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Controversial Planner Hailed On Departure

By Richard Brenneman
Friday August 17, 2007

Mark Rhoades, Colossus of Berkeley? 

Though not so physically imposing as a long-vanished harbor-spanning statue of Helios (another hot name in Berkeley these days), he looms just as large in the minds of folks on either side of a major political divide. 

So when he announced last month that he was leaving his post of city zoning officer and current planning manager, the plans for parties began. 

Colleagues at the city’s Permit Service Center gave him a festive sendoff on the 9th, but the heavy hitters from in the city’s development battles gathered—on opposite sides of the same street, appropriately—to hold their own farewells. 

While some of the biggest names in Berkeley development—think Patrick Kennedy, John DeClerq and Ali Kashani for openers—hoisted farewell toasts at Epicurious Garden at 1513 Shattuck Ave., some of his heartiest detractors were celebrating his departure with “Roads to Recovery” at Cafe de la Paz less than a block to the south at 1600 Shattuck. 

Pressed with deadlines and a 7 p.m. meeting, a Daily Planet reporter was able only to attend the former event, sponsored by the Downtown Berkeley Association, represented at the meeting by President Mark McLeod and Executive Director Deborah Badhia. 

A sizable number of Berkeley citizen officials were on hand, including Planning Commissioners Harry Pollack and Susan Wengraf, Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee Chair Will Travis and member Victoria Eisen and Design Review Committee members David Snippen and Burton Edwards. 

Former Zoning Adjustments Board chair Dave Blake, a sometimes critic of the honoree, was also on hand with some accolades of his own. 

Among the developers on hand were: 

• Patrick Kennedy, his wallet recently fattened by the sale of his downtown apartment builders to Sam Zell, 

• John DeClerq, also flush with new cash from the sale of Library Gardens, 

• Ali Kashani, recently stymied by some of the folks celebrating across the street from his plans to erect a mixed use project on the site of Iceland, 

• James Peterson, developer and one-time City Council candidate. 

“Mark is probably better than anyone else in the city at explaining our arcane ordinances in ways that anyone can understand,” said Pollack who served two terms as chair of the Planning Commission. 

“Henry Kaiser said, ‘When a man’s work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt,” said Patrick Kennedy, praising Rhoades as a force for hope and reason. “I always thought he was doggedly, obsessively neutral,” said the man the folks down at the Roads to Recovery party love to hate. 

“I have no idea what the future’s going to be like without him,” said Wengraf. 

“I’ll never get my project through now,” quipped James Peterson, developer of the long-proposed Prince Hall Arms senior housing building at 3132 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 

“You have elevated the level of professionalism of the planning staff to a level never before seen in Berkeley, and you have also elevated the level of discourse,” said David Early, a planning consultant and the founder of Livable Berkeley, an alliance of infill development advocates, also much disparaged by many of the Roads to Recovery partisans. 

When the toasts had finished, it was up to the departing planner to have his say. 

“I’m overwhelmed,” he said. Working for the city, he said, had consumed a fourth of his years and half of his professional life. 

His decision to leave began when he took a leave of absence with the birth of his second son 10 months ago. 

“I was gone,” he said, spurning phone calls about work and trips to the office. 

“About four weeks into it, Erin (spouse Erin Banks, a former employee of Early’s planning firm and Livable Berkeley board member) looked at me and said, ‘You’re a different person.’ At that point I realized this job was probably not the best place for me now. 

“That’s unfortunate,” he said, “because I love this job. This may be a crazy-assed place, but it’s still a great place.” 

But Berkeley could even be a better place, he said, “and it all boils down to housing. Not buildings, but housing. We’re diverse, but we’re also the least diverse community in Alameda County. 

“Hopefully, we’ll all step up to the plate, because the idea that there should be any change, or that all buildings should be two or three stories, is killing us. All the noise comes from a few folks, a few who are interested in neighborhood issues, but in the worst way. They do not want any change,” he said. 

Rhoades called for an overhaul of the city zoning ordinance, citing a quip by Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman, a sometimes adversary, that referred to the state of city zoning law as “50 years of scar tissue.” 

And while Rhoades is gone from City Hall, he said, his voice breaking for a moment, “I intend to maintain my focus on this community, for all the reasons standing here, and for those out there in the community—to make it a better place for them and their kids.” 

Applause and raised glasses followed.