Sounds Like a Plan: No Plan on the Ballot Come November

By Becky O'Malley
Monday July 05, 2010 - 01:17:00 PM

Last week’s Berkeley city council meeting was yet another Cassandra Moment for me. You remember Cassandra, don’t you?She was the gal in ancient Greek mythology who was stuck with the role of always predicting the worst and having no one believe her until it was too late.

As a social class, pretty much everyone likely to be reading this shared a Cassandra Moment after we marched in the millions to say that we thought invading Iraq was a really bad idea. Turns out we were right, but a lot of good it did us, and the big cheeses who thought it was going to work aren’t nearly as embarrassed as they should be.

At the Berkeley level, we Cassandras don’t get no respect either.A few of us consistently doubt the rosy predictions of the Candides (“this is the best of all possible worlds’) who manage to get elected to office around here, and to mix in another metaphor, we are widely considered to be Chicken Littles (shouting “the sky is falling!” when it’s not).

Yes, I am talking about the profoundly depressing discussion of the late unlamented Downtown Area Plan which was featured at last week’s city council meeting. 

Those of you with long memories may recall that creating a new plan for Berkeley’s downtown was supposedly “mandated” by the city’s settlement of its abortive lawsuit against…against what?Something involving UC Berkeley, for sure. Betcha can’t even remember now. 

Well, in any event, we were told once upon a time that Berkeley really really needed a new downtown plan, or we’d lose big bucks from UCB, so 22 good-hearted citizens of various persuasions were suckered into giving up at least two years worth of Thursday nights to make one. Expensive consultants were engaged to draft reports. The Planet was suckered into assigning way too much time of a first rate reporter to cover their deliberations

The Cassandras among us predicted that this effort would turn out to amount to bupkes, an old Yiddish term for not much. And lo, bupkes is exactly what it’s added up to. 

From initial dissent the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) progressed to final compromise, crafting a complete and thoughtful analysis of the present and future of downtown Berkeley, an area consistently challenged by fate in the last 40 years or more. Which the Planning Commission, by that time packed with political appointees who worked in the development industry, promptly junked. 

They substituted in its place the shoddy product of a few hasty meetings in which key votes were largely influenced by which side a commissioner’s bread was buttered on. And then, not satisfied, the Berkeley City Council weakened that draft even further and passed a new version in a rush, presumably to comply with some imagined deadline. 

And then outraged citizens, led by former DAPAC members, cancelled the Council’s sloppy decision with a referendum which brought it all back to square one. 

The council made a few quick passes at starting over to create a new plan to go on the November 2010 ballot, then kicked the matter back to the planning commission and the planning staff long about February of this year. Lots of people, paid and unpaid, did lots more work. 

City Planning Department director Dan Marks was finally ready with a report on their conclusions at last week’s city council meeting. And then Mayor Bates and council cronies parachuted in from right field with a bomb. No more plan for the November ballot—instead just a pseudo-plan which would let the council do it all again next year. 

Suspecting some such scheme was in the works, in the past few weeks I’ve already dipped much too deep into my bottomless well of Cassandra-like metaphors for what the Mayor’s now pushing. Yes, it turned out to be “a blank check with a few of the blanks filled in with indelible ink.”Yes, he said something which meant “Just Trust Me, road map to follow after you give me the keys to the car and a tank full of gas.” 

Here’s a new metaphor: a cotton candy concoction with a poison pill in the middle. If the council really endorses this one before it takes off for its long vacation, voters will be asked to vote in November on a bunch of feelgood language espousing some sort of nebulous “Green Vision”, with almost no effect except a little sleeper provision designed to make it much easier to tear down old buildings, a Very Not-Green idea. 

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Anyone who cares about how the city is governed ought to force himself or herself to watch the whole discussion in the online video of the meeting.You can jump directly to Item 14, which starts about 3 and a half hours into the video. 

As a guide, and for those who can’t watch it for themselves, here are few salient quotes from key players: 

“Who in their right mind is going to read all of this?” (Mayor Tom Bates, referring to the update of the 50-page DAPAC plan which volunteer community members have just completed, which Councilmember Jesse Arreguin asked the Council to place on the November ballot as an alternative to the Mayor’s non-plan.) 

“So the voters will know exactly what is being proposed..” (The Mayor’s characterization of his own intentions in producing five pages of fluff for the November voters to approve.”) 

“There have been abuses, I don’t care what people say, there have been abuses where people don’t know” what buildings they’re free to tear down. (The Mayor’s response to a report by former Landmarks Commissioner and Planet writer Steven Finacom showing that no major downtown project in thirty years has actually been stopped by landmarking.) 

“People say to us, give us some certainty, and that’s all we’re doing.” (The Mayor again, referring to his desire to satisfy developers’ desire to have their downtown holdings treated differently from the rest of the city in determining whether a building is a historic resource.) 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington: “The 5 pages [in the mayor’s resolution before the council] is what we’ll be voting on?” Planning Director Dan Marks: “I’ll refer to the mayor, because it’s his proposal.” Worthington: “This is not a plan…this is a plan to have a plan..someday… maybe. … At a bare minimum, [it means] another year’s delay.” 

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin: “To say that this is clear and specific language, that there is no ambiguity, is simply not true.” Question by Arreguin to city attorney Zac Cowan: “This is not legally a plan, is that correct?” Cowan: “That’s correct…Section 3 has some policies which would be binding on the council in any future plan…Section 4 is advisory.” 

Arreguin:“Is the city legally obligated to have to adopt a downtown plan based on this measure?” Cowan: “No. A ballot measure has to be legislative in nature, and the courts have held that telling someone to do legislation is not legislation itself.” 

Only Arreguin, Worthington and Max Anderson spoke in favor of putting the DAPAC/Community draft on the November ballot, so it is unlikely to come before the voters unless it’s placed on a future ballot by citizen petition as an initiative. So here’s the bottom line: as of now no real Downtown Plan will be up for a vote in November, though some councilmembers will do their best to convince you otherwise between now and then. 

The mayor and five councilmembers (Capitelli, Maio, Wozniak, Moore, Wengraf) voted instead last Tuesday to put the Mayor’s phony-baloney plan-like resolution on the November ballot. The final draft of the resolution is scheduled to be passed at the July 13 city council meeting. It will be mostly armwaving, but will have just a couple of binding provisions making substantive changes to land use which sponsors hope to slip past naïve November voters who are easily fooled because they don’t pay much attention to local politics. 

Here’s another prediction: the few binding policies which the ballot measure incorporates will be carefully calculated to optimize the opportunities for certain pre-selected downtown properties for which intensive development is planned as soon as the market recovers. Topics to watch: historic resources, definition of the downtown core area, building heights. 

Owners of these properties will contribute heavily to the campaign for the measure, but they’ll use captive “smart growth” non-profits to greenwash their money so we won’t know who they are. For reference, review the campaign for Measure LL, the failed 2008 attempt to gut the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. 

(And by the way, speaking of greenwashing, whatever happened to that so-called “mandate” that grew out of the UC settlement?It seems to have been greenwashed right down our overloaded sewers, doesn’t it?)