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Derby Street Closure One Step Closer

Friday April 21, 2006

Six dozen kids, most garbed in sports uniforms, came to the Berkeley City Council Tuesday night to ask for the closure of one block of Derby Street to provide space for a regulation-size baseball field and other sports. 

After heated discussion, the council majority agreed to move toward this option. 

While welcoming the development of fields on the school district-owned city block surrounded by Derby, Milvia, and Carleton streets and Martin Luther King Way, neighbors of the proposed project asked the council, before closing the street, to require discussion with those affected: residents, the Ecology Center which runs a Tuesday farmers’ market on Derby Street and alternative school students, whose school is on property south of Derby. 

In the end, a slim council majority voted in favor of a resolution that moves the city closer to approving closure of Derby Street. The vote requires the Berkeley Unified School District to hold a public workshop to discuss alternatives to closing the street before beginning the environmental impact report (EIR), a formal process that details the impacts of large developments on the community and mandates community input. (The city will pay for half the EIR, expected to total $200,000.)  

The resolution also said the new configuration must include space for the popular Tuesday afternoon farmers’ market. 

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli authored the resolution and was joined by Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmembers Linda Maio, Max Anderson and Dona Spring. The other councilmembers abstained. 

The question of closing Derby Street between MLK Way and Milvia Street has dragged on for more than seven years. The high school has no space for a regulation-size baseball field on its campus and so the players go a distance to San Pablo Park to practice. 

Calling the fields “much-needed practice space,” Berkeley High Athletic Director Kristin Glenchur spoke during the council public comment period, pointing out that in addition to baseball, the soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and other teams would use the field. 

Peter Waller, who attended the council meeting with about a dozen other neighbors of the proposed field, called for a community process. 

“There may be an alternative short of closing Derby,” he said, pointing out that the EIR process is “long, expensive and divisive.” 

A defeated motion, authored by Anderson, called for first developing the fields without closing Derby Street, then setting up a community “visioning process,” which would become the foundation for a plan to be analyzed by an eventual EIR. 

Anderson and councilmembers Spring, Maio and Kriss Worthington supported the motion; Councilmember Darryl Moore abstained; the four others opposed the measure. 

In support of his resolution, Capitelli said the community will provide input through a well-publicized workshop and through the EIR planning process. 

“I’m hesitant to commit to an open-ended public process,” he said. 

But Anderson called the workshop “an event, not a process,” and advocated community dialogue from which a compromise solution would emerge. 

“There are genuine and legitimate concerns and needs on both sides of the issue,” he said, adding that conducting an EIR prematurely “cuts out community.”  

At a workshop, “all we’ll get is confrontation, not discussion,” Anderson argued. 

Another wrinkle in the project is that, according to City Manager Phil Kamlarz, the school district has only $1.3 million of the $6 million needed. 

“That’s a pretty significant gap,” Kamlarz said. 

In a phone interview Wednesday, School Board President Terry Doran, a strong supporter of closing Derby Street, disagreed with Kamlarz’ figures. He said the school district’s analysis brings the total cost closer to $4 million. Moreover, people want to raise private funds, but cannot do so until the city promises to close the street, he said. (The council will vote on street closure after the EIR process.) 

Further, Doran pointed out that the play fields would comprise only two-thirds of the land, which means the community can use the rest for its needs, including space for the farmers’ market.  

Doran said he hopes that out of the process approved by the council, all would be able to sit down and share their concerns. “What would (opponents) need to close the street?” he asked.