A unique opportunity currently exists in West Berkeley: an opportunity for public participation. You will not have read about it in the newspapers. Nor will you have heard about it on radio or TV. You will not see signs or notices posted about it. There have been no public hearings about it. In fact, most people in Berkeley are probably completely unaware of it.
So just what is this unique opportunity, you may be asking? It is a small, rather narrow piece of land on Fifth Street in northwest Berkeley. It has been owned by the City of Berkeley’s Redevelopment Agency for several decades, and has sat vacant for just about as long. It is zoned MU-R, for Mixed-Use Residential, a designation unique to West Berkeley. A few years ago a decision was made to allow the transfer of this property to an organization which would develop and maintain it for the benefit of the community, and in particular the West Berkeley community. This decision, made contrary to the recommendation of the Berkeley city manager, who at that time favored selling it off for private development, represented a small victory for the neighborhood. My husband and I, who live on the same block as this vacant lot, were active in marshalling neighborhood opposition to the sale and support for using the property for a public purpose.
Now, more than three years later, the Redevelopment Agency has finally, earlier this month, issued a request for proposals for the development of “a community-serving facility or below-market artisan serving housing.” The agency is willing to make the property available at low or no cost to a suitable nonprofit agency or a partnership, including partnerships between nonprofit programs and for-profit entities. A major requirement for a proposal is that it must show “consistency with the West Berkeley Plan vision statement, goals and policies.”
West Berkeley folks, nonprofits, artists and craftspeople, and their organizations, this is a wonderful opportunity. Take note of it! Opportunities like this don’t come along every day.
There are so many unmet needs in this part of West Berkeley, from a dearth of affordable housing and artists’ studio space, to the lack of safe, open recreational space for kids and adults both, to the absence of a neighborhood laundromat or conventional grocery store, to the lack of cultural resources such as theaters or enrichment classes for kids. It’s an underserved area in terms of services for its residents, many of whom are persons of color, or low income, often both. Meanwhile, shopping opportunities for the well-heeled abound on nearby Fourth Street.
Yet as of this writing few proposals for a project had been submitted to the Redevelopment Agency. Perhaps it’s because few were aware of this unique opportunity; perhaps the initial deadline—July 15—struck many as simply not enough time to put together a viable proposal. Perhaps people were put off by the word “development” in the proposal.
But…there’s still time—and room—for people to get involved if they care to.
And I urge all citizens of West Berkeley to do just that—to weigh in on the fate of this valuable community resource, whether you’re in a position to co-sponsor a “development” proposal, or just to express your opinion. Visit the Agency website and read about the opportunity (www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/ContentDisplay.aspx?id=974). Go by and look at the vacant lot—1600 block of Fifth Street. Attend the meetings of the West Berkeley Project Area Committee—second Thursday of every other month—and make your opinion known. It is important that the public be involved in what is a public matter. Otherwise, what ideally should be an open and democratic process will be just another decision made by a relatively tiny group of people. And that, we know, does not always result in the common good.
Patty Marcks is a resident of northwest Berkeley. Her views do not necessarily coincide with those of the Berkeley Redevelopment Agency.