On Tuesday, Dec. 14, city staff will ask the Berkeley City Council to give final approval to a plan to change Marin Avenue west of the Alameda to Tulare from four car lanes to two car lanes with a center left-hand turn lane and a bicycle lane on either side.
The council should put off further consideration of this project until the people who will be most affected by it—thousands of North Berkeley residents—have been adequately notified and properly consulted. To date, such notification and consultation has been lacking, to say the least.
Marin Avenue is the major east-west route into and out of North Berkeley. Everyday it’s traversed by 20,000 cars. City staff have been working on the proposed reconfiguration of the street with staff from the City of Albany for two and a half years, and longer than that, if you count the formulation of the Berkeley Bicycle Plan, which was adopted by the City Council in 2000. Yet today only a handful of North Berkeleyans are aware of the proposal to radically change Marin.
On Oct. 21, the city’s Transportation Commission held a public hearing on the project. Staff sent notices only to households on or near Marin Avenue. To my knowledge, there was no announcement in any newspaper. Staff did not even directly contact the office of District 6 Councilmember Betty Olds.
At least two North Berkeley residents—I was one—e-mailed the commission before the meeting and asked that the public hearing be continued until the North Berkeley public had been properly notified. My message noted that the public hearing was on the same night as the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association’s candidates forum, a meeting scheduled in August. These requests were not delivered by staff to the commission. Indeed, my e-mail doesn’t even appear in the packet of communications that I picked up a few days ago from the city planner in charge of the project, Heath Maddox.
But staff’s failure to communicate the views of the citizens to the commission went far beyond the non-delivery of two e-mails. In fact, the commission never saw any of the e-mails or letters sent to the commission from the public.
All it saw was a summary of public commentary prepared by Catherine Reilly, the planner from the Berkeley consulting firm, Design, Community & Environment, hired by the cities of Albany and Berkeley to analyze and facilitate the project. In a memo to Maddox dated Oct. 21—the same day as the public hearing—Reilly provided a bulleted list of arguments for and against the project that she had culled from the public’s communications.
Having served almost seven years on the Berkeley Planning Commission, as well as having written and read numerous communications to the Berkeley City Council and many other Berkeley boards and commissions, I can say that I’ve never encountered this mode of transmitting written public comment to an official policymaking body. And for good reason: It makes a mockery of the public’s views.
When I write to my official representatives or their appointees, I expect my words to reach them just as I set forth those words—with all the nuances and evidence (or lack thereof). I do not expect my ideas to be reconstructed by a consultant or a city staffer or anybody else. I bet every other person who communicated to the Transportation Commission about the Marin reconfiguration project had the same expectation, especially those who offered lengthy, meticulous critiques of the consultants’ and staff’s conclusion that the project would not significantly affect the environment and therefore would not require an environmental impact report (one North Berkeley author of such an assessment described himself as a retired traffic engineer).
But the discounting of public opinion went even further. Not only did the consultant reduce each view, no matter how detailed or extensive, into one sentence or at most two; she never presented an overall tally of the pro- and anti-project communications.
In fact, of the 24 letters addressed to the City of Berkeley, four supported the project, while twenty opposed it. Of the 24, 21 communications were signed by an identifiably North Berkeley resident; of those, three were in support and 19 in opposition. The figures for e-mails and letters sent to both Berkeley and Albany were even more lopsided: Out of 11 communications, one was for, and 10 were against. Six of the eleven were from North Berkeleyans; all six were against.
In short, the members of the North Berkeley public who knew about the project overwhelmingly opposed the reconfiguration of Marin Avenue, and not only in writing: At the Oct. 21 public hearing, twelve North Berkeleyans spoke. Of the eleven whose positions I’ve been able to document, three supported the project, and the other eight opposed it.
Yet in face of overwhelming public opposition, the Transportation Commission unanimously approved the proposal. The Transportation Commissioners could have—and should have—said: We need to see the actual communication from the public, not a consultant’s summary, and we need to see that communication well before the same evening on which we’re voting, so that we have time to ponder it. Better yet, they should have said that notifying households only along Marin west of the Alameda about a project that will affect thousands simply will not do—and then instructed staff to hold at least one well-noticed workshop on the reconfiguration of Marin Avenue, a workshop designed around real dialogue with the North Berkeley community.
The commission neither said nor did any of the above. The City Council must do it instead.
Supporters of this project are going to say: The train or rather the bicycle has already left the station; the City of Albany has given its final approval; Albany has a big grant for this project; Berkeley’s share of Marin is only a few blocks long; it would be awkward to bicycle-ize up to Tulare and then leave Marin from Tulare up to the Alameda in four car lanes. They are going to advertise the project’s supposed merits. They may even point to the statement in the consultants’ Initial Study that the Berkeley City Council has already approved this project—a claim that is highly dubious.
All these arguments are beside the point. The immediate issue for the Berkeley City Council is not the merit of the project but the adequacy of the planning process. To give this proposal the final go-ahead now would amount to governance by fiat. The Berkeley Council’s first responsibility is not to the City of Albany or to hired consultants or paid staff; its first responsibility is to the people of Berkeley. When it comes to the reconfiguration of Marin Avenue, the way to carry out that responsibility is to hold off on a final council vote until this project has been adequately reviewed by the Berkeleyans whose daily lives it will profoundly affect.
Zelda Bronstein, a former chair of the Planning Commission, has lived in North Berkeley since 1990.