Public Comment

Commentary: July Poll’s Purpose Was Very Political and Only Political

By Dan Knapp
Tuesday January 30, 2007

By Dan Knapp 


It appears that Deputy City Attorney Van Herick based her opinion that the July survey conducted by David Binder was “not political” largely on the poll’s question about whether the respondents agreed with City Council that Berkeley Bowl should be allowed to open a second store in West Berkeley. Out of more than 60 questions asked, the Bowl question was unrelated to issues or candidates that would be on the upcoming ballot, and it is that difference she cites to support her conclusion that the poll was innocent of political intent.  

But in this context the question could only have been political, based on the answer to the question, what is political? In my student days I latched onto a definition of politics that was brilliant for both simplicity and reach. It came from some of my professors, who got it from famed political scientist Harold Lasswell. It is: “Politics is the process of deciding who gets what, when, and how.”  

The wonderful feature of this definition, besides the fact that it so easily becomes part of the mind’s software, is that it separates “politics” from “mere partisan politics.” It elevates politics above sordid partisanship into a fundamental process that all humans use for getting things done, changing things that need changing, adapting to change, and the like. Politics at this level permeates all our lives, sometimes in surprising ways, and only part of it is partisan.  

By July 2006, when the poll was taken, the City Council had already approved the second Berkeley Bowl, which makes including such an after-the-fact question curious to say the least. What were the poll sponsors trying to accomplish? Were they really trying objectively and dispassionately to find out what the voters thought, or were they trying yet again to frame the issue in their favor? Reading the articles by Judith Scherr and Richard Brenneman in the Jan. 23 Daily Planet I was struck by how, even after the decision was made, the poll persisted in its gross misstatement of the issues the “vocal opponents” had raised.  

There were two schools of opponents. One wanted the store to commit to unionization. I was among the somewhat overlapping class of opponents who simply thought the project was too big. The specific wording of the poll question trivialized and misstated all of our opposing positions by creating a nonissue for people to agree or disagree with. This trivializing and misstating exactly matched the tactics that project proponents used in the months-long runup to the Council’s decision, during many public hearings and informal meetings.  

Whether the council should approve a “second Berkeley Bowl” in West Berkeley was never an issue with anyone I knew. In fact there were three issues among the “it’s too big” crowd. The first was the continued encroachment of commercial and residential uses onto lands that less than a decade ago had been protected by being designated mixed-use/light industrial. The Bowl would take another bite out of that reserve, and that issue deserved much more discussion than it got. The second issue was the massive size of the Big Bowl project, which led to the third issue, the potentially disastrous traffic impacts caused by this supersized behemoth. At three times the size of other Berkeley supermarkets such as Andronico’s, Whole Foods, or Safeway, the Big Bowl is an obvious regional draw since the surrounding hinterland is not very residential and the freeway is only a quarter-mile to the west.  

All we vocal opponents really wanted was for the Council to approve a true neighborhood store, not one drawing traffic from twenty to thirty miles away and dumping cars first onto Ashby, and next into a cul-de-sac opening back out either onto already-overloaded Ashby or onto already-overloaded Seventh. Despite misgivings on the zoning issue, we were willing to concede the parcel to this proposed use because we agreed that the neighborhood could use a grocery store, and Berkeley Bowl would no doubt be a very good one.  

But our entirely rational and fact-based opposition was turned by a bunch of sophistry, including this survey, into opposition to the project as a whole at any scale. It was very frustrating to be put in this position, and one of the reasons the discussion is continuing months later is that the objections we presented are still valid, and the dangers and downsides still out there to be dealt with by future City Councils.  

Our public efforts to correct the proponents’ misstatements were oddly ineffective. For the most part, they ignored us. Once in awhile someone would repeat the accusation, in effect, that we were all anti-development and anti-business troglodytes. I, my wife, and my company Urban Ore were even singled out for further attack by Steven Donaldson in his op-ed piece “Is the West Berkeley Bowl Dead?,” published in the Planet in the June 13-15 edition, just before the Council voted.  

So contrary to Deputy Attorney Van Herick’s opinion, the poll question was political, very political, and only political. It had no real-world purpose other than to carry into the election season the proponent’s framing strategy that helped the Big Bowl to win both the Council vote and public opinion. In its real-world victory it created a regional commercial draw at the edges of a rapidly shrinking industrial zone at a time when industry is making a big comeback both nationally and locally. It shrank the land base for further expansion of Materials Recovery Enterprises that will be needed if Berkeley is ever to reach its ambitious goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2020. It will be a major regional commercial draw, and Berkeley residents caught in its traffic will pay the price.  


Dan Knapp owns Urban Ore in West Berkeley.