Column: The Public Eye: Summer School for Councilmembers, Commissioners By ZELDA BRONSTEIN

Tuesday August 02, 2005

This week the City Council, the Planning Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board all go on their long summer breaks, and not a moment too soon. Legislatively and judicially speaking, the past year has been an annus horribilis. To know that these bodies will be on vacation for the next month and a half is something of a relief.  

It would be even more reassuring to know that our elected officials and their appointees intend to use some of their time off to bone up on laws and policies that will (or should) inform major decisions they’re slated to make in 2005-06. The need for edification was all too evident in their deliberations of the last twelve months. 

To be sure, their regular schedules scarcely leave enough time to deal conscientiously with immediate issues, much less to delve into the legal and policy background of each item. Witness the huge packet of documents that go out for a single council meeting. Planning Commission and ZAB agendas are less formidable but still plenty demanding.  

Here then, is a modest, late summer curriculum for independent study focused on three major issues that will be on city agendas this fall and beyond.  


1. UC Settlement and Downtown  

Without a doubt, the worst action taken by the council in the past year was the settlement with the University of California, secretly approved in May. And the worst thing about this very bad agreement is that it effectively hands control of all development in downtown Berkeley to the UC Regents.  

The settlement is a short if painful read (www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/manager/lrdp/ucblrdpagreement.pdf). Anne Wagley’s “Mayor Bates Drops the Ball” offers a comprehensive and insightful critique (Daily Planet online archives for June 24, 2005.) 

The secret vote might have gone the other way if the council had consulted the Berkeley Municipal Code, which assigns the Planning Commission (unmentioned in the settlement and bypassed in its preparation) primary authority for—what else?—the city’s land use planning (Section 3.28.100) and for amending the city’s General Plan (Section 22.04.020).  

Also instructive is the Citizen Participation Element of the General Plan itself. Whereas the settlement describes an exclusively staff-driven process, the GP calls for extensive public involvement. According to Section 22.04.010 of the Municipal Code, the General Plan sets policy for the City of Berkeley.  

The Municipal Code can be accessed at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us. The General Plan, online at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/planning/landuse/plans/generalplan/nitce.htm, can also be purchased from the Planning Department.  


2. Historic Preservation  

Five years ago the council directed the Landmarks Preservation Commission to bring the city’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance into line with Berkeley’s Permit Streamlining Act. Thanks to the intervention of city staff and a majority of the Planning Commission, what should have been a minor refinement has ballooned into a major assault on the legal foundations of historic preservation in Berkeley.  

Before delving into the voluminous and obfuscatory official documentation of this affair (www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/planning/landuse/LPO/default.htm), it pays to peruse the introduction to “CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] and Historical Resources,” a readable guide published by the State Office of Planning and Research (www.ceres/ca.gov/ 

topic/env_law/ceqa/more/tas/page1.html#introduction). See, too, the website of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (www.berkeley.heritage.com).  


3. The Future of Berkeley Industry and Arts 

West Berkeley is the only part of town zoned for industry and working artists and artisans. Most of the area’s many manufacturers, artists and artisans are tenants. What keeps West Berkeley affordable for them is zoning that either restricts or simply forbids high-end uses (retail, offices).  

Two big upcoming projects involve the conversion of a substantial amount of industrially zoned land to retail: the 91,000-square-foot West Berkeley Bowl and the commercialization of Gilman and Ashby Avenues west of San Pablo.  

Last winter city staff were poised to fast-track the new Bowl without an Environmental Impact Report, despite the fact that the facility (25 percent larger than the existing Bowl) would generate 50,000 new vehicle trips a week in an area already choked with traffic. A coalition of nearby businesses and residents hired an independent traffic engineer who strongly critiqued the initial traffic study. 

Discerning the likelihood of a successful lawsuit, staff directed the developer to do an EIR. In September the EIR and proposed zoning and General Plan amendments will come before the Planning Commission; the project itself will be vetted by the ZAB. The planning process so far is officially documented on the city’s website (www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/planning/landuse/Heinz/default.htm; to access individual files, scroll all the way over to the right side of the screen).  

To date, there’s no official documentation worth consulting with respect to the proposed commercialization of west Gilman and Ashby which has yet to begin. That’s because this very ambitious project, a brainchild of Mayor Bates, was endorsed by the council last spring without the slightest preliminary market research, policy analysis or community input. Its initiation awaits the hiring of a new planner. 

Both these projects need to be evaluated by the goals and standards set forth in the West Berkeley Plan (www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/planning/landuse/adopted.html1#west; hard copy $10 at the Planning Department). Unanimously adopted by the council in 1993, the Plan is often misquoted to support the de-industrialization of West Berkeley. In fact it lays out the city’s official strategy for retaining its industrial base and arts sector.  

That strategy’s continuing validity and its conflicts with the proposed West Berkeley Bowl are lucidly outlined in a Feb. 7, 2005 letter to the city from Neil Mayer, the founder and former director of the city’s Office of Economic Development (available from Allan Gatzke, Agatzke@ci.berkeley.ca.us, 981-7413). John Curl’s “Drayage Artisans Were Protected Until 1998” (Daily Planet online archives for July 5, 2005) recounts the city’s surreptitious elimination of legal protection for Berkeley’s artists and artisans.  

Mayor Bates and other advocates of commercializing west Gilman and Ashby argue that more retail inevitably yields ample sales tax revenue for a city. This conventional wisdom is challenged by California Cities and the Local Sales Tax, a meticulously researched 1999 study done for the Public Policy Institute of California by Paul G. Lewis and Elisa Barbour (www.ppic.org).  

That’s enough. It’s summer, after all. When the Council, the ZAB and the Planning Commission reconvene in September, we’ll find out who’s done his or her homework.