Without the Referendum, Berkeley is Doomed to Ten More Years of Hanging-Basket Planning

By Becky O'Malley
Friday January 03, 2014 - 12:33:00 PM

Over the holidays I encountered an enormous number of people who are not at all happy with the way things have been going in Berkeley. What’s interesting about them is that they seldom agree with one another about what’s wrong (this is Berkeley after all). In fact, it’s close to miraculous that a crowd of them can assemble in the same room at a party and no fist fights break out (well, almost none).

At my house the closest we came to an altercation was a heated dispute between two men seemingly associated with the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist church, in which one shoved another and invited him outside. Nothing more happened. I have no idea what the beef was, though an observer reported hearing the word “Palestine”.

World peace aside, the main issue on which Berkeleyans agree is that things are a mess right now. All of our commercial districts except Fourth Street are pockmarked with vacancies and beset with impoverished beggars. Driving across town is difficult, parking to shop downtown is nigh unto impossible, bicylists feel that they’re taking their lives in their hands and pedestrians face being bowled over by vehicles of every description both in the street and on the sidewalk. Phone-snatching is endemic, attracting thieves from all over the Bay Area who know that students on cells are apt to be available for the picking at all hours.

Then there’s Berkeley’s moribund downtown. This week’s New Yorker has a funny piece by Calvin Trillin about another metropolis that sounds a bit like Berkeley: Greenville, Mississippi, and its Hot Tamale Festival.

He says that “I would guess that any number of cities have tried celebrating a local food specialty as a tonic for a lagging downtown, just after it became obvious doing some prettying up on a block or two that’s been closed to traffic—what I’ve always thought of as the hanging-basket approach to downtown revitalization—didn’t work.”

Substitute “Gourmet Ghetto” or “Food Trucks” for Hot Tamales, and it’s Berkeley all over again. The Downtown Berkeley (or Business) Association just recently tried the hanging-basket ploy, didn’t it? And I’d take any bet that it hasn’t worked and won’t work. Downtown problems everywhere are deeper rooted than that.

Griping about land use is always fun. Complaints range from the proliferation downtown of tacky luxury dorms disguised as market rate apartments to the difficulty of getting a permit to convert a garage into a workshop. All agree that the city’s Planning Department employees are effectively but ineffectually running the city, with next to no interference from the Electeds on the Berkeley City Council.

Which brings us to What You Might Do to Save Berkeley in the next two weeks, if you’re one of the many who think we’re not in Nirvana yet, Dorothy. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the gormless Berkeley City Council majority has hatched a gerrymandering scheme to silence the loudest progressive voice on the council. It will take a referendum to reverse it. 

Admittedly, it’s a clever ploy. The conservative councilmembers and their advisors managed to capture a movement to re-draw the council district boundaries to guarantee a student-majority district and impose a new map which excludes the students who are most likely to vote for progressive candidates. The obvious target is incumbent Councilmember Kriss Worthington, consistently the intelligent voice of reason in a group of patsies who often don’t even seem to have read the material in their packets before voting.  

People with too much time and not enough information who comment on local blogs habitually blame Worthington for the many woes of his district, which includes Telegraph. In fact he and those in his district are not the cause of their own problems but the victims of the majority’s impotence. If the gerrymander which has been passed by the council is allowed to stand, the city of Berkeley’s ineffectual governance, with its longstanding neglect of the campus area, can only get worse. 

Mayor Tom Bates’ actions and the votes he controls have been deployed mostly for the benefit of the University of California’s expansion plans. People’s Park is neglected and commercial vacancies proliferate as the University takes over more and more of the South of Campus area. If Worthington is knocked off, things will surely get worse. 

How can you help with the referendum? According to the organizers: 

“Proponents of the redistricting referendum have 30 days to gather 5,275 signatures to stop the ordinance from going into effect. If we are successful the Council will have to reconsider the ordinance or put it on the ballot. The Berkeley Referendum Coalition is working over this holiday season to gather signatures so that the City Council can reconsider its decision and do the right thing - come up with a fair and inclusive plan that unites neighborhoods, students and the entire community.” 

Now there are just 14 more days to get enough signatures. To get more information or to join the effort, you can go tomorrow to this event: 

"14 Days Left" Rally 

Berkeley Referendum Coalition 

Saturday, January 4, 2014 @ 11am 

Mudrakers Cafe 

2801 Telegraph 


If you can’t make this meeting, to get petitions or information contact: (510) 423-3004 or berkeleyref@gmail.com.  

If the council’s do-nothing majority is able to snag yet another seat, the city of Berkeley will probably be doomed to another 10 years of civic decline using the clearly failed hanging-basket theory of urban planning. You might think things couldn’t get worse, but this just in—they could.