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On Berkeley’s No-Input Staff

Paul Rude
Tuesday January 06, 2004

Editors, Daily Planet:  

Sharon Hudson’s analysis of the Permitting and Development report (“City Report Fails to Cite Pro-Developer Staff,” Daily Planet, Dec. 19–22) is right on the money: Berkeley planning decisions on large projects are made with virtually no public input. As an immediate neighbor of Patrick Kennedy’s recently completed Acton Courtyard project at 1395 University Ave., I was privileged to experience the “process” first-hand.  

I started in the early 1990s, when I wasted several days attending public meetings on the University Ave. “plan.” The Acton – University intersection was a specific focus, but when the time came for development, city staff tossed out the public input like so much garbage. By the time hearings were held by the Zoning Board, essentially all decisions about the project had been made behind closed doors. Board members addressed Kennedy’s representatives by their first names, while treating neighbors like criminals.  

Kennedy’s hold on city government became apparent as soon as construction started. Oliver & Co, the contractors for most of Kennedy’s projects, took over the neighborhood like the US army took Baghdad. They ignored all restrictions on working hours imposed by the use permit, starting work at 7 a.m. and working all day Saturdays and sometimes Sundays. Their heavy equipment became a constant menace, circling the block every 15 minutes or so for months.  

When several of us complained and demanded a meeting, Kennedy’s and Oliver’s representatives feigned surprise at the working hour restrictions and denied that any restrictions could possibly apply to them. Kennedy’s manager sneered that he would “get the rules changed.” Translation: “We own the Planning staff right down to their socks.” 

Our phone calls, faxes, and letters to the Planning Department, to our Councilpuppet Margaret Breland, and to the Newspaper-Snatcher-in-Chief, went unanswered. About 20 of us signed a petition for redress, and we filed formal complaints. No one from Planning and none of our political “leaders” responded. We didn’t even get a courtesy call telling us to get lost. The only person courteous enough to listen was Joan MacQuarrie, the Chief Building Official, who imposed some temporary restrictions even though it is not part of her job to do so. This experience suggests to me that use permit conditions are meaningless, at least if your name is Kennedy.  

Contrast this with the fate of mere mortals who want to build something. If you are a homeowner who wants to add a room, you will face a gauntlet of hostility from Planning staff from the very start. As a contractor, I participated on a project where a single neighbor with a grudge delayed construction for a year, costing the owners $30,000 or more, even though the proposed new home met every zoning rule and required no variance of any kind. Acton Courtyard, on the other hand, violates virtually all zoning rules, including those on density, height, setbacks, and parking— not to mention that the city gave its darling developer the $1 mil parcel of land for free. Or maybe they just forgot to charge him, like they forgot to collect taxes on his other properties. 

In spite of my negative experience, I am by no means against higher-density development, and neither are most of my neighbors. I don’t even think the final result at Acton Courtyard is so awful (I speak for myself only here), although its harsh impact on the neighborhood could have been mitigated considerably if Planning staff had been open to real public input.  

Unfortunately, I don’t see any chance that things will change anytime soon unless there is dramatic change in political leadership. The present Berkeley establishment seems to be mired in the property-is-theft, government-knows-all model that gave us such monuments as East Berlin. If Berkeley is to develop humanely, we need new leaders who will embrace the incomparable energies and talents of its inhabitants—not just the few who can afford to buy the system. Failing this, I propose we update the name of the world’s most progressive college town; you know, Kennedyville has a nice ring to it. 

Paul Rude