Page One

City Tells Temple, Neighbors To Find Middle Ground

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 02, 2008 - 09:19:00 AM
Mediation Urged in Thai Temple Dispute—           The Berkeley Thai Temple, at 1911 Russell St., attracts a large Sunday brunch crowd, sparking complaints from neighbors and concern from city officials, who charge that the temple has violated its permit with the weekly brunches.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Mediation Urged in Thai Temple Dispute— The Berkeley Thai Temple, at 1911 Russell St., attracts a large Sunday brunch crowd, sparking complaints from neighbors and concern from city officials, who charge that the temple has violated its permit with the weekly brunches.

Fans of authentic Thai cuisine must wait till Nov. 13 to find out if the city will allow Wat Mongkolratanaram to continue to serve Sunday brunch or ban it. 

After more than three hours of public debate and testimony last week, during which Berkeley Thai Temple supporters outnumbered their opponents three to one, the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board decided to ask both sides to do more of the same: mediate. 

More than 100 people packed the City Hall Chambers on Thursday to testify for or against year-round weekend festivities at the temple, which were recently found to be in violation of its use permit. 

Members of the Bay Area Thai community waved signs saying “Eat, Pray, Compassion” on the Old City Hall steps. 

When the temple’s monks asked the zoning board to approve a Buddha sanctuary in April, a group of neighbors charged the temple with running a restaurant business, a claim they backed up by pointing to rave reviews on Zagat and 

Temple volunteers explained that sharing food with the community in exchange for donations was an ancient custom in Thai culture and in some cases the only way for Buddhist priests to earn their living. 

Investigations into the neighbors’ allegations by city officials revealed in June that the temple had repeatedly exceeded the frequency of events allowed by its permit. Neighbors turned up the heat at that point, asking the city to bring a stop to the weekend crowds, noise, trash and parking dilemmas. 

After hearing both sides of the debate, the zoning board asked the respective parties to settle their disputes through mediation. 

Victor Herbert of Seeds Community Resolution Center, formerly the East Bay Community Mediation, arranged three discussions between the parties, and, although some ideas were exchanged at these meetings, a compromise on the frequency of the Sunday brunch was not reached. 

Members of the Thai temple requested the zoning board Thursday to allow them to serve Sunday brunch throughout the year, explaining that they were ready to cut back on hours and reach some kind of a compromise with their opponents. 

“The temple has been ignoring its use permit for 17 years,” said Zoning Commissioner Bob Allen. “I need to know why we should trust a group which has flagrantly violated the zoning code and treated us like they are above the law just because they are a religious institution.” 

Commissioner Jesse Arreguin acknowledged the violation but stressed that the temple’s willingness to scale back on the crowds and hours was a step in the right direction. The temple now starts cooking at 8 a.m., three hours later than its earlier schedule, and serves food from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., instead of 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

Arreguin also emphasized the importance of a California Environmental Quality Act review on the project, explaining that noise, traffic and environment studies might be crucial factors in determining whether the temple’s Sunday operations were a detriment to the neighborhood. 

“Use permits were set up to protect the neighbors,” said Commissioner Sara Shumer. “I have a hard time seeing a restaurant in a residential neighborhood on a weekly basis. Sunday is a day when people are out using the yards.” 

John Taylor, a neighbor, described the Sunday activities at the temple as a “tolerated inconvenience” and suggested that the Sunday brunch be moved to an alternative location. 

Komson Thong, president of the Thai Association of Northern California, told the board that proceeds from the weekend fundraisers went toward subsidizing costs for students who came to the Thai temple to learn Thai, meditate and dabble in other cultural programs. 

“Berkeley has been a good home for the temple just like the temple has been a good home for Berkeley,” Thong said. “Our programs will not be able to continue without the subsidies. Buddhist monks are not allowed to work outside the temple.” 

Thong stressed that the temple had put up “no parking signs” around the neighborhood and allowed visitors exclusive access to the Any Mountain parking lot a few blocks down. 

He added that 2,300 signatures had been collected in support of the Sunday activities, out of which more than 800 were from Berkeley. 

Second-generation Thais recalled spending their most memorable moments at the temple, which they said had helped them connect to their Thai heritage. 

“Today we are blessed to have so many Thai restaurants around us,” said a young Thai-American. “But when my parents came to Berkeley this was one of the first places where we could find Thai food. A lot of the Thai restaurants in Berkeley were started by people who came here.” 

Some neighbors who complained against the Sunday operations said they weren’t against the temple per se but were frustrated by the trash, noise and parking problems it brought to the area. 

“Clearly they serve a purpose within the community but they have gotten by with a free pass,” said Celeste Fikiri, a neighbor who asked the city to conduct a traffic study. 

The board told Herbert to conduct a mediation between the two sides and see whether the temple was ready to come to a compromise—some sort of “a middle ground”—with its neighbors. 

One neighbor described the brunch as “good karma,” another called the temple “a microdot of peace,” and many echoed the sentiments of a young Thai man who supported the Sunday cooking, saying: “That’s what we do. We are Thai; we make food.”