Ten Questions for Councilmember Gordon Wozniak

By Jonathan Wafer, Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 01, 2006

1. Where were you born and where did you grow up, and how does that affect how you regard the issues in Berkeley and in your district?  

I was born in Charleston, S.C. Lived for a couple of years in Evanston, IL. Then essentially spent the next 18 years in Dubuque, Iowa. I came to Cal as a graduate student in 1966. It was an interesting community in the sense that at that time Iowa was Republican dominated by the lower parts of the state, and the county I grew up in was 80 percent Democratic and was Catholic. The four-lane road used to stop at the border of the county because we were a Democratic county in a Republican state.  

There are some similar problems [between Berkeley and Iowa]. Problems finding kids things to do in the summertime. We had flooding problems on a major scale. The big difference is that it was an isolated urban area surrounded by—for 50 or 60 miles—farmland. Another difference was that there were very few job opportunities for anybody with an advanced degree. So typically, my high school class, most of the people either went into the military or went away to college. Most of the good jobs were at John Deere. We had a really big John Deere plant. And a meat-packing plant. Those were the good blue-collar jobs. The meat packing plant went belly up and John Deere had cutbacks. 


2. What is your educational background, and how did that help prepare you for being a councilmember? 

I earned my undergraduate degree in chemistry with a minor in physics and math. I came to Cal as a graduate student and got a Ph.D. in chemistry and worked for 30 years as a research scientist, primarily doing what people call nuclear physics. Basic research. I’m not a real people person. I worked in a laboratory. I worked with equipment. I also did a fair amount of administration, so I understand how big organizations work. The university is bigger than the city. 

The Lawrence Berkeley Lab is not so different, with about 3,500 employees. I think what helps me with the city is I’m comfortable with numbers. I like to understand things. Land use is a whole different thing. It’s kind of crazy. 

Many of the issues—particularly around the budget—I’m comfortable with because I understand numbers. I’m also a scientist. I’m curious to know how something really works. I like the idea of making structural reforms rather than dealing case by case, putting out fires. That gives me a certain kind of perspective. 

I also came to Cal as a graduate student, so I was a student for a number of years. During five or six years I must have lived in seven different places. I got married. We bought a house. I’m a long term resident; I went through a whole stage of living around, so I think I have some feel for what students face in the city. And as a homeowner, I lived for a long time on the edge of the college, at Dwight Way and Piedmont. I have some feel for the different parts of town because I lived there as a student.  


3. What are the top three most pressing issues facing your district (8)? 

Two of the biggest ones are traffic and crime. The third is basic services. Traffic is because two of the biggest streets in Berkeley—Ashby, which handles about 30,000 cars a day, and the Derby corner that runs into the University, which handles about 30,000 cars a day as well—run through my district. College Avenue has a fair amount of traffic as well. 

Between 4 and 6 in the afternoon one mother and her children were at John Muir school. It took her about a half an hour to return home during commute traffic because College was so crowded. So there’s a lot of frustration around traffic. 

There’s a lot of concern about the Caldecott Tunnel. If people had a magic wand they would like to move that traffic somewhere else, but nobody else wants it either. It seems the East Bay was designed to run north/south, not east/west. But yet, the most recent population growth has been to the east to the Walnut Creek area. 

The other problem with that, which makes it worse, is when I started working for Lawrence Lab 30 years ago I would guess that 75 percent of my colleagues lived in Berkeley. With the recent long range development plan, a smaller percentage of university staff and faculty don’t live in Berkeley. It’s down to about 25 percent. In the meantime the university has gotten bigger; the difference is most of the faculty and staff live further away and commute. So I think what we really need to do is: the university has been building a lot of student housing. They’ve been bringing the students closer and 90 percent of them walk or use mass transit. 

But for most of the faculty and staff there’s no ownership housing for them. We could do more by building some condominiums. The university could help more by subsidizing initial loans in buying housing so that faculty and staff can live closer and not have these long commutes. That’s one big problem that has no easy answers. 

The second issue is crime. My district is a very diverse district because it goes from north campus all the way to the Oakland border and then into the Berkeley hills. The Berkeley hills are fairly different, and you get close to campus and you have lots of students. So you get a big range from 100 percent renters to 100 percent homeowners with huge economic differences. Long-term residents stay here for four years and then move on to jobs in other places.  

The biggest crime problems are actually closer to campus. We have this huge property crime spike down in the south campus area. Here’s some recent data in the south campus area. The rate of all break-ins for the month doubles in late August and early September when the students come back. Even in the homeowners’ area we have a fair amount of crime. We get a lot of complaints about car break-ins. Cars stolen. People breaking into garages. Some burglaries. Stuff like that. 

The third issue is city services. Half of the district is students. The other half is homeowners who have just bought new homes and are paying $20,000 in property taxes. They really have high expectations of services. We’ve cut city staff 10 percent over the last three years. We get a lot of complaints on all types of things: “Why are my streets not cleaned?”  

