Public Comment

The True State of City-University Relations

By Doug Buckwald
Thursday June 05, 2008 - 10:08:00 AM

There is one obvious reason that Mayor Bates turned his annual State of the City address into an invitation-only private affair this year. It is just so much easier to twist and distort the truth if knowledgeable citizens are kept out of the audience. I will focus on one small part of the speech, to give you some idea of this approach in action: How did Mayor Bates characterize relations between the city and the university? 

“On balance, excellent,” Mayor Bates crowed. He was able to say this, first of all, because to him the “city” means elected officials and city staff, not the residents of Berkeley. For many residents, unfortunately, relations with UC Berkeley simply could not be any worse. But Mayor Bates doesn’t know the details about this because he does not talk to these residents; their substantially-deteriorated quality of life is not important to him. After all, he lives far enough away from the university’s noise, traffic, pollution, litter, and huge high-rise construction projects to be unaffected by these impacts. 

Bates acknowledges that the city is suing the university over its massive expansion plans for the Southeast Campus area, near Memorial Stadium. But then he quickly suggests that a compromise settlement is in the offing. “We’ve talked to the university about various things we’d like them to do, like reduce the number of cars in that parking garage. They say they’ll do that. They’ve now said they would repair the stadium at the same time as they would build the high performance facility. They’re working with the neighbors. If we could have gotten this kind of negotiations going a year and a half ago…a lot of these problems could have been put behind us.”  

I’ll start with Mayor Bates’ outright lie: Contrary to what he says, the university is not working with the neighbors. Chancellor Birgeneau has repeatedly refused, and still refuses, to talk with neighbors at all. Worse yet, he does not even acknowledge—let alone respond to—letters addressed to him on this subject by neighborhood associations, community groups, neighborhood leaders, or student groups. It is true that Nathan Brostrom, the vice chancellor for administration at Cal, has held a handful of meetings with small groups of students and neighbors—but the clear purpose of these meetings was simply to reiterate the university’s hard-line position: In short, they plan to build whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want—period. That’s not negotiating—that’s issuing orders like a feudalistic lord. Excuse me, but aren’t we out of the Middle Ages yet? 

Another interesting point in the above comment is how the city’s previously-expressed position about the proposed parking garage on Piedmont Avenue—a preference that it be moved closer to downtown—has been replaced with a much more conciliatory request to “reduce” the number of parking spaces it would hold. How silly. This does not change the fact that this is an utterly ridiculous location for a new multilevel parking garage—on a traffic-choked two-lane road in the most inaccessible part of Berkeley, just a few feet away from the Hayward Fault! Not only that, it is entirely possible for the university to take more effective steps to get faculty, staff, and employees out of their cars so that they won’t need another parking lot there. Here is a perfect opportunity for the university to show some true environmental leadership. The proposed parking lot is an irresponsible, unsustainable, and unsafe idea; it should be taken off the table for those reasons alone. 

And, it’s funny that Mayor Bates would say, “If we could have gotten this kind of negotiations going a year and a half ago…” The fact is that many neighbors tried to get negotiations going with the university over two years ago on this matter, and they were completely stonewalled. Not only that, residents have been trying diligently for the past four decades to negotiate in good faith with the university about its construction and expansion plans, and university officials have consistently turned a deaf ear towards them—if not outright lied to them. It is a dismal and disrespectful record. In fact, I do not know of a single university in this entire country—either public or private—that treats the residents of its host community as bad as the University of California treats Berkeley citizens. 

Mayor Bates winds up his comments about the university in a very telling fashion: “I’m dedicated to still reaching out and working with the chancellor and the university. Tonight was a good example when the chancellor felt free to call, and said let’s figure out what we can do. In that spirit, I want to continue working with him.” This may sound positive on the surface to some, but this attitude is really the heart and soul of the problem. As long as Mayor Bates thinks that the resolution of this issue is to be found in one-on-one talks in private between him and the chancellor, we are doomed. The chancellor has made it abundantly clear that he has no concern about the harm done to the quality of life of Berkeley residents; and, lip service to the contrary, Mayor Bates has shown by his actions that he is prepared to be equally dismissive. 

The only way this will change is for neighborhood representatives to be at the table during the negotiations, and for all interested citizens to be invited to participate before any agreement is reached. That is the modern, democratic, and socially responsible way to resolve problems like these. Welcome to the 21st century, Mayor Bates and Chancellor Birgeneau? 


Doug Buckwald is a UC Berkeley graduate and a 28-year resident living in the Southside. He was a presenter at a national conference on best practices in city-university relations two years ago. To view the entire State of the City address by Mayor Bates, go to and click in the center of the screen where it says “click to listen.”