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Bates Brainstorms Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue

By Ted Friedman
Saturday March 02, 2013 - 12:36:00 PM
Mayor Tom Bates, left, with a senior aide, Calvin Fong replacing chairs after the big brainstorm.
Ted Friedman
Mayor Tom Bates, left, with a senior aide, Calvin Fong replacing chairs after the big brainstorm.

The Chron reported Thursday that Tom Bates was going to "makeover Telegraph" that night.

Calling the evening "a brainstorming session," Berkeley Mayor Bates presented other people's proposed makeovers at Willard School auditorium on Thursday from 6 to about 8.

One hundred Southsiders, who complained they had attended the same meeting for twenty years and were fed up with all the talk, showed up to hear five mini-presentations of Telegraph makeovers.

Afterward the audience made its own presentations. 

Sensing the crowd could turn on him, Bates said he was serious (after years of inaction) about doing something for Teley. Seriously, though, he said he would really act this time. 

He's going to come forward with "concrete plans," Bates said. He offered much of the same promises a decade ago responding to pleas from Andy Ross, owner of a failing bookstore, Cody's, which has stood empty for years. 

Back then, the mayor walked the avenue with disgruntled property owners, promising aid. 

i was on that walk. Mark Weinstein, owner of Amoeba's, remembers and so does Craig Becker, owner of Caffe Mediterraneum. 

So why were we here, if the mayor can't do anything about the Avenue, and why doesn't he admit it instead of making promises he can't keep? 

But hey, we're only brainstorming here. A recent New Yorker article claimed that brainstorming doesn't work anyway. 

Spencer J. Pritchard, a student representing the Telegraph Livability Coalition, told the audience that many of the proposals they were hearing had been proposed by his coalition a year ago, when they produced a list of about 20 specific recommendations that were approved by a broad group of stakeholders. 

"Why are we still discussing this?" he asked. 

Speakers from the audience at the end of the meeting told tales of deja vu all over again. One veteran Berkeley political observer called the meeting "Groundhog Day," a film in which a single day repeats endlessly. 

This time there has been some progress, though. Roland Peterson, executive director of the TBID, a Telegraph property owners group, said that a U.C. Berkeley Chancellor's grant had enabled his group to soon switch sodium lights, "a sickening yellow", to LEDs. 

The mayor said that plans are progressing to use the grant to bring free Wi-Fi to Teley; although many Teley businesses like coffee houses offer Wi-Fi. It will soon be in the air on South side, the mayor promised. But Peterson said he wasn’t sure there would be enough money left from the grant after the lighting is changed to pay for Wi-Fi too. 

Kriss Worthington, the Southside’s District 7 councilmember, said he had attended scores of meetings on Teley but "still the city hasn't stepped up to the plate." 

"It’s not enough to pin all our hopes waiting for long term solutions. We need a clear sign from the city," he said. 

"We need a short-term plan that makes life better for Southside residents," Worthington concluded to a large round of of applause. 

Until Worthington's mention of Southside residents, no one had brainstormed how proposed makeovers on Teley would affect residents near Teley. The brainstorming was all about students, businessmen, and vendors. 

Mark Weinstein of Amoeba told me about the malling of Santa Monica, which had built state-of-the-art parking high rises at both ends of its re-designed downtown. But no Telegraph plan offered included expanded parking to accommodate new crowds who might descend on a revitalized Telegraph. 

Weinstein shook his head over the prospects of having his store surrounded by major construction (at the Sequoia and Berkeley Inn sites, nearing city approval). When the university quickly erected Martinez Commons a new student dorm across from People's Park last year, they hit a waterline and Weinstein had water damage in Amoeba, he told me. 

But Worthington's remarks about the city's stalling on plans to allow retailers to sell from tables on the sidewalks in front of their stores was not popular with some street vendors, who said they would be squeezed. 

Russell Andavall, a potter selling on Teley for forty years, said, "Don't take away our three feet and give it to the merchants." He blamed city code enforcement for allowing that. 

"Why complain about three feet?" asked Louis Cuneo, who has sold his photos on Teley for twenty years. “There's enough room for everyone. We need some serious cooperation." 

Later, Eddie Monroe, who founded the street merchants' association in 1972 told me any turf wars between merchants and vendors could be easily solved if the merchants spent $250 for a vending license and moved into the street instead of in front of their stores. 

Zachary Running Wolf, a perennial mayoral candidate, said "We've waited ten years for the mayor to do something." 

Craig Becker, president of the TBID, told me that people need to realize that changes to the Avenue must be implemented by the city manager's office, not the mayor. 

Russell Bates, no relative of the mayor, attacked greedy landlords and Berkeley businesses, adding "bring on the chains." he also condemned the police and the university. 

Steve Finacom, who writes for the Planet and other publications and is vice president of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and past President of the Berkeley Historical Society, took us back to 1965, the so-called golden age of the Avenue "when some said then that the Avenue had gone to hell." 

In response to a makeover calling for chain stores like Target and Staples, Finacom pointed out that there were presently fifteen chains on Teley. 

Historically, the avenue has always been "troubled," so why the need to brainstorm? 

So here I was at this dysfunctional meeting of meeting junkies, one hundred of the same faces you see at community meetings, and wondering whether I had become one of them. 

Why we're hooked 

After the meeting ends, another begins. Twenty-five people remain to further discuss the Southside. We have gotten to know and admire each other. It may be that we keep coming to the same meeting because we like to see each other. 

The Mayor, who had brought us together to brainstorm, succeeded in that. 

With the help of an aide, he piled up the chairs and returned them to under the school stage. 

But he won't be making over the avenue as the Chron misreported. 


Ted Friedman's creative journalism is featured at Berkeley Reporter. He specializes in delivering an insider's view of the unique Telegraph Avenue culture.