ZAB Allows Berkeley Thai Temple To Continue Sunday Brunch

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday February 13, 2009 - 05:40:00 PM

Mango sticky rice and pad Thai aficionados in the Bay Area can finally breathe a sigh of relief. 

In a 8-to-1 nod to Sunday brunch at the Berkeley Thai Temple, the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board voted Thursday to keep the almost two-decade long tradition alive, despite heavy criticism from a group of neighbors who argued that the outdoor food fair violated the city’s use permit by operating as a commercial kitchen, bringing large crowds, traffic, trash and odor to a residential neighborhood. 

Bob Allen, the board’s vice chair, was the only member to vote against the project, explaining that the temple, Wat Mongkolratanaram, at 1911 Russell St., had failed to comply with the law since 1993. 

Last April, when the temple’s members approached the zoning board to request a permit to build a Buddha sanctuary, a group of individuals criticized the expansion and complained that the Sunday picnics were breaking the law, prompting zoning officials to investigate the temple’s original use permit, which restricted festivities to only three times a year. 

The board recommended mediation, but six sessions later, the opposing groups were yet to arrive at any kind of resolution. 

Temple supporters gathered more than 2,700 signatures on a petition, and won the support of UC Berkeley’s student body, the Associated Students of the University of California, who passed a bill in its favor. 

At Thursday’s meeting, Siwaraya Rochanahusdin, who teaches at the temple school, described the Sunday food offerings as a religious practice, or tum-boon, under Theravada Buddhism, during which Buddhist monks build goodwill for later on in life or the next life which is not defined by monetary value. 

Similar to earlier public hearings about the project, several dozen people called the temple a “good neighbor,” and local gourmands labeled its food as the best in the Bay Area. 

“Their yellow curry is delicious,” said Josh Hug, drawing laughter from the audience. “What scares me is that if this place goes away, I will lose the source of this delicious curry made from highly addictive and hopefully legal additives.” 

Debbie Sheen of the Asian Law Caucus reminded the board about the importance of preserving ethnic institutions, calling the temple “quintessentially Berkeley.”  

Wat Mongkolratanaram’s members told the board that a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton protected "religious exercise in land use,” arguing that the loss of donations would stop cultural activities and Thai language classes at the temple. 

Tom Rough, a neighbor whose property abuts the Thai temple, told the board that the neighbors were not trying to shut it down. 

“This is not a clash of cultures,” he said. “It’s a zoning issue. The temple has changed this into a culture attack, contradicting its message of peace and coexistence.” 

Rough told the Planet that he was frustrated by the lack of progress on the part of the Thai temple to address the neighbors’ concerns during the mediations, especially with respect to the frequency of the weekend activities and the proposed scale of expansion. 

The modified use permit approved by the zoning board will allow the temple to sell food weekly instead of only three times annually, but limits the crowd to 200 individuals at one time, something at least two zoning board members said would be difficult if not impossible to enforce. 

“Sometimes people take the food and sit down on the lawns next door or the sidewalk,” said board member Sara Shumer. “So I do think we have to think about how to enforce the 200.” 

Volunteers will be able to start preparing the food at 8 a.m. only and food sales will be limited to between 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with the last patron out by 2 p.m.  

The food service which took place on Oregon Street will be relocated to Martin Luther King. Jr. Way, project planner Greg Powell said, making way for a Buddha garden. 

“I am doubtful what they propose can be carried out,” Rough told the Planet, adding that he was still open to negotiations. 

Dina Tasani, a neighbor who spoke against the Sunday brunch, told the Planet after the meeting that she was concerned that the real issue had got swallowed in the nearly three hour-long discussion preceding the board’s decision. 

“A residential zone is not an appropriate place to have outdoor eating and congregating 52 weeks a year where seating for 200 is permitted and approximately 600 people visit the site during a three hour period,” she said. “What neighbor would tolerate a party in their backyard every weekend ? We feel that we were not heard and wasted time in mediation in hopes that our requests to reduce the number of events would be considered.” 

Tasani said she was disappointed that only one zoning board member had stood up for the neighbors and the city’s land use law. 

“The fact that this is a religious or cultural activity is not and was not the issue, the issue before the zoning board was: 'Is this type of use compatible with the neighborhood and does it have a significant impact on the environment?',” she said. 

Board member Jesse Anthony said the temple was an asset to the city. 

“We shouldn’t get too worried about the meals, and if some odors come out that might be good—better than some of the odors I get when I walk down the street,” he said. 

Allen strongly condemned the actions of the Thai temple. 

“I am just really puzzled and stunned that we seem to be heading down the road ignoring zoning code and letting the neighbors bear the brunt of this,” he said, adding that the city had warned the temple against holding barbecues in 1991. 

“Our city enforcement process has let us down and now the neighbors are being called racist,” he said. “I don’t think anyone questions Buddhist values, but they question the validity of the group managing the temple because they have been going against the zoning code. There’s no give—it’s all or none. Our choice is 52 days a year, because this has been going on for 20 years. What other organization would be allowed to do that?” 

Board chair Deborah Matthews praised the temple for being a positive influence in a neighborhood often blighted by drugs and gang violence. 

“I am not sure of what happened in 1993 or 1994, but we have arrived at this now,” she said. “Their contribution provides another option. I am fearful of what this community might become without this being there.” 

The board will vote on a final version once city officials make the revised conditions on the temple’s use permit available to them.