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Neighborhood Activists Left Out of the Loop

By ZELDA BRONSTEIN Special to the Planet
Friday June 18, 2004

Notification is the lifeblood of community participation. On this score, the organizers of last Saturday’s community workshop on San Pablo Avenue revitalization had good intentions. They hoped to involve the community in the early stages of the project rather than, as is too often the case, bringing them in near the end when all the important decisions had already been made. Hence workshop organizers made a serious effort at community outreach, mailing out 510 letters to community-based organizations in or within a mile of San Pablo.  

It’s odd, then, that neither the Berkeley Association of Neighborhood Associations (BANA) nor the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CNA) nor Plan Berkeley—all of whom have members who have been intensely involved in high-visibility planning issues around San Pablo Avenue in recent years—were invited to the event. Representatives of each of these groups say that they would have participated had they known about the workshop beforehand. Invitations did get sent out to other groups associated with San Pablo Avenue. And many groups whose interests lie far afield—such as Campus Drive Neighbors, the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association (TONA), and the Downtown Berkeley Association—were also asked to attend. A friend of mine who lives near Indian Rock and belongs to no neighborhood association at all got a notice in the mail.  

Granted, when the item on the agenda is something as big as revitalizing San Pablo Avenue, it makes good sense to cast a very wide net. The net cast in Berkeley for last Saturday’s community meeting was certainly wide enough; the problem was that it had some conspicuous holes.  

According to Kristin Warren, the Sacramento-based consultant whose firm, Jones & Stokes, facilitated Caltrans’ public outreach on the San Pablo Corridor Project, “planning departments from each city along the corridor were contacted for more information about neighborhood associations along San Pablo Avenue.” Warren noted that “staff from the Berkeley Planning Department’s Land Use Division provided contact information about neighborhood organizations in Berkeley.” At the workshop itself, 16 of the 73 people who signed the voluntary sign-up sheet were from Berkeley. They included “several area residents as well as representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, the city government, the Transportation Commission, the City Council, and various other community-based organizations.”  

How did BANA, CNA, and Plan Berkeley get left out of the loop? Part of the answer has to do with the badly outdated list of community organizations maintained by the city. The invitation to the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association, for example, went to the home address of a former president of the group who hasn’t held the office since fall 2000. Since then, I myself have been president of TONA and have repeatedly asked city staff to be listed as such in the city’s directory, to no avail. I’ve given up asking.  

The Berkeley Planning Department is also at fault here. It’s not clear whether Land Use Planning Manager Mark Rhoades was contacted by Jones & Stokes, or if so, whom he might have contacted in his office. In any case, Rhoades needs to make sure that in the future, what happened last Saturday doesn’t happen again, and that everyone in town who needs to know about events such as the San Pablo Corridor community meeting and workshop finds out about them in a timely manner. And how about notifying the Planning Commission, which was also left in the dark about last Saturday’s proceedings?