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Flash: Berkeley Commission Turns Down “Dharma Way”

By Steven Finacom
Friday October 05, 2012 - 12:04:00 AM

The City of Berkeley will not be renaming the 99-year-old Harold Way in Downtown Berkeley “Dharma Way” if a recommendation made by the Public Works Commission stands. 

After hearing testimony from a half dozen members of the public (including this writer) and having a lengthy follow-up discussion of its own onThursday, October 4, 2012, the Commission voted 6-0 to advise the City Council not to approve the name change. (One commissioner was absent, and another resigned on the eve of the meeting, leaving the Commission with seven voting members and six present.) 

Representatives of the network of affiliated Tibetan Buddhist businesses and institutions that have moved onto the west side of the block under the umbrella of “Berkeley Dharma Way”, and proposed the name change, spoke, arguing that they thought they were the “only stakeholders” when it came to choosing a new name for the street, and that “Dharma” should not be construed as a religious term. 

Critics of the proposed re-naming (including this writer) argued that the term “Dharma” did have religious connotations, including in the literature of the organizations themselves, that adopting it would be a violation of separation of Church and State, that City policy discourages the changing of historic street names except under extraordinary circumstances, and that the proposal was a form of “branding” and privatizing the public street name for the benefit of private institutions and businesses. 

It was the latter argument that seemed to sway a majority of commissioners who, in a variety of ways, expressed skepticism that the proposal coincided with the City’s naming guidelines or would be appropriate for a Berkeley street. 

“When you connect an existing business with a public facility (including street names)…that same precedent could be done for a number of things across the City”, worried Commissioner Ray Yep. One Commissioner compared the proposal to a hypothetical instance of Safeway asking to name a street in front of one of their stores for the business. 

Most Commissioners did demur on the issues of whether they should officially decide if the proposed name was religious or not, or the relative historic significance of Harold Way. 

Instead, they said they were conforming to the City naming policy which most felt emphasized keeping street names in a steady state, and preferring names of places, people, or natural features to names that expressed ‘concepts’ as one Commissioner put it. 

In the end, they unanimously adopted a short motion that “we will be voting to deny the application, and revising and approving our final recommendation to Council at the next meeting.” That recommendation will come in the form of a summary of the meeting discussion and issues from City staff, which will appear in draft form on the Commission agenda in November. 

As time permits, I’ll write a much more extensive account of the meeting, for a future issue of the Planet. 

(Disclosure: the author is the president of the Berkeley Historical Society, whose Board resolved to oppose the “Dharma Way” naming proposal. He has written letters and spoken against the proposal.)