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Task Force Criticized For Lack of Diversity

Friday May 14, 2004

After three months of relatively smooth sailing, the UC Hotel Task Force struck a reef Wednesday night after Chairperson Rob Wrenn presented the 25-member panel’s final report to the full Planning Commission. With the backing of Commission Chairperson Harry Pollack, Planning Commissioner Jerome Wiggins, who is African-American, blasted the task force as a “hand-picked, non-diverse group of white people” and said that he “couldn’t care less” if it continued. 

The task force was formed earlier this year at the request of the City Council, and under the authority of the city’s General Plan. The task force originally began as a commission subcommittee made up of commissioners Rob Wrenn, Zelda Bronstein and Gene Poschman. It was later expanded with community members nominated by the three-member commission subcommittee and approved by the full commission. It’s purpose is to provide citizen input on the proposed high-rise hotel and museum complex UC wants to build in the two-block area in the heart of downtown Berkeley between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street from Center Street to University Avenue. 

But in a debate over the recommendations in the task force’s 14-page report, Commissioner Wiggins virtually exploded at the group’s composition, thundering that “for the people in my community... for you to sit up and talk about diversity is an insult.” 

The problem was, when the task force membership list was originally submitted to the Planning Commission last winter, Wiggins complained of no South Berkeley membership, but then never took the opportunity to put anyone on the task force himself. 

“You were invited to nominate people,” Commissioner Zelda Bronstein told him on Wednesday. “You had an opportunity.” 

Not so, Wiggins retorted. “When the issue came before this group, the issue had already been decided,” he said. “The task force had already been meeting. The train had already left the station.”  

Commission Chair Harry Pollack immediately backed Wiggins, whose vote had given him the majority needed to win his position as chair. “Commissioner Wiggins’ rendition [of the formation of the task force] was correct,” Pollack said. “The task force was set up for one purpose and used for a different purpose.” 

Just what purpose, Pollack didn’t say. 

A flabbergasted Wrenn could only shake his head. 

In fact, while the Planning Commission subcommittee held several general meetings on the hotel complex during the winter in which community residents participated, the task force itself had no formal meeting until after its membership was approved by the full Planning Commission. At the Planning Commission meeting where the task force membership was approved, Wiggins made the same complaint about lack of South Berkeley membership, but then failed to nominate anyone from that area when the chance came. At that same meeting, Commissioner David Stoloff offered a candidate of his own, Erin Banks of Livable Berkeley (the wife of the city’s Current Planning Director Mark Rhoades), who was then accepted by the commission. 

The troubles at Wednesday’s Planning Commission first arose after Wrenn summarized the nine sections of the task force report, ranging from turning Center Street between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue into a pedestrian mall to maximizing the project’s economic benefits for the city and downtown business. 

The first shot came from Wiggins, who said that while he had no problems with the single-sentence general recommendations, “I do have a problem with the details. I don’t understand why there has to be that level of specificity.” 

“Reality is in the details,” replied Commissioner Poschman. “The meaning is in the specificity.” 

One such detail provoked commissioner David Tabb, a recommendation that the complex shouldn’t offer free parking for hotel employees, many of whom he predicted would be coming from long distances. “I bristle at that because it seems enormously class-based. . . It seems an enormously upper-middle-class perspective.” 

Bronstein then directed him to another specific, the recommendation that the hotel provide transit passes to their employees. “If you get on the bus, you’re probably not upper middle class,” she added.  

Tabb later offered an apology for the tone of his earlier comment. 

“My guess is that each of us can find an objection to one or more of the specifics,” said Commission chair Pollack. “We should continue this to our next meeting so we can come up with a resolution to convey to the council with the document.” 

Commissioner Tim Perry also said he had problems with the amount of detail in the recommendations, saying that he wanted to “make this a dialogue with the developer rather than a set of demands from the City of Berkeley. We don’t want to kill the opportunity by appearing to be so difficult that they simply go away.” Perry also said he was opposed to letting the task force itself review the developer’s plans, which he said should be presented only to the full commission. 

Poschman disagreed. “The task force is probably the best place for the developer to go initially because we’ve spent hours and hours” looking into the issue. 

When the dust had settled, commissioners voted to continue the discussion until their next meeting, May 26. A few minutes later, Wrenn walked out and did not return for the remainder of the meeting.