Consensus, not Contentiousness, is What Berkeley Businesses Need Now

By Becky O'Malley
Friday June 08, 2012 - 10:23:00 AM

Sometimes Berkeley politicians tell more truth than they realize. From the online text of the Tom Bates Anti-Sitting Initiative proposal, up before the city council on Tuesday:

“Given the contentiousness of the City’s past efforts regarding street behavior issues this item requests the City Manager return with draft ordinance and ballot language for Council consideration so the entire issue can be put before the voters for approval.”
If the proposal’s author had looked up “contentiousness” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, he would have found this as the only meaning:

“Contentiousness: an inclination to fight or quarrel.”

Used in an example sentence: “His natural tendency towards contentiousness made him a poor choice for a diplomatic post.”

Could Merriam-Webster have been thinking of Berkeley’s mayor when they wrote that sentence?

The last thing downtown Berkeley, now experiencing a bit of an image uptick, needs is more contentiousness. Do we really want yet another big fight about whether beggars (and also, kids and old ladies and people with bad knees and tourists) are allowed to sit on the sidewalk? 

Only contentiousness (Synonyms: aggression, aggressiveness, assaultiveness, bellicosity, belligerency, combativeness, contentiousness, defiance, disputatiousness, feistiness, fight, militance, militancy, militantness, pugnacity, quarrelsomeness, scrappiness, truculence) would lead one to believe that the so-called “Civil Sidewalks” Initiative would be a good addition to the November ballot. 

“Civil Sidewalks” is yet another careless use of language by our tone-deaf politicians. It’s the people who are civil or uncivil: the sidewalks just lie there. And if contentiousness leads you to treat people in an uncivil manner, they’re apt to be uncivil right back at you. 

Anyone who travels anywhere knows that Berkeley’s commercial districts are not unique in having a variety of hangers-out on or near the sidewalks. Many of them are whiny, sullen, dirty, or have smelly dogs. If they have too many embedded metal objects or tattoos, they might even look unattractive, at least to older folks like me. 

But contrary to the less-traveled observers’ contentions, people like this are all over the place in the 21st Century. Moving them around Berkeley at significant city expense will not get rid of them. And getting rid of them will not fix what’s wrong with Downtown or Telegraph Avenue. 

The number one problem in such commercial districts in older urban areas is exorbitant rents charged by speculators who have bought up many of the buildings which have rental storefronts—it’s one of the nasty side effects of the real estate bubble. Owners keep the rents so high that small businesses can’t afford to locate there , which is one reason downtowns everywhere have too many vacancies to make for pleasant shopping. 

The America devotion to automobiles, especially in California, is another problem. For half a century downtowns have been losing ground to suburban malls with big parking lots. 

Now, because there’s a recession tending toward a depression, even the malls are in trouble—have you been to Macy’s at Hilltop lately? Acres of empty parking lots even there. 

It’s just too easy to blame all of Berkeley’s many difficulties on a few spare-changers, and it’s a good distraction from all of the real problems that those who currently run the city, both elected and hired, have been doing a poor job of solving. Why, for example, can’t anyone at City Hall make a deal with Ken Sarachan or the owners of the building which burned down to fill in the gaping holes in the Telegraph streetscape? 

As a lapsed member of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce (thank goodness, we’re out of commerce these days) the Planet got a low-key invitation to attend Tuesday’s council meeting and speak up about the idea. Contrary to previous quasi-hysterical communications on the subject from similar sources, the Chamber sensibly said that “it is important that the Council hear from a broad range of citizens, merchants, and business owners—whether you support, or do not support, such a ballot measure. This is the democratic process, and your input is needed.” 

That’s a sentiment we can all agree with. Contentiousness is bad for business. Why pick fights when you don’t need to? 

There are undoubtedly many businesses in Berkeley’s commercial districts which would not look forward to a summer and fall filled with demonstrations, picketing and even boycotts from free speech defenders, homeless advocates and those who just like excitement. The proprietors should speak up in favor of calming down. 

Contentiousness is bad for business. 

We all need to tell the council that putting an initiative on the November ballot to ban sitting on the sidewalk will cause nothing but trouble. Why pick fights when you don’t need to? 

And there’s more potential trouble on the council agenda on Tuesday night: They seem poised to adopt disastrous changes to the West Berkeley Plan which are opposed by the vast majority of stakeholders who showed up at hearings in recent weeks. Only the owners of big, big pieces of property and their contractors want these amendments. The EIR did a completely inadequate job of analyzing the negative impacts on Aquatic Park and on traffic. 

Talk about contentiousness! The mayor and his acolytes are just begging for lawsuits and/or referendums from outraged citizens if these changes to West Berkeley are not sent back to the ZAB for further study. 

Some also fear that he has walked a couple of susceptible councilmembers back from the unprecedented compromise they reached at their last meeting, agreeing to put both pools and potholes before the voters in November. 

If you’d like to see peacemaking by the Berkeley City Council instead of contentiousness, try to make it to City Hall on Tuesday night. You should also send emails expressing your opinion to the council, since they do count the correspondence they receive. As the Chamber says, this is the democratic process, and your input is needed. 



Here are the links to email the council: 



Tom Bates: mayor@CityofBerkeley.info  


District 1: Linda Maio 


District 2: Darryl Moore 


District 3: Max Anderson 


District 4: Jesse Arreguin 


District 5: Laurie Capitelli 


District 6: Susan Wengraf 


District 7: Kriss Worthington 


District 8: Gordon Wozniak