Commentary: Kicking the In Crowd Out By SHARON HUDSON

Tuesday January 10, 2006

I’m in with the In Crowd 

I go where the In Crowd goes 

I’m in with the In Crowd 

And I know what the In Crowd knows… 


Those of us of a certain age remember this good-natured taunt at uncool outsiders who are not “in the know.” At my school, the teenage In Crowd was innocuous and short lived; by the late ‘60s, the In Crowd was Out and the Out Crowd was In. And then we all grew up, and what was In and what was Out seemed much less important than what was Right and what was Left. Or in Berkeley, than what was Left and what was Lefter. 

Now, as adults, we find that focusing only on right and left might have been a mistake. Because there’s still an In Crowd, but it’s not so innocuous any more. The In Crowd is politicians and lobbyists, developers and corporate tycoons, meta-organizations like the University of California and ABAG, self-serving bureaucrats who control information, and similar power brokers. They may cultivate a cool demeanor, but actually they are busy fellows, singing while they work: “We make every minute count; Our share is always the biggest amount”—which, if not Miltonic, is at least honest.  

The In Crowd runs the show. Occasionally the Out Crowd attempts to get in and reduce the backroom dealing of the In Crowd, for example, by passing a Brown Act, a Public Records Act, a California Environmental Quality Act, or campaign finance reform. But the In Crowd always finds a way around them—usually by “spendin’ cash, talkin’ trash.”  

So what brings this amusing little song to mind? It is Berkeley Planning Director Dan Marks’ quixotic flailing at the university over UC’s proposed Southeast Campus Integrated Projects (SCIP) around Memorial Stadium. The SCIP was absent from the university’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) of less than a year ago, because the SCIP was supposedly so distant and hypothetical. Then, suddenly, here it is, almost ready for prime time! Talk about “talkin’ trash”! 

Director Marks is a capable, experienced planner who knows Berkeley, and he probably believes that the project and project environs would benefit from his input. In addition, Director Marks already participated in an excellent city criticism of the original LRDP, after which he (along with the rest of Berkeley) was stabbed in the back by a craven council that failed to pursue its LRDP challenge. Why did he decide to challenge UC again, without any council backup? How does Marks feel? Confused? Used? Abused? Defused? Or just happy that (unlike citizen activists) he gets paid no matter how much time he wastes on fruitless gestures? 

Marks’ attempts to protect Berkeley from UC’s exceedingly bad planning on the SCIP warms the hearts of us perpetual outsiders who live near campus, who are also routinely ignored by the university In Crowd that plans the systematic demise of our community. But my appreciation of Dan Marks would be a lot deeper if his indignation were not so hypocritical.  

Usually Marks is in the In Crowd. As the Godfather of the planning department, he routinely protects his misbehaving staff and trivializes the rights of outsiders—that is, Berkeley citizens. In addition, although now Marks expresses moral indignation at the university’s sham environmental impact reports, Godfather Marks has never been a champion of environmental review. But in light of his own recent outsider outrage, will Marks now have more respect for the input of people who know and care much more about their neighborhoods than he does, instead of helping freeze them out of the public process? I wonder. 

Will the real Dan Marks please stand up? Is it Dan Quixote or Don Marks? Do we dare to hope for Dan Quixote, who, when he finishes tilting at UC, will return home and apply similar zeal for public participation to his own domain? Not likely, I fear.  

The smart money is all on Don Marks. His outrage stems not from violation of his principles, people say, but from violation of his territory. When Marks is invited to the party, he is happy and cooperative. Isn’t he a willing party to a new downtown plan that empowers UC but tramples the rights of Berkeley citizens? they ask. Isn’t he in the back room with UC and the mayor, helping to “position” and “fast track” the downtown hotel project and sidelining Berkeley citizens? Inquiring minds want to know. 

But one thing is obvious: At the moment there is no champion of the public’s right to know in the Planning Department. Just one recent example: For 18 months, Southside has been enmeshed in an orgy of procedural impropriety carefully orchestrated by the planning staff. A proposed project at the corner of Dwight Way and Regent Street, involving removal of a parking lot and major alteration of an 1876 house, has been discussed at length, and endorsed in concept, by the Zoning Adjustments Board, without any public noticing. This is precisely what the Brown Act was written to prevent. The planning staff, ZAB, and a daisy chain of three big developers are tickled pink, but the Out Crowd remains in the dark about their plans. Dwight Way residents will be surprised when they find out how many decisions the In Crowd has made without their knowledge.  

In yet another surprise from the In Crowd, a massive housing project at the Ashby BART station has been proposed to displace BART parking and the Berkeley Flea Market. This problem began with the “smart growth” crowd in Sacramento, but the local In Crowd (council member Max Anderson, planning staff, BART, and project sponsors) has been working on this project since last summer. (The fact that the council “decision makers” found out about it months later shows that the council itself goes In and Out as it suits their puppeteers.) The In Crowd has already decided to put a transit village there, and perhaps even the project’s size and affordability. Eventually the Out Crowd will spend thousands of unpaid hours to influence the color scheme—if that. 

Residents near Ashby BART station may be outraged to find themselves so far out, but they are lucky: Most people don’t find out about the In Crowd’s plans for them nearly so early. For example, neighbors of the “Flying Cottage” at 3045 Shattuck lived in ignorant bliss until the cottage was actually taking off. Unsuspecting Berkeley drivers who use Telegraph Avenue may soon find themselves squeezed into one lane by Bus Rapid Transit, the pet project of a very formidable and smug In Crowd (UC, AC Transit, and ivory tower smart-growthers) supported by passionate local autophobes. And currently a messianic In Crowd of developers, the mayor, and some councilmembers is attempting to strip the Out Crowd of its protections under the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance.  

But the mother of all surprises, of course, was the secret sellout of the city to the university last May. While Berkeley citizens dutifully waited “outside” for the city to protect them from massive university expansion, the City Hall/UC In Crowd was in the back room agreeing to deprive city residents not only of environmental protection, but of their existing legal rights. This epitomizes the arrogance of In Crowds, which often think they are smart enough to make major policy decisions without consultation with the public. They aren’t. But as the song goes: “We got our own way of walkin’; We got our own way of talkin’.” Yep, they sure do—but it seems mighty out-of-step with the rest of Berkeley. 

When you’re out, it doesn’t matter if you are out in left field or out in right field—you’re just out. The In Crowd is well aware that Berkeley citizens don’t like being outsiders in our own city. Since knocking politely at the gates of power hasn’t worked, the next step for the Out Crowd is to kick the In Crowd out of office. 


Sharon Hudson is a 35-year Berkeley  

resident and an observer of land use issues.