Letters to the Editor

Tuesday December 06, 2005


Editors, Daily Planet: 

“Oak to Ninth,” the biggest Oakland housing development proposal in over five decades, is expected to bring new, well-heeled professionals into Oakland. But Oakland cannot afford to ignore the potential negative effects of such a large redevelopment effort on the ability of current residents to stay in their homes. Skyrocketing property values could drive a larger wedge between the rich and the poor.  

Oakland must assist its neighborhoods and small businesses to thrive and grow, but in a way that empowers the people that are already there and doesn’t push them out of Oakland’s new prosperity. Gentrification is an old, tired story that we need not repeat.  

Heather Leitzke 




Editors, Daily Planet: 

There was one inaccuracy in last Friday’s story on the mayor’s proposal on landmarks ordinance revisions: He has departed from the Planning Commission’s recommendation on the structure of merit designation. Instead of eliminating it, the mayor has proposed retaining the category and its current protections, but restricting its future application only to buildings in established historic districts. In other locales, Mr. Bates has proposed studying the idea of “residential conservation districts” (so far undefined) which might help preserve neighborhood character outside of the more formal landmark process. 

You also failed to report on perhaps the most interesting new idea in the proposal: The establishment of a “historic preservation officer,” to act as staff support to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and to be an advocate for preservation throughout the city bureaucracy. 

These and other helpful new ideas may finally help the city resolve a process of needed revisions that is now in its sixth year. Mayor Bates is to be commended for trying to provide new ways to look at some of our long-running deadlocks in these areas. 

Alan Tobey 




Editors, Daily Planet: 

I have read a couple articles in Berkeley Daily Planet about people raising nanotechnology safety issues concerning UC Berkeley’s proposed nano lab. C-60 Buckeyballs have to be pretty inert; more inert than the graphite in every pencil. Are people being alarmist over nanotechnology? Machine Design Magazine has a relatively readable feature article this month titled “Nanowaste: the Next Big Threat?” at machinedesign.com. The article seems to be relatively balanced, and yes, there are real health concerns over even Buckeyballs. 

Osman Vincent 




Editors, Daily Planet: 

Rob Wrenn’s article, “Planning for Downtown Berkeley’s Future,” suggests that the current plan for downtown Berkeley, implemented in 1990, is out of date. Wrenn doesn’t mention anything wrong with the current plan, and he proposes that a new plan should contain many similar components of the older plan. Instead of trying to come up with a new plan based on the premise that the current downtown plan is out of date, the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee should examine why the objectives of the current plan haven’t been met for 15 years. The goals of the new plan are the same as the unmet goals of the plan already in place. How does changing the name of the plan lead to accomplishment? Why a new plan? Instead, the task force should implement the current plan’s objectives.  

Wrenn writes that the current downtown plan calls for an increase in low-income housing, yet he states that little if any of the housing built downtown in the last 15 years is considered low-income. Instead of stating the obvious, that low-income housing should be included in the new plan, how about examining why the housing that was created didn’t follow the current guidelines? Why is it that none of the new housing in the downtown area is affordable? 

The current plan includes an increase in public transportation systems, as well as discounts for people who work in the downtown area and commute via public transit. Yet, AC Transit is in a constant state of downsizing, and as Wrenn points out, a discount on transit for downtown employees has only been offered to city employees. Why? It is unfair that only city workers receive financial incentives for dealing with the hassles of commuting and working in downtown Berkeley. It’s ridiculous that in 15 years the city hasn’t been able to offer the discounted travel pass, the Eco Pass, to more than just its own employees.  

As a resident of Berkeley for 27 years, I can understand how Wrenn would believe that “the economy is in better shape.” I’ve watched downtown slowly creep up and down Shattuck Avenue, now spreading between Dwight Way and Hearst and further, but I disagree that vacancy rates are lower. The city must make a good chunk of change selling developers permits for contracts x, y, and z, plus taxes, because they’ve sold out downtown to big developers with no retailers to move in. Large empty buildings lie all over downtown (the northeast corner of Dwight and Shattuck, for example) with nothing to offer in their windows, other than “for lease” signs. I suggest that the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee look into the motives behind planning for a super-sized downtown Berkeley. Why? How does it benefit the citizens of Berkeley? A simple solution to the over crowding of the downtown area would be to stop increasing development. 

Selina Satterlee 




Editors, Daily Planet: 

The Oaks Theater on Solano Avenue is a living part of Berkeley’s history, and a group of neighbors has decided to do what we can to help it prosper. We’re afraid that if we don’t pay attention, the theater’s struggle to survive will fail, and we’ll lose the focus of our neighborhood and our local shopping area. Typically, it’s only after a theater or major business fails that neighbors realize what a treasure it has been. We’re acting now to keep the theater alive and well.  

The Oaks was built in 1925 by the Reid Brothers, famous architects who also built the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, and the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego. The theater was built in the Spanish Colonial style, and still retains several of the original features, like the arched windows on the second floor and the colorful sconces and other decorative elements inside the theater. The original façade was Spanish Colonial, and much more elaborate than the current façade and marquee, which were remodeled later into the current art deco style. The theater originally cost $200,000, with another $25,000 for a grand organ.  

The theater was built for Max Blumenfeld, who in the 1920s and ‘30s had a little Northern California empire of 60 theaters. Besides the big screen, the Oaks had a stage for live performances and showed vaudeville acts along with movies. The Blumenfeld theater group also ran the Cerrito Theater, which is undergoing major renovation now by the City of El Cerrito to resurrect it as a functioning theater. 

