Column: The Public Eye: It Takes a Potemkin Transit Village By Zelda Bronstein

Tuesday January 03, 2006

In 18th century Russia, Grigori Potemkin purportedly tried to impress Catherine the Great by building elaborate fake villages along a route she traveled in Crimea and the Ukraine. Today, “Potemkin village” signifies a showy false front intended to hide embarrassing or disgraceful conditions. Sad to say, that description fits the project that the City Council endorsed Dec. 13 when it voted 8-0-1 (Spring abstained) to support an application from the city, in partnership with the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation (SBNDC), for a $120,00 California Department of Transportation Community-Based Transportation Grant. The money would be used to plan a 300-unit “transit village” at the Ashby BART west parking lot, where the city controls the air rights.  

Transit villages are dense, mixed-use developments located at transit hubs and stations. Promoted by advocates of “smart growth”—when it comes to wordsmithing, you have to hand it to these folks—transit villages are supposed to discourage commuting and fight sprawl. The one at Ashby BART, we are told, will also provide affordable workforce housing; revitalize the neighborhood economy without gentrifying it; and repair the gaping hole that the Ashby BART station tore into the urban fabric of the south Shattuck area.  

Unfortunately, there are giant gaps here between rhetoric and reality. A full inventory of the stratagems at work would fill several pages of the Daily Planet. I want to focus on one ploy that’s central to the Caltrans grant proposal: creating the illusion of community involvement and support.  

The application asserts that the project has had “public participation from the start,” thereby “dramatically improving the potential for the entitlements to be awarded without the public acrimony, lawsuits, delays and uncertainty that plague many projects.” The fact is that until an article appeared in the Dec. 13 Planet, only a handful of individuals in the south Shattuck area had even heard about plans for a transit village at Ashby BART. Yet E-mails from BART planner Nashua Kalil indicate that BART and city staff had started working with the project’s main sponsors, Councilmember Max Anderson and SBNDC representative Ed Church, at least as early as last July.  

The stealth factor becomes even more blatant once you learn that the grant application was filed with Caltrans on Oct. 14—two months before the item appeared on the council’s agenda! Ordinarily, grant applications must be approved by the council before they’re submitted to a grantor. As an excuse for this admittedly irregular procedure, the staff memo accompanying the application says that “the grant opportunity was discovered at a very late date, and there was no opportunity for advance council review.” Ed Church has told me that he found out about the grant program two weeks before the Oct. 14 deadline. City Manager Phil Kamlarz brings last-minute, off-agenda items to the council when he chooses. Why didn’t he bring the Caltrans grant to the council at its Oct. 11 meeting, three days before the application was due? Even supposing that for some good reason the item couldn’t get onto the Oct. 11 agenda, why did it take two months and seven more council meetings for it to come up for review?  

Let me suggest an explanation: Messrs. Kamlarz, Anderson and Church did what they could to keep the public from learning about the Caltrans grant application because they knew that once word got out about a 300-unit transit village at Ashby BART, a lot of people in the south Shattuck community would be alarmed. Up to a point, their subterfuges worked: on the evening of Dec. 13, the council chamber was virtually empty. Only two speakers at public comment addressed the Ashby BART grant. Their concerns were essentially brushed aside by the council majority.  

The eight who voted to support the project will have a harder time blowing off the community at large. To judge from the letters that have appeared in the Planet since Dec. 13, neighbors of Ashby BART are angry about being left in the dark. The stealth planning aside, many people are also incensed by the project’s massive size. Others, noting that the project area extends in a half-mile radius beyond the parking lot, see the transit village as a stalking-horse for redevelopment and eminent domain. Still others are worried that surrounding neighborhoods will be upzoned for higher density, as provided for by California’s 1994 Transit Village Development Planning Act (authored by then-Assemblyman Tom Bates). They fear that sometime early in 2006 the council will pull another fast one and suddenly declare the South Shattuck Strategic Plan a transit village plan, as per the terms of Assemblywoman Loni Hancock’s AB 691, enacted into law last fall and scheduled to sunset at the end of this year.  

At the Dec. 13 meeting, one of the speakers at public comment, Jackie DeBose, asked the council to direct the city manager to withdraw the SBNDC application and to use the staff time that has been dedicated to this proposal to set up a genuine community-based planning process for development at the Ashby BART station. The city could incorporate the ideas that came out of such a process into a new proposal and apply for the same Caltrans grant next fall. Her appeal was ignored. How would the council treat the same request if it came from a mobilized south Shattuck citizenry? Let’s hope we have a chance to find out—the sooner the better, because this train is about to leave the station.  


Neighborhood associations in the south Shattuck area have scheduled a panel discussion about the SBNDC grant proposal, transit villages and related matters for Tuesday, Jan.17, at the South Berkeley Senior Center (2939 Ellis St., at Ashby Avenue). The event will begin at 7 p.m. Background material, including the text of the SBNDC proposal, can be viewed on the Neighbors of Ashby BART website (http://nabart.com/).