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Wright’s Garage Project Opponents Call Again for Public Hearing

By Judith Scherr
Friday June 22, 2007

When Mayor Tom Bates saw the crowd that had assembled at Tuesday’s Berkeley City Council meeting to address the question of development at the former site of Wright’s Garage—a commercial complex proposed by realtor John Gordon near the intersection of College and Ashby avenues and approved March 8 by the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB)—he asked why it was on the agenda at all. 

Last week, the City Council had turned down an appeal of the project by the Elmwood Neighborhood and Elmwood Merchants associations that argue that the project will attract too much traffic to the already heavily-trafficked area with inadequate parking. 

But the item stays on the agenda, according to past council practice, until the council either changes its vote—calling for a public hearing on the project, affirming the ZAB decision, or sending it back to the zoning board—or lets the 30 days expire, at which time the project gains formal approval. 

The vote last week was 4-3 in favor of the appeal, with Councilmembers Linda Maio, Kriss Worthington, Dona Spring and Max Anderson voting in favor of the public hearing. Councilmembers Laurie Capitelli and Gordon Wozniak recused themselves, Capitelli because he owns an interest in a business within 500 feet of the proposed project and Wozniak because he supported the project publicly several months ago. The vote needs a council majority of five to take an action, not a majority of those present and voting. 

Bates, who had allowed the two sides of the issue five minutes each the previous week, allowed time this week for everyone to speak who wished to do so. 

Mary Oram, of the Elmwood Merchants’ Association, called on the council to remand the project to the zoning board. A restaurant-bar has been sketched out as part of the project, but since the developer has no tenant for the restaurant, “we don’t know what has been approved,” she said, “Send this back to ZAB so we know what they’re talking about.” 

Elmwood merchant Claudia Maudry of Your Basic Bird said ZAB never should have never allowed the project to go over the quotas that limit the number of restaurants. “That should be only when the neighbors and merchants support a project,” she said. 

Bates reminded the some three dozen supporters of the appeal in the audience that they had lost the vote the previous week and that nothing would change when the council voted again. “In essence, you’ve had the public hearing—a one-sided hearing,” he said, noting that 14 people had spoken. No one representing the developer was present to speak. 

Maio reiterated her support for the appeal, noting “the restaurant will definitely compete in the Elmwood for the small number of parking spaces.”  

But Councilmember Betty Olds said she supports the developer. “I think John Gordon does an excellent job,” she said, adding that no permits will be issued unless the parking problem is addressed. 

Councilmembers asked Planning Director Dan Marks for clarification on the ZAB ruling about parking. “The parking issue must be addressed,” before final approvals, he said. 

Councilmembers pointed out that addressing the issue is not the same as resolving it. 

“Failure to address the [parking] issue will be the worst anti-small-business decision the council has made,” Worthington said. 

With Councilmember Darryl Moore absent due to a family illness, the vote on holding the public hearing was 4-2, with Olds and Bates opposing. Because they need a fifth vote, supporters said they hope Moore will change his position at the next meeting, where the item, once again, will be on the agenda.