When he took over as interim director of the Berkeley Planning Department Monday, Dan Marks knew he was tackling what may well be the city’s toughest job.
“Everything that happens in Berkeley is highly scrutinized,” he said. “People care about [planning]. They care about it a lot.”
Marks, 53, should know. He served from 1995 to 1997 as Berkeley’s manager of Current Planning, handling development applications and enforcing the city’s zoning code before taking a job as Fremont’s planning director.
Marks, who lives in Piedmont with his wife, said he took the Berkeley post so he could be closer to home and because he was ready for a new challenge.
“I felt like it was time to move on from Fremont,” he said. “I’d been there for six years.”
The interim director, who said he will decide in a few months whether to apply for the full-time job, was hesitant to lay out a roadmap for Berkeley development, arguing that urban planners have a different responsibility.
“We don’t impose our vision,” he said. “Our goal is to articulate the vision of the community and implement that vision.”
Marks inherits a department under siege. Vocal neighbors, aggressive developers and an activist Planning Commission have clashed loudly, publicly and repeatedly with planning staff in recent years—complaining about everything from phone calls that have gone unreturned, they say, to major planning decisions that have gone awry.
That friction has contributed to high turnover throughout the department, starting at the top. Former planning chief Carol Barrett, citing conflict with the Planning Commission, became the third director to abruptly resign in five years when she handed in her notice five months ago.
Phil Kamlarz, deputy city manager, took over the post temporarily in June when Barrett left.
Planning Commission chairperson Zelda Bronstein, who often butted heads with Barrett, said Marks’ greatest challenge will be patching up relationships with the commission and neighbors who often feel ignored by the department.
“There’s just been this rising tide of citizen questions and concerns about the fairness of the planning process of the city of Berkeley,” she said.
Marks, who knows Planning Commissioners Gene Poschman and Susan Wengraf from his previous tour of duty in Berkeley, said he is confident that he will be able to build bridges.
“I know some of the players,” he said. “I’ve had good relationships with these groups in the past.”
Fremont City Councilmember Dominic Dutra, who raved about Marks, said the interim planning director should be able to handle the city’s competing interests.
“His [completion of] three concept plans in our city—for the downtown and two historic districts—is a testament to his ability to work with people,” he said. “Historic areas can be very controversial.”
Berkeley politicians and commissioners say Marks will also have to create a more user-friendly planning department. Homeowners and businessowners, they say, are not getting adequate help navigating a cumbersome permitting process.
“This is one of the major, major problems facing the city,” said Mayor Tom Bates. “We need to take care of this.”
Wendy Cosin, Berkeley’s deputy planning director, said the division has done the best it can in recent months balancing large and small projects and weighing the demands of neighbors and developers, while coping with a vacancy in the director’s chair and in a separate upper-level planning position.
With Marks taking over this week and the “advanced planner” position due to be filled at the end of the month, Cosin said, “I think we will be in a better position to look at how we get our work done and respond more quickly to the demands of the job.”
Cosin, who knows Marks from his previous work in Berkeley, said she was “very excited” about his arrival.
While calling for better implementation of the current permitting process, Bates is also pushing to reform that process—seeking to streamline and improve a system that has lead to endless, litigious battles between developers and neighborhood activists.
A mayoral task force on permitting and development that critics charge is slanted toward developers is scheduled to make a series of recommendations in September.
Planning Commissioner Bronstein said handling the new recommendations will present yet another challenge for the interim director.
Fremont Mayor Gus Morrison, who has known Marks for 20 years, said he will be up to the job. Marks is personable, he’s got a sense of humor and he’s straightforward, Morrison said.
“He’ll tell you the truth,” Morrison said. “He’ll tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear.”
“He’s very energetic,” added Fremont City Manager Jan Perkins. “He’s very much a hard worker.”
Perkins said that Marks was able to squeeze a high volume of quality work out of a relatively small planning staff of 25.
Berkeley’s planning department is significantly larger, with 60 employees, and handles a dense, urban environment that contrasts sharply with the more suburban Fremont.
But Dutra, of the Fremont City Council, said Berkeley’s progressive, urban setting will suit Marks well. Marks, Dutra said, was always a step ahead of a Fremont community that has been stumbling toward greater urbanization.
“A lot of that is pretty new to us and I think Berkeley is a bit more progressive,” he said.
For his part, Marks, who has also worked as a planner in the city of Napa and for BART, says he is ready to work in Berkeley.
“I’ve done it before,” he said.