. “T-35 does not support a strong Y, a strong new Central Library and a strong arts district.”
Gallati pointed out the YMCA promotes alternate transportation to its members and employees including handing out maps with bike and transit routes, the installation of bike racks and touting the health benefits of walking. But he said some people, especially seniors and parents, are not able to use alternate modes of transportation.
Mayor Shirley Dean, who leads the council’s minority moderate faction, opposes T-35 and has proposed that a parking study of current parking needs and the projection of parking needs over the next five years given the number of businesses that are expected to move into the downtown area.
To the dismay of bicycle and pedestrian advocates, it appears there may be support among the five-member progressive majority for deleting the two-year moratorium on parking studies from the draft plan. Councilmember Linda Maio removed the two-year moratorium from her list of suggested amendments and instead has called for a visitor access survey.
“I suggested the visitor survey because visitors are the people who patronize the restaurants and stores,” Maio said. “Parking availability for visitors is important because that’s what makes for a vibrant downtown.”
Maio said she wants to convince downtown business owners to discourage their employees from leaving their cars parked in meter spots all day, which ties up the most popular parking spaces.
What is culture?
Another controversial issue that will be debated Tuesday is the definition of “culture facility.” A Planning Commission policy in the land use section of the draft plan seeks to encourage arts and performance organizations in the downtown by allowing developers to increase building heights by one bonus floor if they lease commercial space to a nonprofit “cultural facility.”
But Dean wants to adopt the Civic Arts Commission’s definition of “cultural facility” which would include for-profit arts organizations.
“I think the Civic Arts Commission is in a better position to define cultural uses than the Planning Commission,” Dean said.
Civic Arts Commission Chair Sherry Smith said the difference is that the CAC definition expresses a preference for nonprofits but also allows for profit art galleries, arts and craft supply stores and book stores to apply for the cultural facility bonus.
“The Planning Commission definition is too narrow,” she said. “What if there’s a for-profit organization that everybody wants in down there like the jazz school? The Planning Commission definition would exclude them.”
But Planning Commission Vice Chair Zelda Bronstein said that if for-profits were allowed to vie for downtown cultural space they would be have a better chance because developers are generally more interested in the lessee’s ability to meet rent payments than in supporting the arts.
“If a landlord has a choice between a nonprofit arts organization and for-profit business, the landlord will take the for-profit business, especially the larger corporate business because there is a better guarantee of financial security,” Bronstein said. “We have to decide, do we want to help subsidize another Barnes and Noble book store or a unique nonprofit like the Freight and Salvage Coffee House?”
The City Council meeting will be held Tuesday at 2134 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers. The meeting will also be broadcast live on the KPFA Radio, 89.3 and Cable B-TV, Channel 25