Russell Street residents faced off Thursday against their neighbors at the Berkeley Thai Temple, charging them with running a commercial restaurant in a residential neighborhood, bringing litter and congestion to the area, every Sunday.
More than 30 supporters of the temple, located at 1911 Russell St., turned up at Thursday’s Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) meeting to deny the charges and to request a permit to build a new Buddha shrine on the site and add four parking spaces on an adjacent vacant lot.
Applicant Komson Thong also requested the board to approve 10 tables—three with parasols—which would be situated inside a Buddha garden on Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
After listening to complaints from a few neighbors, the zoning board decided to postpone the issue to June 26 and asked city staff to investigate whether the temple was violating the zoning ordinance.
It also asked members of the Thai temple to mediate with its neighbors about parking, hours of operation and other concerns.
Some neighbors were angry that the temple started work as early as 5 a.m., since a 1993 zoning permit limits the use to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. The temple serves food to the public outdoors in the back of the property from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Sunday.
Piper Davis, who moved into the house abutting the Thai temple three years ago, complained that the noise of pots and pans clanging to prepare food woke her up early in the morning.
“We want this large scale open air commercial restaurant moved to another location,” said her husband Tom Ruff. “It’s really under-described, and has inflicted significant harm on the community surrounding the Thai temple. We respect the spirit of their mission, but we respectfully object to a large scale commercial restaurant.”
Another neighbor, John W. Taylor, said he had been unable to enjoy his driveway, which was blocked by cars belonging to visitors at the temple every week.
“They need to construct more parking spaces,” he said. “Four parking spaces is like putting your finger in a dike.”
Thong said members of the temple would address neighborhood concerns.
Zoning staff said they had not received any nuisance complaints from neighbors over the last few years about the temple’s operations, but that they would investigate in light of recent concerns expressed at the meeting.
According to the zoning staff report, the temple offers food to its visitors as typical of Thai customs, in return for which they ask for donations.
1819 Fifth St.
The zoning board also approved a 22-unit three story mixed-use project totaling 20,820 square feet at 1819 Fifth St. Thursday, despite opposition from its next-door neighbor, the East Bay Vivarium.
Owen Maercks, who owns the Vivarium, said the proposed development—which provides 22 parking spaces—would push the business out of Berkeley.
“When we came here 20 years ago, there was a parking problem,” Maercks said. “We have been losing business over the years but parking is worse than ever today. A 22-unit project will be the final straw.”
Applicant Tim Rempel said the vivarium—housed in a 7,500 lot—should provide 15 to 20 parking spots for its customers, instead of the current 5.
“I think it’s a valuable business, but it’s in a building difficult to have a business out of. Our project is modest and sustainable.”
After the zoning board objected to the scale and density of the proposed mixed-use project last year, Rempel scaled it down to a height which met with approval from boardmembers Thursday.
“The new project is much more compatible,” said board member Terry Doran. “The issue of parking is not going to go away, whether this particular project is prevented or not. Existing businesses will have to co-exist with new businesses.”
Zoning vice-chair Bob Allen stressed the importance of the City Council and the planning department addressing neighborhood parking concerns.