Are you like me? Or at least, like I was 18 months ago? I could name all nine of the Supreme Court justices and anticipate how each would vote on many issues. But our own nine City Council members? I could only have named my own and one or two others, and didn’t pay much attention to happenings at City Hall. I was aware that life had become less pleasant in Berkeley over the years, but I attributed it to wider social problems and not to decisions by city government. I was aware that UC Berkeley was becoming ever less warm and fuzzy, but wasn’t overly analytical about its growing impact on my quality of life. Oh yes, I always voted the “right” (meaning left) way—even licked stamps for some issues—but never investigated most of the actions of those I voted for. After all, I was busy with my own priorities, just like you. And then suddenly, one dark day…
I found that one of my neighbors, the American Baptist Seminary of the West (ABSW), along with the Berkeley Planning Department, had a whopper of a plan for my block, the 2500 block of Benvenue Avenue, a struggling residential street on the front line of institutional creep. What was it? A 65-feet-tall, 40,000-square-foot monster building, loaded with offices and classrooms but rather short on parking.
Boy, was I ever surprised! And unprepared, big time! What was this “Planning Department,” who were they and why on earth were they trying to ruin my neighborhood? Were they insane? Didn’t they know how difficult life already is on Southside? Why couldn’t I talk to my city councilmember or the mayor about this impending disaster? What is zoning? What are these five “use permits”? What is the “Zoning Adjustments Board” and what do they do? What are the DRC, the LPC, the PSA? What is the California Environmental Quality Act, and later, why doesn’t the city obey it? Why doesn’t the city attorney protect the citizens of Berkeley? Why does the city staff treat me like an enemy, when I pay their salaries with my tax dollars? My naiveté was boundless. But no more.
Others in my neighborhood were more experienced and already in action, and we quickly accumulated a phalanx of advisers. But meanwhile, even more questions arose: For example, since the ABSW rents out most of its campus to UC Extension, why did the planning staff want to facilitate UC encroachment south of Dwight Way, in direct contradiction to neighborhood preservation and the city’s own upcoming Southside Plan? And then we discovered that the ABSW’s UC rentals are actually illegal, and that they had been caught renting to UC 20 years ago and even promised to stop. But mysteriously, this information was considered irrelevant by both the planning staff and the Zoning Adjustments Board, and inconvenient by the city attorney. Luckily, the City Council has taken a more reasonable view of the matter, but it took an army of neighbors the better part of a year to convince some city decision makers of what is obvious to anyone else after a 20-minute conversation: that this project is absurd and wrong. That we couldn’t have this conversation with the City Council is, of course, part of the problem.
Are we alone? No, neighborhoods all over town are astonished by the bad ideas foisted on them by the Planning Department. Are we all “opposed to development” or “afraid of change”—easy accusations that are almost universally untrue? No, we just want projects that suit and enhance our neighborhood environments. Most Berkeleyans want sensitive and creative infill, not ham-handed monstrosities guaranteed to make life worse for a citizenry already living with a density that makes most Americans cringe—and then run off to the suburbs.
Something is very, very wrong when a project as bad as the ABSW’s is vigorously promoted by the city, and when citizens must work thousands of hours to save their neighborhood environments. How did we get here? Progressives and Moderates point fingers, and have a backlog of grievances against each other. But I say, point at least one finger at me—and at you, if you are like me—because I was so preoccupied with national and global events that I ignored what was happening in my own back yard. But the advantage of my local apathy is that I carry no personal or political grudges against anyone in either party, and I will work with everyone to create a more livable urban environment.
Why do I tell you this? Because state, regional, and city mandates are right now rearranging our city, and this is the critical moment for citizen participation. Berkeley will be redesigned, either with your input or without it. Accommodating more people need not destroy the Berkeley we love, nor will destroying Berkeley save the planet. If the Planning Department and city attorney’s office will not protect Berkeley’s livability, we may have to make fundamental structural changes in city government to remove power from the staff and return it to ourselves and the City Council, and to ensure the accountability of our elected officials. But take it from me: Get involved now. After all, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”
Sharon Hudson is a longtime Berkeley resident, a member of the Benvenue Neighbors Association, a renter and an artist.