Berkeley Merchants Blame Sitters for their Woes

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday April 06, 2011 - 10:59:00 AM

Do you love love love Cheese Board pizza? Is your idea of heaven standing in line for a slice and then eating it picnic-style with friends on the grassy strip down the middle of North Shattuck in what’s called “The Gourmet Ghetto” in the New York Times Style Section?

Well, think again, because the clueless merchants of North Shattuck are scheming to make it illegal.

Or maybe it’s not actually you and your lunch buds that they’re out to get, but if equal protection is still the law of the land you’ll have to be on the radar too if they have their way.

(Please note: we do NOT include the Cheese Board among the clueless, but some of their neighbors on the other hand…) 

Here’s the story: 

On Monday I was imprudent enough to go to the Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee (sorry, Governmental Affairs Committee) meeting on their proposed Sit-Lie Ordinance. This kind of thing would be bad for my blood pressure, if I had high blood pressure, which fortunately I don’t. 

According to the press release that announced the meeting, the ordinance, “which has yet to be written, will most likely ban sitting or lying on sidewalks of commercial districts within the city during regular business hours. It is likely to be at least partially modeled on a similar ordinance in San Francisco that went into effect in January, 2011.” 

Coming in late, I realized that my attendance was most likely superfluous, since the small meeting room was packed with a fine assortment of the most impressive defenders of the poor who work in Berkeley, and they were loaded for bear. The nervous organizers, justifiably fearing that they were outgunned, handed out printed rules banning oral questions from the audience. Instead, it was decreed that the chair (once the host at the now-defunct Downtown Restaurant, now the head of the meeting’s host committee) would read and summarize written questions after the invited panelists had finished their spiels.  

The panel discussion went as planned. Councilmember Max Anderson as usual spoke eloquently for civil liberties and compassion, especially for the veterans among the street population.  

Two panelists who work regularly with clients in the target population explained what they do and why they don’t think the Chamber proposal would have the desired effects.  

Councilmember Linda Maio recounted a personal anecdote of dubious relevance about her encounter on Telegraph one night with a bunch of hostile youths who left litter behind when they moved on when asked (though one of them did go back to clean up when she scolded them.).  

Roland Peterson, Executive Director, Telegraph Business Improvement District and ·John Caner, Executive Director, Downtown Berkeley Business Improvement District explained why their employers wanted a new sit/lie law. Peterson spoke glowingly of the wonderful results Santa Cruz has had with a similar ordinance. None of this was a surprise. 

Questions were read, having been summarized and de-fanged, by the chair. One query, from poor people’s attorney Osha Neumann, asked why merchants from Downtown and Telegraph were pushing these laws now since the city’s Economic Development department reports revenues for these districts showed the smallest decline of all business districts in Berkeley in recent years. Peterson said that his employers were concerned that their revenues hadn’t increased. (Evidently the bad news about the global recession hasn’t yet penetrated to all parts of Teley.) 

Another question asked if rules banning sitting and lying on sidewalks would apply equally to all groups, disabled veterans as well as disrespectful youths. Answer: Yes. 

So what does all this have to do with eating Cheese Board pizza on North Shattuck? Eventually, since I made a tiny fuss about the controlled questions, the chair ruled that I would be allowed to ask the only spoken question, at the very end of the meeting.  

My question: whose idea was this anyhow? (I don’t think I said whose dumb idea, but I should have.) 

Everyone looked around the room for the culprit. Eventually, a woman sitting in the back row raised her hand, indentifying herself as Heather Hensley, Executive Director of the North Shattuck Association. She allowed as how some merchants in her group wanted a sit/lie law to be enacted because they were worried about declining business. 

Fine, but they should be aware that such a law must constitutionally be applied to everyone. BOSS employee Winston Burton jocularly brought up the possible fate of the median pizza-eaters, but the point he raised is a real one.  

Laws like this are either applied unequally only to unsightly sitters, risking constitutional lawsuits, or they catch tired old ladies and small children sitting down in their net as well, and that’s bad for business. The dread word “boycott” was muttered sotto voce by critics in the audience as the meeting broke up. 

The rosy reports from Santa Cruz are simply fictitious. I’m in Santa Cruz two or three times a month, and almost always make a visit to Bookshop Santa Cruz on the main drag. Sorry, Virginia, there are still surly uglified youth sitting around there, along with plenty of possibly homeless beggars asking for spare change, just like in Berkeley, San Francisco and almost anywhere you go in these troubled times. Drug dealing and the occasional murder are still obvious problems in Santa Cruz, including downtown, as reported from time to time in Bay City News stories I get. 

And meanwhile the wrong people get harassed, just as they would be in Berkeley 

Here’s how Christopher Krohn, a former Santa Cruz mayor and councilmember, described the Santa Cruz law in an email: 

“It is another in a long line of anti-homeless, trying-to-appease-business-community (don't just stand there, do something!) type of wrong-headed measures/traps which electeds often get ensnared into. It is the same kind of thinking that also now has musicians standing with their backs to the street rather than backs to the business. This included Sophia, Isabel and Amelia when they played their violins in the bitter cold in December, instead of playing in a more sheltered area...they were warned by the "downtown hosts" not to play with backs against the wall.). 

These Santa Cruz Youth Symphony musicians were playing Christmas carols to raise money for disaster relief. Two of them are his daughters, and also happen to be my granddaughters. Not to be deterred, some of the same young classical musicians did manage to get permits recently to play on the street to benefit the Japanese Red Cross, but the regs for street music made much harder than it needed to be. 

Does this bring us around to the same old theme of “fiddling while Rome burns”? Berkeley merchants are wasting their time nattering on about the street scene while they should be attending to business in a very dicey economy.  

When the Planet was in business selling ads to people like this (how glad I am to be free of that burden!) North Shattuck retailers told our sales people that they couldn’t afford ads because all their money went to the high rents they paid to be in such a lovely area. Black Oak Books, smarter than the rest, moved out because they couldn’t afford to pay $17,000 every month for rent.  

Folks, it’s time to get real. Berkeley businesses have got to stop blaming the victims of the economic collapse for their own problems. This kind of behavior negates the whole “Buy Local Berkeley” campaign—why should shoppers like me support merchants whose best marketing strategy seems once again to be targeting the homeless and downtrodden? 

We’re part of a group of ten or more that eats dinner at Cha Am on Shattuck and Cedar every Friday, has done this for years now. Yes, there is a polite elderly lady who sits on that block asking for money that we always pass on Friday nights, but she’s no reason to stop going there. On the other hand, if the North Shattuck merchants are really behind the latest sit/lie push, we might want to take our business elsewhere. 

And don’t even get me started on the “we’re afraid to go downtown” crowd…”