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Dean’s support for the arts is selective

John Curl
Thursday May 30, 2002

To the Editor: 


Susan Medak, the Managing Director of the Berkeley Rep, accuses me of writing that "Mayor Dean is no friend to artists" (DP May 25-26).  

Her quote, however, comes not from my letter of the previous week but from that letter's title, which was supplied by the editor of the Daily Planet, not me. 

My letter made a different point: Mayor Dean's support of the arts has been highly selective. Medak accuses me of politicizing Berkeley arts by taking sides. In fact, it's Dean who has taken  

sides. She has advocated for the upscale Downtown Arts District (which includes the Rep) while undermining and neglecting the substantial but humbler arts and crafts district in West Berkeley.  

I say this not only as a member of the Planning Commission but as a custom woodworker who has worked out of a West Berkeley shop for over 30 years. I know Medak is grateful for the City's very generous contributions to the Rep and the Downtown Arts District, and rightfully so.  

But if she is serious about depoliticizing the arts, she should also support the struggles of West Berkley artists and artisans, advocate for strict implementation of the protections in the West Berkeley Plan, and recommend that a fair share of the City's arts grants be channeled to West Berkeley. 

As I pointed out in my earlier letter, in Berkeley as elsewhere, the main threat to artists and artisans is office development. Offices drive up studio rents to levels that most artists and artisans cannot afford.  

West Berkeley artists and craftspeople are supposed to be protected from undue office development by the provisions of the city's Zoning Ordinance that are based on the West Berkeley Plan, which was unanimously approved by the City Council in 1993. Dean voted for the Plan, but since then she has worked to undermine it by vigorously advocating for office expansion in West Berkeley.  

At the same time, she has looked the other way when artists and artisans have repeatedly complained about the city's failure to fully implement the zoning laws. 

In April, the City Council considered the Planning Commission's recommendation for a moratorium on office development in West Berkeley's Mixed Use/Light Industrial District, the heart of artistic and artisanal enterprise.  

The purpose of the office moratorium was to allow the Planning Commission to investigate the impacts of office expansion on artists, artisans and other light industrial enterprises. The Council passed the moratorium by a 5-4 vote; Dean was opposed. 

My earlier letter recounted all this and more. But, amazingly, Medak never says a word about the West Berkeley Plan, the threat of office expansion, the mayor's vote on the office moratorium, or her ongoing promotion of office uses in West Berkeley. Instead, Medak writes: "[Dean] has...supported funding for capital projects in West and South Berkeley." Sticking just to West Berkeley, I am curious to know exactly what major capital projects Medak has in mind. The only project I can think is some banners advertising the area's ceramicists. Banners are nice, but when you can't pay the rent, all the banners in the world won't prevent your eviction. 

Or perhaps Medak is thinking of proposed future capital projects. In Dean's recent State of the City speech, she recommended that the city establish a Ceramics and Artisan District. But the fact is that the city already has such a district and the laws to protect it; what it lacks is a mayor who would see to it that those laws are properly enforced. 

Then there's Dean's other recent proposal that the City sponsor an artist co-op warehouse, an idea that was first put forward last year by Linda Maio. Welcome on board. We'd all love to see the plan. However, one co-op building will not be enough, in and of itself. Most artists and artisans will remain tenants, and will continue to need the City's help through existing zoning regulations. Artists and artisans will continue to need a mayor who supports those regulations, not one who works to weaken them. 

Taken together with Dean's advocacy of office proliferation, both of these proposals look like empty election-year sops. 

If Medak is serious about depoliticizing the arts, she should face the unpleasant truths about Dean's record and urge her to stop undermining the artist and artisan protections in the West Berkeley Plan. 


John Curl 

Planning Commissioner