Mayor Hints at Possible Compromise
Despite the best efforts of elected and appointed officials, aided by “smart growth” advocates, Berkeley’s highly controversial downtown plan is headed to the ballot box.
That is, Mayor Tom Bates says, unless the council majority challenges the petitions in court or the petitioners are willing to accept compromises that the mayor hints he is willing to make.
In a campaign marked by controversy and confrontation, an estimated 9,200 people signed petitions to hold a ballot-box referendum on the Downtown Area Plan, far more than the required 5,528.
The campaign had been so intense that referendum foe and City Councilmember Susan Wengraf was even quoted in the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, after she complained to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that “Sometimes democracy can go too far.”
Supporters of the referendum were gleefully repeating her quote late Friday afternoon as they turned in their petitions to City Clerk Deanna Despain.
The Downtown Area Plan (DAP) began as part of a settlement agreement conceived after the city sued UC Berkeley over its Long Range Development Plan 2020, which revealed that the school plans 850,000 square feet of off-campus development in the city center.
Mayor Tom Bates and his eight City Council colleagues each appointed two members to a citizen committee charged with formulating the elements of a new plan. Three appointees from the Planning Commission were also included, bringing the total to 21.
A schism was evident from the first meetings of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), with the panel polarized, appropriately enough, between the mayor’s own two appointees.
Bates picked Will Travis as chair, which raised some hackles from the start in a city where commissions and committees usually pick their own chairs. Travis heads the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and emerged during the committee’s two years of work as a development-friendly bureaucrat.
His opposition coalesced around the mayor’s second appointee, environmentalist Juliet Lamont, who ended up as the de facto leader of the majority faction—a group that wanted a range of community benefits in exchange for allowing more tall buildings in the city center.
Travis’ views prevailed when Berkeley Planning Commission members got a chance to draft their own rewrite, and when it came time for a final decision, the City Council used a Chinese restaurant menu approach, picking items from both columns while effectively giving developers an out from DAPAC’s community- benefit requirements.
One section that has drawn fire allows developers to skip the plan’s community benefits if their cost prevents the project from “penciling out.” Section 8.3 of the Land Use section of the council’s version directs city staff that “When establishing provisions for new fees and financing, consider how all fees and exactions may discourage development.”
Councilmember Jesse Arreguín, who filled the council seat representing the downtown after the death of Dona Spring, was joined in his opposition by Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who represents the south of campus area, including the Telegraph Avenue District.
Both were on hand Thursday afternoon as Despain’s staff began counting the petitions.
“It’s incredible,” said Arreguín. “It was so difficult to get these signatures, not only because many people, including students and university employees, were out of town, but because of intense harassment and intimidation. This is a great day for democracy in Berkeley.”
Arreguín said a successful referendum would offer citizens and public officials a chance to come up with a plan that more people can accept.
Worthington said the drive’s success demonstrated that the public believes DAPAC’s plan was best for the city.
He said the signature total was even more impressive, given that as many as 25,000 voters were out of town during the petition drive.
“Most of all, he said, “Jesse has demonstrated laudatory leadership in standing up for his district, for affordable housing and for green values. This is a profound accomplishment.”
By Friday, even the mayor was willing to admit that referendum backers had more than met their numbers, with Bates conceding that there are “apparently enough” signatures to block implementation of the plan.
Bates said councilmembers have three alternatives: “There were defects in the wording of the petitions themselves, and the council could choose to challenge their validity in court. We could attempt to pass a compromise plan with modifications to satisfy [the petitioners], or we could send the original plan to the ballot for the voters to decide.”
Arreguín said he didn’t know what the mayor meant when he claimed the referendum petitions had language errors. “Before we went to the voters we submitted the petition to both the city attorney and the city clerk for binding review, and both said it met the requirements of state law,” he said.
Bates said he wasn’t certain what changes to the council’s version would satisfy petition campaign leaders, but that since the petitioners’ concerns involved lessening the downtown density called for in the original plan, he didn’t believe any compromise would require a new environmental impact report.
Bates suggested that council deliberation in response to the petition drive could take place as early as the next council meeting, scheduled for Sept. 22, in either executive or open session.
“I’m not sure what the council will do, but we’re committed to getting the best plan possible for the citizens of Berkeley,” Arreguín said. “The council can rescind their vote approving the plan and come up with something different, or they can submit it to the ballot.”
Patti Dacey, a DAPAC member, planning commissioner and participant in the referendum drive, said the campaign had no formal leadership, elected or otherwise.
“We’re just a whole bunch of citizens who were outraged and decided to do something about it.”
Dacey said the drive included at least a hundred volunteers, some of whom worked in pairs because of harassment.
“It actually became easier the more the thuggery became known,” she said.
Not all the heated words came from referendum opponents, with Daily Planet Managing Editor Justin DeFreitas observing a supporter trying to drown out a referendum critic during a farmers’ market confrontation.
The next step is for the Alameda County Registrar of Voters to verify signatures, a sampling process to determine that enough registered voters have signed to qualify the petition for the ballot.
“We do a random sampling of either 3 percent of the signatures or 500 [signatures], whichever is greater,” said Cynthia Cornejo, Alameda County Deputy Registrar of Voters. If the sample shows the total count is sure to meet or exceed the required number, the referendum is ready for the voters.
Petition backer Tom Hunt said the campaign used new software that allowed it to verify that each signer was a registered Berkeley voter, an indication that the drive more than met its quota.
Once the verification is handed down—Oct. 2 being the statutory deadline—it’s up to the city to decide what to do next. If no compromise can be reached, the measure would go on the next general election ballot, unless the city opts for the costlier route of a special election.
Arreguín said he, Worthington and other referendum volunteers will be meeting soon for a discussion of their next course of action.
J. Douglas Allen Taylor contributed to this report.