My name is George Beier and I am running for City Council for Berkeley’s District 7, the district that includes Telegraph Avenue. I am grateful to the Planet for this opportunity to tell you about myself, why I am running and what I hope to do for this city.
I came from humble beginnings. My father was the youngest of 16, from a farming family in Topeka. I grew up in Maryland, the youngest of 5 kids, and learned responsibility early as the family cook. My father was overseas much of the time and my mother traveled the Midwest selling farm equipment.
When I was 14 my family moved to New Delhi, an incredible, mind-altering experience to a kid from outside Baltimore. In India, I developed a deep and abiding appreciation for other cultures and ways of life. I also learned the value of people over things, of communalism over commercialism, and of service to others above self.
I came to Berkeley when I was 18, as a transfer student. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa in economics and then came back for an MBA in finance from the Haas School. I worked my way through school (not easy that last semester, when I took 25 units!). In 1989 I met my partner, John Caner, and we settled into our house on Derby Street. In 1993 we put our life savings into a software company I had started out of the back of our house, learning how to program this new thing called “windows” out of a book.
And, ten years and a lot of hard work later, our dreams came true. We sold the company and entered into a life of public service. John runs Rebuilding Together Oakland (which used to be called “Christmas in April”) and spends his time rehabilitating homes for the disabled and the elderly. It’s a family affair. My sister is the treasurer and I’m pressed into service as a volunteer coordinator. I joined the Waterfront Commission, became the president of the Willard Neighborhood Association, joined the People’s Park board and also the board of Options Recovery Services, which provides an abstinence-based, drug and alcohol recovery program in downtown Berkeley.
It quickly became clear that District 7 was headed in the wrong direction. We have the highest crime rates in the City, particularly property crime. Crime is also too high in our public schools. I spoke to a parent two weeks ago who told me that she buys a YMCA pass for her son at Berkeley High so that he has a safe place to go to the bathroom.
Sales on Telegraph Avenue have fallen 30 percent over the last 13 years. I would like you all to take a walk with me up Telegraph. I would introduce you to the owner of a restaurant who has trouble hiring women because the last two were attacked on the way to their cars. We would pass by People’s Park, where we found 1,000 needles in the last eight months. We’d come to Cody’s Books, the once-proud, now-closed, heart and soul of Telegraph. And when we lose Cody’s (or Clif-Bar or Habitot), we lose more than just a store or a large taxpayer. We lose part of our identity, what it means to be a Berkeleyan itself. I must admit I shed a few tears that day. And finally I’d take you to the huge, fenced-off hole of the old Berkeley Inn, an open wound on the Avenue, which burned down in 1986. Twenty years ago.
I am running because Telegraph breaks my heart. I am running because I love our funky, alternative, artistic, and progressive city. I am running to prove that we can be progressive and safe and prosperous at the same time.
If I am elected to city council, I’ll start by creating a Telegraph Task Force, focused on revitalizing the Avenue. We’ll step up free drug and alcohol outreach, improve lighting, obtain more parking, and build affordable workforce housing on Telegraph to get more “eyes on the street.”
We’ll rework the relationship with the University in an effort to build a long-lasting, trusting partnership. We’ll tighten existing ordinances for blighted properties, trash, graffiti, and sidewalk camping. We’ll take a hard look at the quota system, which required Peet’s (classified by the City as “fast food”) to get two variances (a high hurdle) before obtaining a permit. We’ll put the applications for new Telegraph businesses on the top of the pile.
We’ll also continue the efforts to transform People’s Park. I’m convinced we can find a way to celebrate its history and make it a safe park for the entire community. Some early ideas: a commitment to open space, a small museum or café in the park, raising the creek, implementing a more open landscaping plan similar to Yerba Buena park in San Francisco. People often ask me “well, what about the homeless?” My answer is that if you are homeless and have no place to go, the park is as good a place as any.
Berkeley needs to do what San Francisco is doing, build permanent housing for the homeless coupled with a multi-service center and give folks the keys. This is known as the “housing first” approach. It’s more humane, it works, and it is a lot less expensive then managing the homeless in our civic areas and parks.
Four years from now, I hope to walk you down a very different Telegraph Avenue. It will be diverse and lively and fascinating. You’ll browse in its interesting mom and pop shops as you stroll with your children down to a performance at Zellerbach. Or you might spy one of Berkeley’s Nobel laureates at Café Med. Or play some ultimate Frisbee in People’s Park. Or you might simply sit and have a quiet cup of coffee and watch the world go by, on an Avenue proud of its past and looking towards its future.
I hope to see you there.