Public Comment

Commentary: It Was 20 Years Ago Today...

By Toni Mester
Friday November 10, 2006

“The past is prologue” wrote Shakespeare, and it was 20 years ago that several key events predicted the future of Berkeley and framed our present. 


We zone the waterfront 

We awoke the day after the 1986 election knowing that years of work by a dedicated cadre of Sierra Club volunteers had been vindicated with the passage of Measure Q, zoning the waterfront in contradiction to Santa Fe’s massive development proposal. In the ensuing two decades, Santa Fe failed to persuade the US Supreme Court to hear their case, Citizens for East Shore Parks aided by Assemblyman Tom Bates coordinated a successful State bond to buy the land, the Specific Plan has been refined, and the park emerged. Last year saw the opening of our striking signature foot bridge across the freeway, providing access to this magnificent open space. 

So many people contributed to this long effort, most notably Berkeley’s own legendary and long lived Sylvia McLaughlin of Save the Bay, that today we can claim the waterfront victory as a community success.  

District elections begin 

In June 1986 a majority of voters approved a change to district elections with heavy turnout in the hills. In their eagerness to break the BCA majority on the City Council and to end slate campaigning, the citizens of Berkeley shot themselves in the foot with self-inflicted disenfranchisement.  

Instead of voting for the entire council, the voters now elect only one member and the mayor in a city with a strong manager/weak mayor form of government. Each councilmember is accountable to one district only, and the mayor remains as the single elected representative of the entire municipality. Council members, having the power of incumbency, can act like ward heelers, being elected again and again without term limits. 

The results have been disastrous. The flatlands with our multiple problems suffer from insufficient representation. Crime, the homeless, traffic, development, and commerce require greater accountability. Those activists who alienate their councilmember are left with only one elected official, the mayor, as a possible ally. When the mayor is the only elected official responsible to everyone, then a failure to please all the people all the time assumes a disproportional importance. If the mayor fails to command a majority, the city falls into gridlock, and the manager and staff take over, further weakening the power of the individual citizen. 

In my analysis, the vituperation directed against Mayor Bates and members of the City Council reveals discontent with the political process. Berkeley has always been fractious, but the current acrid tone reflects the political impotence foisted on us by district elections. I suggest a revision whereby candidates come from the districts but are elected by all the voters citywide. 


The California Ink Company is landmarked 

This white elephant, recently memorialized by a No on J mailing, became a Berkeley landmark twenty years ago on November 17. It may have historic interest, but the place is a toxic mess. Don’t take my word for it. Go to Picante for lunch, walk around the block, and see for yourself. Whatever one’s own land use preferences or prejudices, we should agree that public safety comes first. The place needs to be decontaminated, a huge expense usually borne by a developer. We can’t just let it rot. 

If I learned anything writing the Sierra Club response to the EIRs for both the waterfront and the Bayer specific plans, it’s that West Berkeley sits on alluvial soil and landfill, which tends to liquefy in a major earthquake. Consider the fate of the San Francisco Marina district in the Loma Prieta quake. Picture gas lines breaking, fire, and traffic gridlock. Imagine making a beeline on foot to the waterfront through poisonous fumes.  

I don’t share the fervor of those who interrupted the legislative process to try to force their own revision of the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, especially since the Council’s proposal was not available for comparison in the voter’s guide. It doesn’t seem practical to landmark industrial buildings when new technologies and R&D require modern facilities and when decay puts neighbors at risk. Kawneer, Durkee, and Heinz have already been appropriately designated and adapted for current use, but how many other old industrial structures have sufficient value and integrity to warrant preservation? 

The landmarks controversy generated debate and focused attention on a crucial question, which can only be beneficial.  


The Golden Bear Center is built 

This five story monstrosity at University and Milvia, built in 1986, epitomizes the reasons why Berkeley resents and resists new development; so much of what we get is ugly. As we approach the downtown on University Avenue, this huge inert box obliterates our view of the hills without substituting any attractive elements. The glass reflects the sky, but that’s about the only touch of beauty. The office building includes the UC Extension among other enterprises and provides 300 underground parking spaces, but the hulking architecture does not complement or enhance its surroundings. 

Compare the Golden Bear Center with the new Berkeley City College where little touches like the setback entrance, the slant in the windows, and the center V add movement to the mass. Those dull concrete columns could be covered with colorful mosaics to create a rainbow, spirals, or giant totem poles. Perhaps a contest could be held for artists to submit designs. 

Many of the new buildings suffer from irresolute or boxy roof lines. There’s a reason Old West builders put false fronts on even their simple structures. A building can protect or menace, inspire or dwarf, but without an upward sweep or defining flourish on top to mediate between the human eye near the ground and the great sky above, we find it unsatisfactory. 

If the City could achieve some standard of design excellence and compatibility on our major arteries instead of the current garish mish mash of styles and manage to orient traffic away from houses and schools, the citizens might warm up to the idea that we need new construction for a variety of uses. On Fourth Street, the uniformity of warm stucco creates the feel of a pueblo. People like to hang out there because it’s a human sized environment with a communal glow. We could spread that success to other parts of the City if we started with the premise that pedestrian scale and beautiful design matter. 


Loni Hancock is elected mayor 

“It was twenty years ago today; Sgt. Pepper taught to band to play… 

It’s wonderful to be here; it’s certainly a thrill…” 


Toni Mester chaired the committee for Yes on Q, the 1986 measure which zoned the Berkeley waterfront and later served on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Bayer Development Agreement.