Editorial: Whatever Became of the Commons?

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday July 17, 2007

"Public Commons for Everyone.” Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? The slogan, adopted by Mayor Bates for his re-run of the anti-panhandling ordinance which he’d supported once before, was probably coined by his house flack Cisco DeVries, formerly of San Francisco’s Staton & Hughes political public relations firm. It acquired Orwellian overtones when it became clear that the Bates ordinance’s real purpose was to keep unattractive persons away from the public commons, particularly from shopping districts. But the council approved it, in concept at least. 

However. At the end of the Berkeley City Council’s ever-shorter work year, we now have the opportunity to evaluate what’s actually happened to the genuine concept of creating and maintaining public spaces for all to use under their watch. 

It’s a dismal record. Headed for the chopping block as we speak are Berkeley Iceland, the warm pool at Berkeley High, and the public comment period at City Council meetings.  

Here’s a little story about Iceland. A grandmother friend of mine was unexpectedly awarded the privilege of having her grandson, about ten or twelve years old, to stay with her for one whole summer. Though he’s a fine boy and she enjoys his company, she was a bit apprehensive about how to take care of him and keep him out of trouble. Someone suggested that he could learn to ice skate. She took him over to Iceland one fine morning in June, he strapped on the skates and never looked back. He got there every day when the doors opened and skated up a storm from morning to night under competent adult supervision, handily avoiding both juvenile deliquency and childhood obesity, America’s current twin horrors. And if diversity matters to you (as it should), he’s African-American, as are an increasing number of the kids who have enjoyed Iceland. Tearing down Iceland to build condos, even condos with a childcare center in the basement or a teen center on the first floor, is a very poor idea. 

And another story, this one about the warm pool. A middle-aged hiker who was run down by an off-leash dog on a trail in Mendocino ended up with a persistent knee injury which kept her from hiking for more than a year. Kaiser couldn’t help. Someone suggested the warm pool, and after about three months of simply swimming there several days a week, she was back on the trails. That was me, but it could be you, any time now. Anyone could become disabled at any moment, and disability isn’t just for wheelchair users. And let’s not count on pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by building projects to replace the currently usable pool—replacement buildings always cost more and take much longer than expected and often don’t materialize at all. The proposed plan for a warm pool without parking certainly won’t work because swimmers who are working to recover from injuries, especially those who can’t walk well but don’t use wheelchairs, will need to arrive by car. 

Then there’s the public comment period at City Council meetings. Leaving the choice of speakers up to the mayor’s sole discretion, which he’s now proposing, is begging for a lawsuit and is also wrong in principle. When we moved back to Berkeley, after more than a decade of political activism in the sincere and wholesome Midwest, we were surprised to learn that speakers at City Council meetings in Berkeley were limited to ten in number and that the mayor chose them by taking all the submitted cards in her hand and reading the ten lucky names aloud. One got the impression that cards were taken in the order received, but it soon became apparent that she selected the cards of people who supported her programs (ourselves among them in those days). It was one of those you’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moments, the beginning of our disillusionment with much of what passed for progressive politics in Berkeley. Adding the mechanical shuffling cage was a big improvement, and the changes this year which were prompted by threats of Brown Act litigation were further improvements. The mayor’s new proposal would be a return to the bad old days of favoritism, and we don’t need that. 

What links all three of these misbegotten ventures is the current council majority’s strong impulse to turn common amenities, which serve a wide swath of the general public, over to builders who stand to make healthy profits on new building projects, regardless of whether the ultimate development serves the public interest. The profit motives behind demolishing Iceland and the warm pool, both originally built with funds provided by the people of Berkeley, are easy to spot. Ali Kashani and his associates (perhaps exiting city planning manager Mark Rhoades among them) will make nice money from whatever they plan to build on the Iceland site. A fancy new building for a swimming pool, if it ever materializes, promises big bucks for ELS Architects, beneficiaries of several Berkeley civic projects and for whatever builder is chosen for the job. Rehabilitation of existing buildings is the environmentally “greenest” alternative, but new buildings like these always provide more of the other kind of “green” for the building industry. 

And public comment slows the whole process down. It’s definitely in the interest of the building industry to fast-track projects, to stifle criticism from the public in order to start new profit centers as fast as possible. The mayor’s allegiance to accelerating building ventures has been apparent from the first days of his administration, when he convened a special task force to speed up the permitting process. As a result, at the end of this council term we now have a huge backlog of angry citizens who, despite the Planet’s best efforts, have just found out which of the public amenities they particularly cherish are scheduled for destruction. The council members as they get older can’t take late nights, but they might perhaps have considered weekly meetings, shorter vacations, or starting in the afternoon as other city councils do. They have a cushy job with an easy schedule already, and the least they could do is listen to the vox populi howling with rage in what’s left of the commons, before they turn it over to the developers.  



For more on the subject of Iceland see Randy Shaw in today's Beyond Chron: