Commentary: Cooperation, not Conflict? In Berkeley?

By SHARON HUDSON Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 27, 2004

In this era of university expansion and controversies over damaging encroachments on residential neighborhoods, Berkeleyans might look to how the current illegal use of the campus of the American Baptist Seminary of the West (ABSW) will be resolved to see how Berkeley will protect its neighborhoods. On July 12, the City of Berkeley’s legal and planning staff declared the ABSW to be clearly in violation of both “the intent [and] the letter of [its] existing use permit,” which is solely to educate up to 250 graduate ministry students. The University of California is the other major participant in this violation, which is surely not in keeping with UC’s stated intent to respect municipal codes and enhance community livability. 

As regular readers of the Daily Planet will recall, for almost 20 years the ABSW has been leasing out excess institutional space on its 2.35-acre campus south of Dwight Way between Hillegass and Benvenue Avenues. This is because the seminary, in its heyday with about 180 students, has gradually shrunk to a handful of mostly evening, part-time students. What has it done with its extra space? In violation of its use permit and its own written promises to cease rentals, the ABSW has rented classroom and office space to various private, religious, and UC entities, most notably the UC Extension Freshman Extension program, with almost 700 students, and the recently expired English Language Program. The total campus head count of about 1000 has therefore been 90 percent illegal. 

Nevertheless, in 2001 the city planning staff advocated allowing the ABSW to build a huge new institutional/residential building on Benvenue Avenue, raising the hackles of area residents, mostly renters, who joined to form the Benvenue Neighbors Association (BNA), of which I am part. After over a year of hard work by the neighbors, the City Council realized that something was amiss in this picture and successfully discouraged the new development. 

Now the neighbors are working to bring the ABSW into compliance with the intent of their existing use permit. The BNA has presented to the seminary, to UC, and to the City our “WIN-WIN-WIN” plan, which would permit the seminary to continue to lease space to UC on an interim, non-legalized basis, as long as the intensity of use is reduced promptly to a level compatible with the existing use permit and the needs of the neighborhood. Under this plan, nobody loses: The seminary can continue to receive income into the indefinite future by leasing space, probably to its primary natural market—UC; UC continues to have use of the space; and the neighborhood will be relieved of the damaging parking and other impacts. As some of the existing institutional buildings reach the ends of their useful lives, institutional land not needed by the seminary would return to residential use, as encouraged by the Southside Plan and good city planning. 

The extremely generous WIN-WIN-WIN plan does not ask for strict enforcement of the existing use permit, nor for revocation of that permit, nor for compensation for damages—although all of these things are available legal remedies. But circumstances change: The seminary will probably never again fill its own quarters, and of course vacant buildings serve nobody. Changing circumstances are best met with creative cooperation, not legal wrangling. Although a use permit modification or revocation hearing must follow if the ABSW refuses to enter into negotiations with the community, the adversarial course is not ideal.  

This is why both councilmembers Worthington and Wozniak, who represent the local neighborhood, support the principles of the WIN-WIN-WIN plan. On July 20, the council voted to ask the seminary to respond by fall to the BNA plan, accompanied by a referral from Councilmember Worthington that states in part: 

“The council believes that it is in the public interest of the City of Berkeley to ensure that uses (and mitigations) specified in use permits are honored and enforced, and to assiduously protect the city’s power to control land uses. This is especially important in the face of increasing institutional expansion in Berkeley….Council considers the Benvenue Neighbors Association plan a constructive approach to resolving a difficult land use problem for the long term,… [and] the council strongly encourages the ABSW to negotiate a plan for ABSW campus use with the Benvenue Neighbors in a timely manner.”  

Removal of institutional use from areas south of Dwight Way is mandated by the Southside Plan. This is reiterated in the city’s recent response to UC’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP): “…the city believes [that UC growth next to the core campus] should be accompanied by the University’s withdrawal from leased space elsewhere in the Southside, such as the American Baptist Seminary of the West…” As a matter of fact, UC’s own LRDP suggests moving UC Extension programs out of Berkeley entirely.  

The LRDP contains plenty of highfalutin statements about its commitment to enhancing community livability. Now it’s time for UC to honor its words. The WIN-WIN-WIN plan is best implemented with the active cooperation of UC. This means being creative and flexible, working across departments, and not being hidebound by old patterns. The WIN-WIN-WIN plan would give UC the best opportunity to help craft a plan to meet its needs. All the plan asks is that UC select lower intensity, more neighborhood-friendly uses from among its vast and diverse domain. UC has already placed uses of modest intensity at ABSW and elsewhere. It is not difficult, and it will presage the sensitivity and cooperation that UC would apply to its desired 2.2 million square feet of expansion. Unfortunately, so far UC officials have refused to engage with the community on this matter.  

Finally and most important, we ask the seminary to re-join its neighborhood. For two years the seminary has failed to respond to BNA’s efforts to start a dialogue, and ignored an earlier July, 2003 request by the council to enter into discussions with the neighbors. The new council referral warns: “BMC Section 23B.60.030 allows the city to revoke or modify a use permit if ‘the use, structure or building permitted has been substantially expanded or changed in character beyond that set forth in the permit.’ This action can be initiated by a resolution of the council.” The better alternative is the WIN-WIN-WIN plan, but if all three parties don’t participate, a similar but more difficult plan for both the ABSW and UC will likely be enacted. Berkeleyans are now uniting to protect their neighborhoods from unwarranted and damaging institutional expansion. And we look to City Hall for proactive support. 


Sharon Hudson is president of the Benvenue Neighbors Association. The full text of the WIN-WIN-WIN plan can be seen at www.berkeleydailyplanet.com.