Can UC Berkeley Be Saved from Another People's Park Debacle?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday March 02, 2012 - 08:18:00 AM

Living in a university town sometimes feels like being part of the movie “Groundhog Day”. That’s the one where the same scenario repeats and repeats and repeats every day, driving the characters nearly mad in the process. Now the University of California at Berkeley, the distinguished institution which I graduated from some years ago, is doing yet another instant replay of “Let’s Mark People’s Park”.

Or maybe it’s like the old joke about programmers: “Why do programmers take such long showers? Because the label on the shampoo bottle says ‘lather, rinse, repeat.” But you’d probably need to have worked with programmers as much as I have to get that joke. The point is that U.C. seems to have an unshakeable determination to make the same mistakes in their dealings with the Park over and over and over again, following some kind of crazy instruction set that they can’t seem to shake. 

I wasn’t in Berkeley when the park was created from the rubble of one of UC’s numerous smash-and-grab incursions into Berkeley’s residential neighborhoods. I have, however, spent a lot of time in the Southside neighborhood where it’s located.  

I lived in a rooming house in a brown shingle on Channing when it was still primarily a single family area. Then in the 1980s we created one of those high-tech university spin-off startups on Telegraph, just the kind that the City of Berkeley is currently lusting after. We rented the whole second floor of the building which now houses Rasputin’s for the incredible price of 30 cents a square foot. If rents were still in that range, Berkeley would still be able to attract the entrepreneurs it wants, but the greed of Telegraph area property owners has priced enterprises like ours out of the market and pushed them into Emeryville and Oakland instead. 

The university’s current moves on the park seem to have been motivated by the desires of the Telegraph property owners’ business improvement district. It’s traditional for Telegraph landlords to blame the park for their own deficiencies, and they’re following the old script again in this instance. UC is only too glad to collaborate. 

Ever since I’ve been associated with UC, going way back to the time they threw the information tables of Slate (the nascent student political party, not the Microsoft online magazine) off campus, the bureaucrats have managed, time and again, to choose the most ham-handed way of pursuing their objectives. The new plans for altering People’s Park are no exception. 

A public-spirited park activist did a Public Records Act request and came up with full documentation of what UC’s up to and shared the information with the Planet. 

For starters, the quick and dirty operation which an outside contractor carried out on December 28 was just the opening salvo, just Phase 1 in a much bigger game plan which the University has cooked up with absolutely no advice and consent from those who are supposed to be consulted. The tab for the part of Phase 1 which has been executed so far—tearing down a pergola, leveling some raised beds and cutting down a grove of small trees—was “only” about $12,000, but emails reveal that UC’s budget for all of its planned operations is now at least $220,000. A lot of damage could be done for that much money. And that’s not all—another document seems to project spending of $620,000 by the end of Phase 3, which isn’t chump change. 

Traditional UCB Orwellian newspeak in the bureaucratic emails calls all this activity “maintenance”. One writer asks the PR people who are gearing up to issue a press release after the clearance starts “if there is another word for ‘small trees’ (something other than shrubs).” A tree by any other name…. 

Vice Chancellor Ed Denton in a memo authorizing the December action says “…we will press ahead during the holidays. Let’s hope a project that does not bring controversy with the locals [sic].” It might have been prudent to consult “the locals” using excellent protocols already established. [By the way, Ed, “locals” is a rude epithet to use for Berkeley citizens and residents.] 

And who was supposed to have been consulted? Well, for starters, there’s the People’s Park Community Advisory Board, set up a few years back on the recommendation of an expensive consultant as a way of avoiding unnecessary conflicts, with members appointed by UC. No one asked them about this project, which created predictable outrage.  

Also, the city of Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Commission should have been consulted. People’s Park is a City of Berkeley designated landmark. There are on-going jurisdictional disputes between the city and the university over authority on such properties which have never been adequately litigated, but it’s often been the university’s practice to consult the LPC when it plans some change to historic sites.  

I know this because I served on the LPC for close to 8 years, during which time many UC projects were brought before us for consideration. I thought of myself as occupying the “Bob Sparks Memorial Seat” on the Commission.  

Bob was a longstanding People’s Park activist and defender, appointed to the LPC by Councilmember Maudelle Shirek, who didn’t care much about historic architecture but had a keen appreciation for the history which the park represents. After he died, his seat was vacant until I asked to be appointed because of my concern for a building where the disability rights movement had started which we managed to save. 

The LPC has approved and supervised many changes to the park over the years, including, ironically, the construction of the very pergola which the university just tore down without so much as a by-your-leave. But now, once again, with characteristic UC hubris, the bureaucrats seem poised instead to create a major fight which could be avoided by exercising simple civility.  

One of the memos I was given characterized the onsite People’s Park Facilities Manager, Devon Woolridge, as worrying about community reaction to the work planned for December. He and an associate, Bobby Newell, seem to have asked for backup from UC police and the UC public affairs office. They were reported to have expressed concern about the consequences of tearing down the pergola in particular.  

I called Woolridge this morning to get more information about his opinions. He wouldn’t talk to me, except to say that he’d was barred from communicating with anyone about this—that I’d have to ask someone in the community affairs office, which would be a pointless exercise in hot air consumption.  

It’s noteworthy, by the way, that this office is now headed by Julie Sinai, formerly Mayor Tom Bates’ head of staff, and the Mayor’s new chief of staff, Judith Iglehart, is a former U.C. bureaucrat, With this kind of revolving door staffing, it’s no wonder that the city of Berkeley is consistently trampled in UC’s insatiable push for domination of the civic landscape. 

As things stand now, it’s incumbent on the city of Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is composed of citizens instead of bureaucrats, to insist that UC Berkeley follows the advise-and-consent protocol which has often avoided messy confrontations in the past. There’s not much time left, since the next two phases—the really pricey ones—seem to be scheduled to start in early Spring, and that season is upon us as I write.  

At their meeting last night the commissioners discussed putting People’s Park on their agenda for their next monthly meeting and forming a sub-committee to study the situation, but these actions may be too little and too late to avert trouble. They should figure out a way to communicate with UC immediately. 

People’s Park can always be improved, but if the improvements are done in a hostile way instead of collaboratively there will be problems. The December demolition was carried out in bad weather between Christmas and New Year with no warning, so the uproar was limited. That kind of surprise move won’t work a second time—major opposition can be predicted from now on.  

If Ed Denton is sincere in his desire not to “bring controversy with the locals”, he should instruct his minions to voluntarily present the rest of their plans in an orderly way to both the Park Advisory Board and the LPC, and perhaps to other City of Berkeley commissions as well. A little civility would go a long way, and a further lack of civility will inevitably cause an uncivil response.