Public Comment

Commentary: What South Berkeley Needs: Public Open Space, By: Kenoli Oleari

Friday March 17, 2006

I sat through Tom Bates’ long introduction to his “mayor’s breakfast” at the Vault today, listening to his iteration of all the things he is doing for Berkeley. I have little framework for evaluating much of what he had to say. Sounds like he’s taking on every relevant issue—locally, nationally, globally—right here in Berkeley. 

My ears pricked up, however, during his response to a request for his vision for Berkeley in ten years. The pieces that grabbed my attention were his projection that the population density will remain the same in all neighborhoods and that he has a vision for a large open public space in Downtown Berkeley, where public events can take place, art shows, music, etc. 

So, this sounds like what we would like in South Berkeley. Yet, Bates’ future for us, in the plan he has included in the planning grant to Caltrans for the Ashby BART station, involves taking our last open space, the humble “public space” of the parking lot at Ashby BART, where our key public activities, namely, the Ashby Flea Market, our world class South Berkeley drum ensemble and Mas Allah’s very local blues are conducted weekly, and replace it with high density housing. 

Sounds to me like increased population density and less public space for South Berkeley. Are we not one of the neighborhoods you see in your ten year vision, Mr. Mayor? 

But, wait . . . you have also said you want to conduct a planning process that will let the community decide what it wants for that parking lot, everything is up for grabs. Yet, Max Anderson and Ed Church, your cronies in the project and Dan Marks, your planning director, have all said privately to community members that they are interested in what the public has to say, but the only option they will consider is an option that includes high density housing . . . this sounds like, “Whatever the public wants, as long as it’s what the city wants!” 

My ears tell me that there is widespread interest in South Berkeley for a public space at the Ashby BART, a space large enough for the flea market, outdoor art and music, space for outdoor eating and public interaction, some greenery, with retail that supports local needs thrown in, maybe a public meeting space. There is little enthusiasm for your high density housing, especially the kind proposed that will not serve low income families, but contributes to the already existing spate of market rate housing that is driving us out of our neighborhoods. 

We have a budding arts district here. One we can afford. My housemate just debuted at the Ashby Stage in a cutting edge production met with rave reviews and an average audience of about 10, a great start to a career that wouldn’t even be noticed at the Berkeley Rep. There is space here for not-yet-established artists who are still low income, for the Tryptich Gallery that has a home in the side windows of the Walgreen’s Drug Store along Adeline Street, for Epic arts that opens its space to the community for events the community feels are important, for the Black Rep trying to find its footing in a hungry community. We have a community land trust that is offering access to one of the few housing models that might provide for permanent housing affordability. Our flea market is one of the few places a budding entrepreneur can get a start without taking on a mortgage to gain access to over-priced commercial real estate. Local residents have exposed themselves to huge personal financial risk to establish what are wonderful budding businesses on the strip along Adeline Street, a strip that has failed to otherwise establish itself through the City’s best economic planning efforts. Community groups are addressing youth issues, crime, housing, traffic, all issues the City has never been able to address effectively. 

Along with these things, things we have built out of whole cloth with our own hands, we want our open space, too. We want it as much as the high paying theater goers want their open space in Downtown Berkeley. 

What about it mayor Bates? What about a vision that is truly responsive to what your constituents want? Is it “your way or the highway?” Or . . . are you willing got put your money where your mouth is. You’ve presented a business plan, through Ed Church, for the Ashby BART predicated on high density housing. How about a business plan that demonstrates how a public plaza can be made economically feasible? If it’s good enough for downtown Berkeley, it’s good enough for us! 

Unless we have an alternative like this to compare, it is a setup. Of course, without this comparison, the only thing feasible is increased population density and less public space for South Berkeley in ten years. 


Kenoli Oleari is a member of the Neighborhood Assemblies Network..