If, as the poet Robert Frost once wrote with a touch of irony, “good fences makes good neighbors,” the Berkeley corollary is clearly, “loud parties don’t.”
If you crowd a handful or two bright young students into one-bedroom off-campus apartments, parties are pretty much a given—as are the complaints of the more sedate “civilians” who live nearby.
Witness the case of the residents of Hillegass Avenue who showed up at last week’s meeting of the Zoning Adjustments Board to raise a ruckus of their own about a landlord who rents primarily to UC Berkeley students.
Neighbors vs. landlord
David Meyers came to the board from his home in Dublin requesting a use permit that would allow him to add three new apartments to the building he owns at 2538 Hillegass Ave.
What followed offered a glimpse at long familiar town/gown rifts in a neighborhood that’s seen plenty of them—so much so that the university has launched a special program this year to ease student/neighbor conflicts there.
George Beier was the first to offer opposition, speaking on behalf of the 300 members of the Willard Neighborhood Association (WNA), one of the areas most impacted by off-campus student housing.
The WNA district is bounded by Dwight Way on the north, Ashby Avenue on the south and College Avenue on the east and Telegraph Avenue on the West, and includes one of the most troubled—many would say notorious—student housing properties.
Meyers’ building is located on Hillegass a few doors south of People’s Park, and directly across the street from the late and often noisy Le Chateau, which was closed to undergraduate students this year following lawsuits by angry neighbors.
That three-building complex, owned by the University Students Cooperative Association, housed 85 undergraduates before a judge awarded neighbors $63,230 in damages
As Meyers explained it to ZAB members, “I don’t think conditions should be put upon me because of what they see as problems with other houses in the neighborhood.”
But there’s another property in the neighborhood that’s also problematic, and that is one that Meyers does own at 2609 Hillegass, where complaints of loud parties resulted in a city “second response” warning last March—which meant that the landlord must post a prominent notice warning that any further calls to the house will result in escalating fines.
What irked neighbor Randy Fish, who has lived across the street from 2609 for the last 20 years, was Meyers’ response when he called him to complain about a noisy party that had continued into the pre-dawn hours.
“He said, ‘Just call the cops. Don’t call me,’” Fish said, a point Meyers conceded.
But, Meyers said, “I’ve worked real hard on 2609 and there’ve been no calls since March. It takes me a few months to get rid of problem tenants.”
“What you do with other property indicates what might happen with this building,” said ZAB member David Blake.
When asked by ZAB member Rick Judd, Meyers said he owned 35 units in Berkeley.
“Often we can require that there can be specific people to call when there is a problem,” said Judd.
“We have to have place for the students,” said member Jesse Anthony, “but at the same time, you have to work to make the students behave.”
Blake said he felt that as the landlord of Berkeley property, Meyers’ action showed that “you don’t want to take responsibility for your tenants in a way that’s appropriate.”
“I agree with Dave’s comment,” said ZAB member Bob Allen. “It’s totally inappropriate to say ‘Don’t call me; call the police.’”
“I’m sure the applicant knows this is a very organized neighborhood,” said ZAB Chair Andy Katz. “Behavior of the sort that’s gone on at 2609 won’t be tolerated.”
Judd also joined the call for a contact person who could handle complaints, and the board voted to stay a decision on his additions until their next meeting to allow Meyer to address the issue.
It’s a neighborhood where neighbors are willing to fight, and they’ve succeeded in making a major change in another noisy property.
University targets neighbors
The university has taken steps this year to ease relationships between students and their neighbors, most notably the creation last spring by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau of a town/gown task force that looked into the issue.
Panel chair Associate Chancellor John Cummins said their meetings “achieved remarkable buy-in on everybody’s part.”
The panel included university and city officials, neighbors and students, and one was the WNA’s own George Beier.
“The task force represents a true partnership between the university and the community and the neighborhood to make a concerted effort to make things better,” said Jim Hynes, assistant to Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz.
One result of their meetings was the creation of a “welcome to the neighborhood brochure” that has been distributed to residents of the Willard neighborhood offering tips for good student/neighbor relations and spelling out the relevant city codes and fines that could accrue from bad behavior.
The task force also helped in winning funds for AlcoholEdu, an online alcohol education program now required of all incoming students. The university has also funded two student goodwill ambassadors to the neighborhood.
Members of the WNA are forming a neighborhood crime watch, and students have been invited to join.
Students weigh in
One student who’s somewhat cynical about the result is Jesse Arreguin, who is perhaps the embodiment of a unique set of town/gown relations fostered by City Councilmember Kris Worthington, whose district includes much of the university and the Telegraph Avenue corridor.
“I am concerned with the university’s approach to relations between the student and community,” said Arreguin, a man of many titles.
Besides serving as City Affairs Director for the ASUC—“I’m their lobbyist”— Arreguin serves on the city’s Rent Stabilization Board and as acting chair of the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission. He also has a seat on the university’s Planning and Transportation Committee and on the board of the Telegraph Avenue Association.
“We make up about 20 percent of the city’s population, but with the exception of Kris Worthington, councilmembers don’t appoint students,” he said.
Arreguin acknowledged that the Willard neighborhood has had some legitimate concerns about students, “but my sense is that the university is putting the neighbors before its own students.”
Arreguin praised the WNA for hosting an upcoming neighborhood yard sale and party on Sept. 11 to introduce students to their new neighbors in friendly setting.
But he said the university’s actions toward its own students complicate the picture.
However Sharon Han, external affairs vice president for the ASUC, said “We’re very excited about the program. We think it’s going to be very beneficial for the campus community.”