Public Comment

Commentary: What Don’t You Understand About Democracy?

By David Esler
Friday July 06, 2007

The administration swept aside laws it didn’t like or found inconvenient and ignored citizens’ protests as it catered to the commercial interests of its supporters. Sound familiar? No, we’re not talking about the Bush/Cheney administration but, sadly, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and some members of the City Council. 

Call it trickle-down. Not the financial kind but the trickling down—all the way down to grassroots Berkeley, the alleged bastion of progressive politics and uber-democracy—of Bush administration-style bullying tactics as seen in the Bates administration’s attempt to ramrod through its approval of developer John Gordon’s proposed 5,000-square-foot restaurant and bar in the former Wright’s Garage near the intersection of Ashby and College avenues, smack in the middle of the city’s historic Elmwood District. First, the Zoning Adjustments Board recommended that the project be approved in contravention of sitting ordinances regulating commercial growth and limiting the number of certain businesses—including restaurants—in the Elmwood. Mayor Bates, who ran as a progressive but, once in office, apparently never met a commercial developer he didn’t like, favors granting Gordon a use permit for his upscale eatery and watering spot, which would be sited against a residential neighborhood and open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. The matter will come to a final vote at this Tuesday’s City Council meeting where Elmwood residents and merchants will make one more impassioned effort to convince the Berkeley solons to either deep-six Mr. Gordon’s proposal or send it back to ZAB for much-needed revision. 

Two councilmembers have been recused from the vote, one because he owns property near the former Wright’s Garage and the other for taking an advocacy position for the project on the Kitchen Democracy website that polled the issue. To make matters worse, the councilmember’s description of the Gordon development on grossly misrepresented the project, no mention being made of the restaurant’s 5,000-square-foot size, the expected patronage, or the presence of a bar and lounge. Thus, the misrepresentation of the poll, in which a majority subsequently favored the project, essentially rendered the results bogus. (Also, the poll was not confined to Elmwood residents.) Nevertheless, ZAB used the results of the Kitchen Democracy poll as the sole representation of neighborhood support in its deliberations on the project, its members rejecting numerous letters of opposition to the proposed development and live testimony from actual Elmwood residents in the flesh. Especially galling was ZAB secretary Debra Sanderson’s observation at the June 26 Council meeting that the Elmwood Neighborhood Association didn’t exist—with the implication that the 40 or so Elmwood residents sitting behind her waiting to voice their opposition to the restaurant/bar were irrelevant. 

For his part, Bates claims to understand that parking is an ongoing problem in the Elmwood District. And yet he has embraced a fallacious and largely empty solution recommended by ZAB for accommodating hoards of cars expected if the restaurant use permit is upheld. Basically, ZAB’s recommendation states that the developer only has to try “to the extent possible” to come up with a parking solution—but if Gordon tries and doesn’t succeed, there’s nothing to keep him from getting his building permit. As anyone who frequents and laments the congested traffic situation in the Elmwood knows, the likelihood for finding any more parking space embraced by the two-block business district is negligible. This means that the expected cars driven into the area by restaurant/bar patrons will have no other place to go except into adjacent residential neighborhood streets. For Elmwood residents this does not constitute a tenable solution. At the June 19 council meeting, Bates spent more time trying to figure out how to get the item kicked off the agenda for the following week’s council meeting than listening to the concerns Elmwood residents brought to him. These concerns include traffic safety, congestion, drunk driving and other alcohol-related behavior problems, noise, and additional exhaust pollution. 

After Bates heard statements from Elmwood residents who’d waited up to three hours to speak at last week’s council meeting, a motion was advanced by Councilmember Kriss Worthington to remand the project back to ZAB for further consideration. The motion failed by one vote, with two members voting against, two members recused, and one (Darryl Moore) abstaining. Leaving the meeting, one Elmwood resident who’d suggested in his two-minute statement that the restaurant/bar might be picketed by neighborhood opponents if it came to fruition was accosted by Gordon’s lawyer, Harry Pollack, who yelled into the senior citizen’s face that his presentation had been “despicable” and offered a few other choice words. Pollack’s performance on the steps of the Old City Hall was pretty despicable itself, given its intimidating nature—the attorney was literally trembling with rage. Apparently, Mr. Pollock, having also taken a page from the Bush administration, hasn’t heard of the First Amendment to the Constitution and the freedoms it confers to citizens to speak freely at public meetings and to picket. 

The larger ramification of the Gordon project, which is hugely out of proportion to the ability of the Elmwood commercial and residential area to accommodate it, is the precedent it will serve for other neighborhoods in the city under assault by developers. Progress is inevitable, but if we are to preserve the unique character of our Berkeley neighborhoods, limitations must be placed on it—and, especially when ordinances are already in place to implement those curbs, those laws should be enforced by the city government, which is pledged to serve and protect its citizens. Elections are coming, and the mayor and some council members have announced their intention to run for re-election. Two have indicated a desire to stand for the state Assembly. How Mayor Bates and the City Council vote in Tuesday’s decision on the Gordon Elmwood restaurant/bar project should be a good indication to Berkeley residents whether they deserve to be returned to office or elevated to higher service in government.  

As Councilmember Dona Spring observed at last week’s meeting, “this project stinks to high heaven!” Indeed it does, and just like that offensive odor emanating from Washington, it’s only going to get worse unless the people do something about it. The Elmwood Neighborhood Association urges residents to attend Tuesday’s City Council meeting and voice their opposition to the proposed restaurant/bar development and the strong-arm tactics adopted by the Bates administration and developer John Gordon. 


Elmwood resident David Esler writes on behalf of the Elmwood Neighborhood Association (