We also have problems when people move out. Students have accumulated all these old beds and furniture that they just dump on the sidewalk. We need to make sure we have lots of dumpsters. You don’t need that level of services all year long. The Greeks (fraternities and sororities) do a cleanup. So we are trying to get the community more involved. 


4. Do you agree with the direction the city is heading? Why or why not? 

That assumes that the city is a ship. The city is more chaotic. I support Mayor Bates in getting some things done. He’s trying to get the council focused and get to the issues and try and move on. I think the city 1) has tremendous inertia and 2) there is no simple game plan. The council responds to pressures from the constituents. The biggest problem we had in the last three years was the budget crisis. We had to deal with that and we’re now coming out of that. We can’t print money like the feds. 


5. What is your opinion of the proposal to develop a new downtown plan and the settlement with the University of California over its LRDP? 

I supported the settlement agreement. Berkeley, like most university towns, has a town/gown problem because you have this big independent entity and then you have the city. In many ways we’re co-equals, but we’re not entirely co-equals. We’re a state agency and we’re a municipality. I think it’s important that we work out some sort of working relationship. We’re going to fight for our interests but I don’t think you can fight all the time. If you have a total adversarial relationship with the university you’re just fighting. Then you have much less of a chance of influencing them. 

So I think it’s important that Berkeley, at this point, has a working relationship to get things done. If you don’t do that the city will have problems and the university will have problems also. The university is a national treasure. 

The problem is that most of the employees don’t live in Berkeley. We get a lot of the problems from the traffic and their expansion. We only get some small piece of the benefit.  

A lot of critics say, “Gee, the university causes more problems than benefits.” I think the way you have to deal with that is to go to the state and say look, the state should really give some mitigation fees for us having the university to help counteract some of the negative impacts it has rather than just saying were going to fight it. We also have a lot of really bright people over there, and if we can get them engaged in trying to adopt some of the solutions, I see Berkeley can act as a test bed. We can really be a model city in some ways. 

I think it’s important that we stand up for our rights but we have a good working relationship. I really give the mayor and the new chancellor credit. They meet regularly and they’re working things out. It’s not perfect but I think we’re making some progress.  

I think the downtown area plan is an area that we can do some joint planning. For one thing, look at the university parking garages. They use them during the day and in the evening they are mostly empty. Downtown, we’ve basically been destroying parking because we’ve been putting buildings up on parking lots. We have a need in the evening for parking spaces. Rather than the city build more parking garages and the university build more parking garages, it would be nice in some ways to build a common one. They use it during the day and we use it at night. 

Also, I think one of the ways to revitalize Telegraph is to get University staff and faculty to shop more on Telegraph. 


6. How do you think the mayor is doing at his position? Are you considering running for mayor, and if so, what changes would you try to make? 

I think Mayor Bates is doing a good job. He’s accessible. He comes down to your office. He will chat with you. You can walk into his office and chat with him. If you disagree with him on an issue he will work with you on the next issue. Personalities don’t get involved. I like his vision—in what he’s trying to do for the city. And I’m not planning on running for mayor. 



7. Has Berkeley’s recent development boom been beneficial for the city? What new direction, if any, should the city’s development take over the next decade?  

I think the development boom has been beneficial. Berkeley’s population has been constant for the last 30 years. One of the reasons is from the ’70s to 2000 we built almost no new housing. So some of it was catching up from that. I’m a little concerned now that we’ve been building so much rental housing that we have kind of a rental housing glut. 

Rents have been flat for the last four years. We have rent stabilization. What we really have a problem with is that ownership housing costs have been dramatically going up. I think we could encourage more condominiums. In the past four years 80 percent of the units have been rentals. Now the new projects are more 50/50. 

I think we also have a problem where people object a lot to the scale and the mass of these new projects. And I have some problems with that as well. The problem with these is we’re kind of caught between local city ordinances and the state. Berkeley has an ordinance where you say you have to have 20 percent of your units to be affordable. But as soon as you do that, the state says you have to give the developer 35 percent density. So a three-story building ends up being four. 


8. How would you characterize the political climate in Berkeley these days? 

Berkeley has just an incredible number of energetic people engaged on everything from local issues to national issues. The political climate is always bubbling, I would say. It peaks around election cycles. In November of 2004 was the presidential election and I think, in some degree, the city was lost in that titanic struggle between the forces of light and darkness. Berkeley was only one of three cities that voted 90 percent for Kerry. 

We’re an unusual town in that way. The budget looks better and we should have more money to put into services and start some new programs. We need to invest in our youth which is going to be our future. I’m optimistic. 


9. What is your favorite thing about Berkeley? 

The tree-lined streets. And the neighborhood commercial areas. I live about a half a mile from the Elmwood shopping district. We have dinner and browse at the bookstore and then walk back home. It’s one of the things that is really spectacular. 


10. What is your least favorite thing about Berkeley? 

Traffic. I think of the one vacant lot on Haste and Telegraph. It would be nice for something to happen there. Sometimes the cynicism of people of Berkeley. It’s popular sometimes to be cynical. You have to be an optimist.