Public Comment

Commentary: Church’s BART Site Plan Was In the Works for Years, By: Kenoli Oleari

Friday February 10, 2006

After last Tuesday’s meeting, I can tell that most of you City Council members would like to pull some irons out of this Caltrans proposal fire. I’m sure that your motives are good: wanting something good to develop on the Adeline strip in South Berkeley. You all seem very sorry that Max didn’t do better outreach in bringing this proposal to the community. 

I’d like to ask you take a few minutes to think about this a little more deeply. 

The issue here is not just that this was approached in the wrong way. It is much deeper; if you are conscientious about using your voice and your vote to accomplish something meaningful for South Berkeley, there are some substantive things about the Caltrans proposal and its history that you might want to considered. 

As an incentive to take a deeper look, you might reflect on the morass the City has gotten itself into with the Masons’ project just across the street from the BART station, a project that has turned into a blighted vacant lot with a black hole of debt that no one so far has figured how to remedy. A project that has the city in trouble with HUD. A project the community warned the city about. The 2004 feasibility study on the BART site is an omen that this outcome for Ed’s project may not be far fetched. 

Here’s the story: 

Ed Church has been working on his plan for the Ashby BART for many years and has never brought his ideas to the community. Over this period he has obtained funding for his work on this project and brought in consultants to do various studies. None of this funding was used to find out what the community wanted, to engage the community in any kind of dialog. His contacts in the community have been limited to a very select group of people. I was one of those people, in a meeting that occurred years ago. I was asked not to share what I would hear at this meeting with anyone else in the community. He supposedly wanted to get ideas from me for including the community, though when I offered some ideas, he seemed more interested in how to manage negative reactions than how to lead an inclusive process. His actions since then have born out my impression. 

If you will notice, the very first role for the community in Ed’s plan is to offer advice on hiring a developer. This is to be done according to some very rigid parameters defining aspects of the project already laid out in the proposal and not up for community consideration. Once a contract with a developer is signed, there will be additional contractual commitments to consider that will further limit community choices. After all of this, the public planning process starts. What is wrong here is that Ed’s desired outcomes are driving the community rather than the community driving the outcomes. The community will have very little to say about what is done at the Ashby BART station. By the time all of this comes together, the community will be lucky if it gets to choose the color of the bricks on the front of the building. 

Is this a man we can trust with absolute control over a meaningful and inclusive community participation process? 

In a continuation of this pattern of excluding the community, Ed and Max got together on this project some time last year, submitted the proposal last October and never brought it to the community until it appeared on the consent calendar in December. Max may have been sincere in looking for a way to engage the community in planning. If he was, he got a pig in a poke. 

Emblematic, too, of what we might expect from Max regarding community participation is the example Max is giving us as to what he thinks full and open public participation is. We don’t have to guess. He is showing us in his approach to bringing the public voice into the City Council decision. 

His approach is a meeting announced with four days notice, which will be two hours long, at a time when the flea market folks, a prime constituency, are normally active at their trades and other community members, most of whom will not have heard about the meeting, are starting a weekend with their families or friends. This meeting is supposed to provide a meaningful profile of what the community wants the City Council to do. 

Max’s reiteration that his meeting will be, “Open, open, open,” fails to consider how very far “not locking the door on a brief meeting” is from actively bringing everyone to the table in a considered and meaningful way. This is the process issue staring us in the face. What Max is proposing is bad process, embarrassingly so. Should we naively expect anything better if he and Ed are allowed to drive the BART process. This assumption slights us all. 

And, in the immediate case, it puts the community in a awkward position. Should we do his outreach work for him? Should we participate in a bankrupt meeting, knowing that the result could easily misrepresent the community’s perspective and lead to a bad choice on your part? Should we rally “our” forces? We don’t want a political fight, we want good community dialog. What would you do? 

There are process tools in use in cities and communities around the world that are being used successfully to bring complex and diverse groups of people together to find common ground and act effectively together. It is, perhaps, Max and Ed’s lack of knowledge and experience with these approaches that is at the root of their failure to engage the community. Our community will bring these successful process tools to our service when we take the leadership in forging our future. 

These and other facts should raise serious questions about the qualifications of these two men to lead a process that is supposed to give the community a meaningful voice. It should raise a flag to the fact that the issue is much deeper than how effectively the proposal was presented to the community. 

When do we acknowledge that the actions we are seeing on these men’s part is emblematic of their unwillingness or inability to support meaningful public participation and remove them from any leadership roles? In some ways, I think we are lucky that they didn’t do a better job of short range outreach, because then maybe there wouldn’t be any public opposition and we would be sliding right into their plan. 

On the other hand, if the main thing you care about is getting this development built, regardless of the community, come hell or high water, then maybe it is too bad that Max didn’t do a better job of selling his proposal to the community. Maybe you can rescue it and see Ed’s project built through Max and Ed’s non-participative participatory model . . . unless you end up in the same hole the Masons’ project did. 

And then, on another hand, you are now seeing a group of people step forward and offer to lead a truly inclusive and participative community wide planning process, for their own community. Guess what, this is a chance to get behind some real community capacity building, something that may cause South Berkeley to really awaken to its potential and become a self-sufficient and vital community! What about this? It might even result in an exciting development at the BART station that is better than what Ed has dreamed up, something that will be the crown jewel to South Berkeley, something that will provide a permanent home for the flea market, an engine to drive an active business center and a housing model that will serve to sustain and grow the current community without losing it to gentrification. We’re pretty creative here in South Berkeley. 

Which ring are you going to throw your hat into? I know where mine is. 


Kenoli Oleari is a member of the Neighborhood Assemblies Network.