Public Comment

Commentary: North Shattuck Plaza, Inc.

By Daniel Caraco
Friday February 23, 2007

On the surface, the fuss over a plaza on Shattuck Avenue between Vine and Rose Streets seems silly. Asphalt abounds, the parking and circulation patterns in the area are chaotic, there is interest, and green is in. Beneath the surface, however, lies a cautionary tale about privatizing the development of public assets and resources. What happens when the City entrusts its development agenda to intermediaries? Does this represent a new way of doing business in Berkeley? If so, is it widespread? And, does this practice promote or retard the prospects for good governance?  

In 2001, the City Council passed Resolution #60,911-N-S approving “in concept” a plan for the reconfiguration of North Shattuck. Subsequently, The North Shattuck Association Business Improvement District (NSA/BID) was formed and became the fiscal agent for the project. In 2005, the Council reaffirmed its commitment to the 2001 plan. In May of 2006 it blessed a union between the BID and North Shattuck Plaza Inc. (NSP Inc.) which had been formed to secure funds to design, plan, and fund the initial concept plan.  

It appears that NSP Inc., a completely private entity, took the permission granted in a sense that the Council did not intend. Contrary to the Council’s intent, NSP Inc. used the BID’s money and totally redesigned the project. Moreover, it did so without much, if any, thought about the necessity for widespread inclusion and participation by the merchants and neighborhoods that would be affected. NSP Inc. seems to have assumed that the new plan would be received with such acclaim that any procedural missteps would be ignored and the decision making bodies on which its members sit would, if the project went to full review, approve its new plan over any objections.  

It is important to note that NSP Inc.’s Board Members, and principal project boosters, include former and current Council Members Mim Hawley and Laurie Capitelli; and, David Stoloff, the newly elected Chair of the Planning Commission. It seems that the Council dealt its own members and appointees the right to redevelop a public right of way while they also sit on the decision making bodies that will rule in its favor. Okay, we’re not talking Haliburton. Still, the presence of City government insiders coveys the inevitable perception that the “fix is in.”  

The sheer arrogance of NSP Inc. replacing the plan approved “in concept” by the Council with one approved only by themselves is bad enough. But the inability to listen, the lack of competence and meeting skills displayed by David Stoloff ( NSP Inc.’s chair) when he tried to sell the new plan to the public, and the fact that NSP Inc. used the BID’s money to design a plan that had to be abandoned all strain credulity. The fact that the BID went along with NSP Inc. in this endeavor raises questions about its own awareness of the capacities that need to be in place in order to partner with others. Considering the importance of safeguarding the integrity of the decision making process, one has to wonder how the City Attorney approved this arrangement in the first place.  

While the Council reserved the right to review and approve the final plan, it is not clear that full public review was contemplated. In January, Jill Martinucci (Council Member Capitelli’s aide) offered her perception that the plan was on a fast track to the City Council. On February 17th, however, Laurie Capitelli said that the project had gone “awry” and that he would now insist that the project be vetted through a full process of public comment and review. Further, he added the condition that his support would be granted only to a project that had secured the “consensus” of all of the stakeholders.  

But if “consensus” is now an additional requirement and outcome, people are needed who really understand what consensus means—not the sort of facilitation that transpired on February 7th, where the managers of NSP Inc.’s meeting failed to acknowledge the difficulties that had brought the project to a logjam and, instead of recognizing the lack of consensus, attempted to vote the meeting into agreement.  

The first step on the road to fairness is for the Council to withdraw the authority that it granted to NSP Inc. Clearly, NSP Inc. assumed permission it did not have, and Commissioner Stoloff’s leadership in this affair has undermined the legitimacy of this project along with that of the Planning Commission. He should resign from both positions.  

Accountability does not stop with Commissioner Stoloff and Council Member Capitelli. The Council’s ability and willingness to suspend its oversight responsibilities in favor of the pet projects of its members and appointees needs to be examined. The stewardship of public assets and resources is too important to be contracted out to the spontaneous and haphazard creations of public officials and others. The opportunities to make mischief abound and one has to wonder if this practice widespread. 

All of this reminds me of Prof. Robert Reich's remarks at Berkeley City College a few weeks ago. (Robert Reich was the Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration and now teaches at UCB). He was asked to speak about the future of the City of Berkeley and how to get there. At one point he demonstrated his political adroitness when, after commending Mayor Bates on his leadership, he spoke about the critical need for Berkeley to find the voice of its “WE” as a City. As an example, he observed that the new apartments all over town were “ugly,” and asked why the profession of architecture had been left out of their design! Why, indeed, has there been a pattern of decision making where the concerns of so many are dismissed in favor of the interests of so few?  

Welcome to Berkeley Citizen Reich. Any ideas about how Berkeley can walk its talk of “good governance?”  


Daniel Caraco lives in Berkeley.