Public Comment

Commentary: Just What Happened to that Referendum Anyway?

By Dave Blake
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:19:00 AM

The City Council has their collective head in the sand (or someplace darker), and haven’t made the announcement, even though it’s official, so it’s my privilege to be the first to publicly state: the referendum on the council downtown plan was certified last week by the Alameda county registrar. Based on sampling, 7,900 of the 9,200 signatures submitted were estimated to be valid Berkeley voters at their proper address and with a proper signature, so many more than the 5,558 required that by law there was no need to validate them individually. As a member of the referendum committee, I’d like to express my thanks to all the Berkeley citizens who decided to take an active role in their future and signed the petition. Go Bears!  

Now the council majority, which fought hard and ugly to prevent the people of Berkeley from voting on the dramatic changes they proposed, has to let you vote on their plan, or take it back. The referendum committee members are watching carefully, and you should pay attention too. Mayor Tom Bates has announced that he is in no hurry to decide which course to take, and intends to wait until the last legal moment, in late February, to make that decision. The man who was in an extraordinary hurry to pass the legislation in July—making it as hard as it ever gets for petition gathering: all students and many residents are gone, and Bates somehow arranged for it to be an impossibly hot August—is now Mr. Lean Back and Twiddle His Fingers.  

If the council goes for letting you vote and they lose, the law requires them to wait a year before passing another plan. But if they decide instead to take the plan back, the year-long clock would start ticking immediately, instead of next June. Every day they put off this decision is another day a new plan can’t be passed. The mayor, and the Chamber of Commerce who funded the anti-petition effort, were anxious for potential petition-signers to understand that the only reason that the Council didn’t want the people to vote on the plan was the Danger of Delay. Apparently the Red Alert has somehow quieted way down.  

Meanwhile, the mayor and his allies are busy trying to explain what’s wrong with the people they represent. Two of the councilmembers have publicly bemoaned the democratic process: Laurie Capitelli, District 5 (Solano), said on his city website that “What makes this town great—the diversity of viewpoints and the passion of its citizenry—can sometimes cripple its progress,” and Susan Wengraf, District 6 (Marin Avenue), was more blunt: “Sometimes democracy can go too far.” (“Berkeley Officials Seek to Block Petition Drive”, Chronicle, Aug. 20).  

In the Daily Californian (“Petition Against Downtown Area Plan Advances”, Aug. 24), Wengraf said, “I haven’t spoken to anybody who has a solution to the problem. The good thing about the plan is it’s a step towards acknowledging we want to change something about downtown.” We don’t really know what we’re doing, but we’re going to try tripling the building heights; maybe that’ll do the trick. Our council is either misleading us or a bit, shall we say, clue-challenged. They tell us that this dramatic plan is too complex for us simple folk (or them) to understand, but not so complex that they can’t make unrealistic claims for the wonders it will deliver unto us.  

Here’s some actual hard facts, instead of propaganda, from someone (me) who served 14 years on the Zoning Adjustments Board (appointed by Carla Woodworth, Dona Spring, and finally Linda Maio, until she canned me for excessive candor): the only entity interested in these big buildings in the downtown is UC, which has been on a downtown shopping spree for five years, and who also need to house their students, who have been almost the only occupants of the units built in the downtown for 15 years (a responsibility UC has left almost completely to the private sector).  

The lawsuit settlement that Bates pushed through the council in secret four years ago not only freed the university from all but a token payment ($120,000 a year) for their use of city services like the sewer system, but gave them veto power over the new downtown plan. Though UC is not legally bound by city zoning, concern for their public image has always compelled them to comply with it. They desperately want a plan that will let them build way up, and rather than publicly admit it and ask for our cooperation, they’ve chosen to let Bates do their work for them indirectly. No one will be building the 20-story luxury apartments the plan touts; there’s just no market for it. That’s just the sizzle the mayor is using to get the Chamber of Commerce excited.  

What we’ll be getting is UC-outside-UC, like the BP project (Helios Building) the university has already announced will occupy the site of the old state health building on the block southeast of Hearst and Shattuck, and vast amounts of consolidated university statewide offices, plus all the cars that will bring into the city. That’s particularly ironic, since Councilmember Maio, District 1 (north of University Avenue), delights in explaining how the council plan will reduce downtown traffic by providing housing for downtown workers—who’d have to make over $200,000 a year to qualify for the cheapest condos foreseen in the council plan. If you want to understand the market for luxury condos in the downtown, just keep an eye on the soon-to-be-completed Arpeggio Building on Center. Really, keep watching, it should be entertaining.  

That brings up a good window into what this council is all about. If we really wanted to give the downtown a shot in the arm, we’d build more parking; that’s the only thing that would convince Berkeley residents to shop downtown. It might count as encouraging those evil automobiles, but the reduced carbon footprint from driving in town instead of to the far-flung malls would more than justify it. But the council, backed by pretend environmentalists and by the downtown property owners who’d have to pay a substantial part of the cost of creating more parking, has instead been busy converting the existing city parking lots to housing (and the cold but sexy-sounding Brower Building), and two years ago quietly sold off the air rights to the existing (and badly in need of a teardown and rebuild) Center Street city parking structure to the Arpeggio developers, who wanted to be able to guarantee their potential buyers bay views.  

Bates wants to get appointed to the Regents, and I support him wholeheartedly in that. The sooner the better. But the rest of our council has to wake from their stupor and start looking out for the people they claim to represent. A good start would be to dump the absurd plan that’s an article of religious dogma, not a serious effort to help the downtown respond to its challenges, and to open a public dialog with the university over our closely intertwined futures. 


Dave Blake is a Berkeley resident.