Our neighborhood group has two goals: First, we’re researching the history of the Oaks in an effort to document its 80-year history in our community. We’d really like to talk to anyone with memories of the Oaks back to the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s or even earlier. Do you remember going to the theater then as a child? Were you an usher, patrolling the theater with a flashlight? Did you sell tickets, originally 30 cents for adults, 40 cents for the loge chairs? If you can contribute any memories, please call me at 526-0831. We hope to get landmark status for the theater at both the local and national level. 

Second, we’re putting together an informal group with the working title “Friends of the Oaks Theater,” and are collaborating with the theater manager to increase interest in the theater and boost attendance. He’s looking for input from the community into what we’d like to see at the Oaks and what is needed to make the theater thrive once again. We’re planning to have the first meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 14. If you’d like to attend, call me at 526-0831 or e-mail me at crmsutton46@yahoo.com. 

Connie Sutton 




Editors, Daily Planet: 

As a neighbor of 2700 San Pablo Ave., I would like to summarize the flawed approval process for this project. With tremendous neighborhood opposition, in 2001 Patrick Kennedy received a use permit for a rental project with 20 percent affordable units. In 2004 he sold the property and the use permit to a developer who wanted to build a condominium project. 

The buyer, Curtis & Partners, had its original architect draw up plans for a 35-unit project, 48-50 feet tall, with a flowing window design on the ground floor along San Pablo Avenue. Even though it was a different project with a different building use, it was approved by the city’s planning staff and the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) in late 2004 and the City Council in early 2005. Since when have planners considered condominiums affordable housing? 

In September 2005, Curtis & Partners submitted a new set of plans, by a new architect, to the Design Review Commission (DRC) for final approval. Their plans changed not only the height of the building, but the architectural intent. The attractive window design was completely changed, with concrete shear walls added. Is this a soft-story building, right in the middle of a seismic liquefaction hazard zone? The design changes also raised the height of the project to 52 feet, 3 inches—above the zoned commercial height limit of 50 feet, without ZAB oversight or approval. 

Planning staff did not note these changes. Alert neighbors revealed the changes to the DRC in October 2005. 

There is a pattern of planning staff generously facilitating big development plans with no regard for our area plans, the zoning code, or the general plan. We have learned that a project in final approval at DRC can be remanded back to ZAB only by the zoning officer—Mark Rhoades. 

I recently met with Rhoades to discuss 2700 San Pablo Ave. In a bold “let them eat cake” moment, he said “I hear ya. There’s a three-story building going in near me.” But three stories is the limit that every neighborhood in town wants! Does anyone think there’s a chance that a five-story building—the size promoted by the Planning Department everywhere else—would be built next to Rhoades’ house? 

Mark Rhoades has far too much power over people who don’t have the good fortune to live near his backyard. Berkeley’s planning process is not only  

unfair, but illegal and reprehensible. 

Julie Dickinson 




Editors, Daily Planet: 

Michelle Gavinda shows her utter ignorance of how the decision to narrow Marin Avenue was made when she writes “the bicycle fanatics got their way and punished the rest of us poor slobs.” 

Albany decided to narrow Marin before Berkeley did. Albany is known as a city of prosperous suburbanites—not as a city of bicycle fanatics—and its motive was to slow traffic to make Marin Avenue safer for its residents.  

It should be clear that Marin was narrowed because of where the city lines are drawn. Albany is downstream, and its residents suffered from the fast traffic on Marin, so they wanted to narrow the street. Berkeley is upstream, and its residents are annoyed by a few minutes of extra driving time—but Berkeley residents don’t vote in Albany.  

Once Albany made this decision, Berkeley had very little choice but to follow. Only a few blocks of Marin are in Berkeley. If these blocks remained four lanes, there would have been a very dangerous merge from four lanes down to two at the Albany border. There also would have been little or no effect on traffic congestion: The intersections where Gavinda complains about backups are in Albany, not in Berkeley.  

This sort of re-striping was publicized by Dan Burden, head of the group Walkable Communities, who calls it a “road diet.” Burden makes it very clear that the bicycle lanes are primarily a mechanism for narrowing the roadway and slowing traffic, and the benefit to bicyclists is incidental. Gavinda herself says that she has just seen two bicyclists on the street in the last four weeks, so this plan obviously did not have a significant benefit to bicyclists; as a bicyclist myself, I never have any reason to ride on Marin.  

Unfortunately, a few Berkeley neighborhood group leaders decided to stir up opposition to this re-striping by running a hate campaign against bicyclists. One of them wrote an opinion piece in the Daily Planet calling it a “plan to bicyclize Marin Avenue.” I suppose it is hard for neighborhood groups to stir up hatred against Albany suburbanites who want to live on a safer street. It is much easier to mobilize residents by stirring up hatred against bicyclists—who had little or nothing to do with this plan, but who are such a small group of people that it is easy to use us as scapegoats.  

When Gavinda adds to the hate speech by writing “the bicycle fanatics got their way and punished the rest of us poor slobs,” she should consider that bicyclists are very vulnerable when they ride in traffic. In a moment of road rage, someone could remember her letter and decide that he is going to get back at one of those bicyclists who are “punishing” him. Hate campaigns sometimes do lead to violence and death.  

Charles Siegel