On Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council will consider a project that could bring a restaurant with a bar and lounge on the scale of Spenger’s to the Elmwood. But there would be one crucial difference—it wouldn’t have any parking.
We know little about the prospective tenants for the Wright’s Garage project approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) on March 8th. The restaurant and lounge proposed for the Gordon Commercial property at 2629-2635 Ashby Ave. has been presented as anywhere from upscale and high-end to mid-price. The only things that we know for sure are that the restaurant will be up to 5,000 square feet, seating 200 people or more, and that there will be a full bar and lounge. “It is important to the concept and to the success of the restaurant that it serves alcohol,” wrote attorney Harry Pollack on behalf of John Gordon. Pollack used the term “alcohol” to mean hard liquor in addition to wine and beer.
We have many fine restaurants in the Elmwood in which wine and beer enhance the dining experience, but people do not come to the Elmwood to drink. The Elmwood Zoning Ordinance says, “service of alcoholic beverages [is] allowed only as incidental to food service in Food Service Establishments.” A lounge primarily serves alcohol. Even if a lounge is inside a restaurant, food service is subordinate to the service of alcoholic beverages. The real profit margin is in serving alcohol, and this restaurant would be permitted to get up to 50 percent of its revenue from alcohol. If the City Council approves this project, it will have to break a law that protects the quiet family-oriented character of the Elmwood.
Currently, Shen Hua is the only Elmwood restaurant serving distilled spirits, but the food at Shen Hua is the main attraction. Shen Hua’s bar is located within the dining room, and it accommodates customers waiting for tables. There is no lounge. Shen Hua closes at 9 p.m. on weekdays and 10 p.m. on weekends, as compared with the Gordon establishment, which would be open until late each night and until midnight on weekends. Location is also significant; Shen Hua is on College Avenue and well-insulated from the neighborhood. Wright’s Garage is on Ashby, right next to a residential area.
It is odd that a bar and lounge would be proposed for this site—not just because of its proximity to homes and the obvious violation of the Elmwood Zoning Ordinance—but also because this ignores the history of the neighborhood. A three-year task force run by the city determined that the intersection at Ashby and Benvenue was a traffic hot spot, due to the many accidents occurring there. The mitigations the city made will be insufficient to protect pedestrians, drivers, and neighbors when a 200-seat restaurant and lounge with no parking operates nearby. Those mitigations are barely effective now. On May 23, there was yet another accident. This time a car jumped the curb and landed next to a neighbor’s fence. If anyone had been on the sidewalk, it could have been much worse. Yet, in spite of the neighborhood’s traffic problems, a sidewalk café is planned for this restaurant.
The Zoning Ordinance says a project must not “Generate traffic and parking demand beyond the capacity of the commercial District or significantly increase impacts on adjacent residential neighborhoods.” This restaurant will need enough personnel to wait tables, prepare food, and bus dishes for 200 or more customers. The building will have between four and seven commercial establishments, including an exercise studio of undetermined size. There could be well over 300 people in this building, yet Planning staff recognizes no significant impact on the neighborhood.
This restaurant and all but one of the retail uses are exceptions to Elmwood quotas. To approve any exception, there must be a finding that the exception “shall result in the positive enhancement of the purposes of the district, as evidenced by neighborhood resident and merchant support.” ZAB concluded that since the Merchants Association seemed not to oppose the project, this constituted a positive finding of merchant support. A poll on KitchenDemocracy.org (KD) was used as “evidence” of neighborhood support. The many and varied heartfelt objections from residents were dismissed by ZAB Secretary Deborah Sanderson, who said, “I can get hundreds of emails that sound very much alike…and they’re amazingly similar when I get 50 of them, but [KD comments] are individual comments not following a template...” And this is how City Staff nullified neighborhood concerns in a single bureaucratic blow.
A KD poll is not a proper neighborhood survey for a number of reasons. For one thing, it doesn’t survey the neighborhood; it surveys its members. Many Elmwood residents don’t belong to KD. Nor should this be necessary; it is the city’s responsibility to conduct an objective survey with an open public process. Residents wrote to the city, in the manner prescribed by law, without knowing that they had to join KD to be heard.
As of 2007, KD no longer edits articles for bias, and it doesn’t require arguments to be balanced. Councilmember Gordon Wozniak’s piece on this issue was slanted; it didn’t disclose the plans for a bar and lounge, nor did it discuss the traffic task force and its conclusions. Additionally, voters were not informed about the number of people who might occupy the building.
When KD results are turned in, the city never sees how the questions were asked and the changes made to the article as members are voting. In fact, KD erased Councilmember Wozniak’s original statement of strong support for this project when the Planet noted that he might have to recuse himself from voting in a manner consistent with the city Attorney’s previous rulings on prejudgment.
With or without Councilmember Wozniak’s vote, the Council will have a chance to correct a terrible injustice done to Elmwood residents and merchants. Let’s hope that Councilmembers have the courage to overturn ZAB’s flawed decision.