The referendum of the Berkeley Downtown Area Plan will go down in history for the assistance it received from the most unlikely of sources—its opponents.
The thuggish behavior of those who showed up at every Farmer’s Market to dissuade people from signing the referendum made it difficult to gather signatures at the markets, but it also fired people up to fight back. Citizens who viewed or experienced the harassment began to acquire their own copies of the petition to circulate among their neighbors and friends.
Planning Commission Chair David Stoloff (appointed by Mayor Tom Bates) was prominent among the harassers, as were Zoning Adjustments Board member Terry Doran, retired planner Dorothy Walker and, of course, Bates himself. Well-known members of “Livable Berkeley” obstructed petitioners with vigor, joined by unidentified young persons each wearing a similar smirk, which led me to wonder if this smirk is taught in developer school or perhaps in university urban planning departments.
Then the full-page glossy arrived at people’s doors, featuring a photo of Bates, Loni Hancock and Nancy Skinner, and a whole passel of flat-out lies. It is difficult to imagine that these seasoned politicians believed this flyer was a good idea. Each is accustomed to winning elections with the help of a well-oiled machine in a carefully orchestrated campaign. Rather than having the intended effect, this hastily prepared hit-piece incensed people—all the more so because it was financed by the disgraced and discredited Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee.
People who are confused about an issue are reluctant to sign petitions. The flyer served as a sure cure for confusion. All over town, concerned citizens started looking around for a place to sign our petition, just as signature-gatherers began to canvas the neighborhoods to avoid the harassers.
Many neighbors were delighted that we appeared on their porches. It spared them the trouble of having to figure out how to find a petition. There are whole blocks of South Berkeley where residents of virtually every house on the block and entire extended families signed our petition with enthusiasm.
About 5 percent of the people whom I asked to sign, and who were eligible to do so, said that they were on the other side of the issue (frequently wearing the aforementioned smirk). Another 5 to 10 percent would not sign due to insufficient information, although when I showed them the opinion pages of the August 13 Berkeley Daily Planet, many changed their minds. The remaining vast majority of individuals expressed dismay—from mild to very extreme—at the development that is taking place in Berkeley.
All in all, the referendum served to invigorate and unite neighbors against the tyranny of Berkeley’s development-crazed City Council majority in a way that I don’t think has ever happened before.
I’d like to thank all the signature-gatherers who worked so hard, many of whom found themselves collaborating with people they never thought they’d be working with (and enjoying it). But most of all, I’d like to thank Tom Bates and his team of harassers for making the last week of signature-gathering so easy, so much fun and such a stirring community endeavor.
Gale Garcia helped to circulate the petition for a referendum of the downtown plan.