Thai Temple Asks Zoning Board to Allow Year-Round Sunday Brunch

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 09:45:00 AM

Wat Mongkolratanaram will be back Thursday at the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board meeting to request a use permit modification which will allow the Berkeley Thai Temple to serve its disputed yet exceedingly popular Sunday brunch throughout the year. 

The current permit, issued in 1993, limits the 33-year-old Buddhist temple at 1911 Russell St. to serving food only three times annually. 

When the temple’s volunteers approached the zoning board in April for a permit to build a new Buddha shrine, a group of neighbors complained that the Thai Temple was running a commercial restaurant business in the guise of serving meals to its followers, bringing trash and congestion to the area. 

The monks at the temple responded that the Sunday brunch ritual was a centuries-old Thai tradition, in return for which they often asked for donations. 

After investigating the allegations, zoning officials announced in June that the Berkeley Thai Temple had repeatedly exceeded the number of events allowed by its use permit. 

Although no one was able to ascertain just how long the temple had been violating its permit, the board agreed to give the temple a chance to modify the original permit and address neighborhood concerns. 

Board members also suggested mediation, the most recent of which was held on Aug. 6. 

Thai Temple volunteers and Oregon and Ward streets and Martin Luther King Jr. Way residents met with Victor Herbert of East Bay Community Mediation three times since June, following which they came to an agreement only about the entrance to the new sanctuary. 

No common ground was achieved over the frequency of the brunches or the crowds they attracted, Herbert said. 

The temple has addressed concerns of some neighbors about the early morning cooking by starting at 8 a.m. It has also cut down on the brunch hours, starting now at 10 a.m. instead of 9:30 a.m. and closing the food stalls an hour earlier than before, at 1 p.m. 

“It was the best-kept secret in town, or maybe the worst-kept secret,” Herbert said of the Thai Temple’s Sunday festivities. “This is a situation that affects a large number of neighbors, some of whom enjoy the availability of food, and some of whom oppose it, and some of whom may be indifferent. Ours was an attempt to see if there were grounds for mutual accommodation.” 

Among the list of 19 neighbors who signed a petition demanding that the zoning board shut down the Sunday brunch was Tom Rough, whose house abuts the temple boundaries. 

In an e-mail to project planner Greg Powell, Rough quoted from recent reviews of Wat Mongkolratanaram’s weekend brunch on yelp.com, which described “ridiculously long lines” and “super-packed” tables on Sundays, to argue that the temple’s efforts to scale down its operations had been ineffective. 

“The neighbors have complained,” Rough wrote. “They have put forth a good faith in mediation. With the temple’s failure to change their food service sufficiently to satisfy our complaint, the city has a responsibility to act.” 

On a recent Sunday afternoon, more than 50 people were turned away because the temple ran out of pad Thai and mango sticky rice almost an hour before the monks declared brunch officially over. 

The remaining 200 who got to stay squeezed into every nook and cranny possible inside the temple, at times spilling over into the adjacent South Berkeley Library lawns to feast on what some described as “the best Thai food ever.” 

“It would be a shame if it shut down,” said Cindy Hann, who has been coming to the Thai Temple for the past two years from Moraga. “I think the temple is really trying to be a good neighbor.” 

Thai grandmothers in faded gray aprons ladled out soup and red curry chicken to Cindy’s daughter Ellen and then helped 10 other people in less than five minutes. 

In the next canopy, Thai youngsters performed a Thai folk dance in pink and purple sarees, their parents bustling around to applaud their performance. 

Sakchai Himathongkham, a volunteer at the Thai Temple, said there was no way of telling how many people turned up at the temple every Sunday. 

The donations from the brunch sponsored teachers from Thailand who came to the United States to teach Thai and also subsidized tuition for locals who came to learn Thai at the temple school, he said. 

“The cost of airfare alone from Thailand to the U.S. is $1,5OO,” he said. “Then there’s cost of living on top of that.” 

Siwaraya Rochanahusdin, who teaches intermediate and advanced Thai to children and adults at the temple, said a large number of Thai Americans from the East Bay sent their children to the temple school to learn Thai and traditional music and dance. 

“The older generation of Thais who settled in America long ago want their grandchildren to be culturally sensitive,” she said. “They want to speak to them in Thai. We all want this issue to be resolved as quickly as possible. We don’t see it as the neighbors versus the temple. We are all part of the community together.” 

Himathongkham described the temple as a place for people from different walks of life to come together over food. 

“It’s like the Berkeley Bowl or the Saturday Flea Market,” he said. “I think of this as a good opportunity for the city to look at the conditions of an urban neighborhood. To look at how we can come together and work on traffic flow and improving dialogues with each other. There’s a lot of misunderstanding since we speak a different language and come from a different culture. But we are working together to make things OK.”  

The ZAB will meet at 7 p.m. (today) at Old City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.