Next Wednesday, Jan. 26, the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing run like a workshop on the proposed West Berkeley Bowl. The stipulation that the hearing is to be run like a workshop may seem trifling. It’s not, given the efforts of city staff and certain Planning Commissioners to railroad this controversial project through the legal channels required for approval.
A little background: the 92,000-square-foot development proposed for Ninth and Heinz, just off Seventh and Ashby, includes a 55,000 -square-foot supermarket (25 percent larger than the existing, 42,000-square-foot Bowl) and a 30,000-square-foot warehouse. Traffic consultants say it will generate 50,000 new vehicle trips a week. The Seventh and Ashby intersection is already backed up in all directions. And the surrounding neighborhood is already parked up all day throughout the week.
In May 2003, the architect and developer, Kava Massih, invited a group of local residents to a meeting where he unveiled plans for a 27,000-square-foot, neighborhood-scale West Berkeley Bowl, an idea that garnered unanimous support. Shortly thereafter, Massih changed his application to double the size of the market in order to draw traffic off Interstate 80 to what had morphed into a regional superstore. He never told the neighbors about the big change. Indeed, it appears that he never told city staff that he had originally presented a 27,000-square-foot market. What he did tell staff was that the local community overwhelmingly supported the larger project. But the great majority of nearby residents, businesspeople and educators—two schools are each within a block or so of Ninth and Heinz—have made it clear that they oppose an expanded, 55,000-square-foot market, due to concerns about increased congestion and air and noise pollution.
For at least two years City staff have been meeting with Massih behind closed doors. Not once in all that time have they consulted the people who live and work near Ninth and Heinz. On Dec. 15, staff presented a schedule that moved the new Bowl through the Planning Commission to the City Council by Feb. 8, and through the Landmarks Commission and Design Review to the Zoning Adjustments Board on Jan. 27. Staff proposed that the Planning Commission do its part by scheduling a public hearing in January.
Which brings us back to the differences between a workshop and a hearing. Many of the numerous speakers who trooped up to the Planning Commission’s public comment mike on Dec. 15 asked that the commission hold a workshop instead of a public hearing, because, they said, the planning process for the West Berkeley Bowl needs to be slowed down—a lot. Mary Lou van Deventer of Urban Ore, which is right across Ashby from the project’s proposed site, hit the nail on the head when she observed that a public hearing properly comes at “the end of a planning process.” Her main point was that “the public really needs to be consulted in a fundamental way.” Hence the commission ought to proceed as if planning for the new Bowl was in an early stage, not the final one.
Van Deventer was right. Workshops, to cite the City of Berkeley Commissioner’s Manual, “are devices designed to elicit citizen input in an informal manner, allowing maximum interaction between citizens and commissioners or for commissions to work on issues in an in-depth manner” [emphasis added]. By contrast, public hearings are formal affairs in which members of the public each get a maximum of three minutes to speak and then have to remain silent unless queried by a commissioner.
Beyond format, there’s an even more important difference. “Workshop sessions,” says the Commissioner’s Manual, “do not culminate in action.” But public hearings do, for they “are quasi-legislative; the commission is making policy or programmatic recommendations to the City Manager or City Council.” In other words, the focus of a public hearing is limited to a particular proposal or policy that appears on the public body’s agenda. To put it yet another way: It’s a lot easier for the chair to rule someone out of order at a public hearing than at a workshop.
So if you wanted to put a project on a fast track, you would opt for a public hearing. Regrettably, that’s exactly what the Planning Commission did on Dec. 15. Commissioner Helen Burke, appointed by Councilmember Linda Maio, did move to hold a public workshop to facilitate full community discussion before setting the matter for a hearing. Her motion was immediately opposed by Mayor Bates’ Planning Commissioner, David Stoloff. “Workshops turn out to be negotiating sessions,” said Stoloff. “I don’t know what would be gained.”
It was a shocking statement. Obviously, what might be gained from “a negotiating session” over a controversial project would be a solution acceptable to all parties. But Stoloff wanted to move the project forward as quickly as possible.
So did Councilmember Wozniak’s appointee, Commission Chair Harry Pollack, who came up with the idea of holding a public hearing that was run like a workshop, to allow for dialogue without slowing down the process.
This hybrid form was what the Commission finally approved, in large part due to the testimony of City Attorney Zach Cowan. Burke, fairly new to the Commission, asked Cowan, “Legally, what’s the deal here?” He never answered her question. A public hearing, he stated, could be held “in the identical manner as…a workshop.” Cowan said nothing about the quasi-legislative character of a hearing or the requirement that it culminate in official action. Thus misled, the commission approved a hearing.
Now the commission needs to make good on its commitment to run that hearing like a workshop. This means more than allowing dialogue. If the meeting is really to proceed like a workshop, it needs to be open-ended. Everything is up for grabs. And it needs to involve “negotiations.”
Specifically, the hearing-cum-workshop needs to negotiate the details of the project itself, and to consider the merits of the originally proposed, 27,000-square-foot market. On Dec. 15, Commissioners Stoloff and Pollock opined that the Planning Commission’s purview is limited to ruling on the amendments to the city’s General Plan, Zoning Ordinance and Zoning Map that are entailed by the new Bowl, and on the initial environmental study’s conclusion that these changes do not require an environmental impact report. The project itself, they asserted, was beyond the commission’s, and thus the hearing’s, scope.
Of course, formal approval or disapproval of the project falls to the Zoning Adjustments Board. But if not for the project itself, staff would not be proposing these amendments to the General Plan, Zoning Ordinance and Zoning Map, much less considering the need for an EIR. So the specifics of the proposed West Berkeley Bowl need to be on the table, along with any other reasonably relevant matter.
To make sure that this happens, the Jan. 26 hearing should begin by establishing that the ensuing discussion will have the format (give-and-take) and the substance (open-ended and in-depth) of a genuine City of Berkeley commission workshop. After that, everyone involved—commissioners, neighbors, applicant, architect-developer, and city staff—should work toward a neighborhood-friendly West Berkeley Bowl.
Zelda Bronstein is a former chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission.