New: Berkeley from Abroad and Back

Becky O'Malley
Friday July 10, 2015 - 10:53:00 AM

It’s been a long time since I’ve been away from Berkeley for more than a weekend, and re-entry , especially when multiple time zones have been crossed and other languages have been spoken, can be confusing. Having returned less than a week ago, I’ve been trying to catch up with what I missed ever since. 

Modern technology makes it possible to stay in touch to a certain extent, much better than when I was younger. I was in Paris when Nixon resigned, in London when Tianamen Square went down, in Naples when the World Trade Center was destroyed—and I’ve only been in Europe four times in my long life. My emotional relationship to those signal events is therefore different from that of my American friends. On the plus side, I have a better idea of how the United States in crises has been viewed by Rest of World. 

The average French people I chatted with in a bar near the Arc de Triomphe were mystified by Watergate. They seemed to think President Nixon was a savvy world-class leader, and couldn’t figure out why Americans were so sensitive about government spying and secrecy. 

“C’est normal!” they said. 

The Brits we knew were as shocked by Tianamen as we were. At that time we had a shared commitment to democratic values—that was pre-Murdoch, of course. 

In Italy in 2001, marooned without a flight home for two extra weeks after 9/11 with only Italian TV for news, we were flooded with sympathy and kind gestures. It’s a shame subsequent U.S. actions have eroded that base of good will around the world. 

This time we had ample information via the Internet about two catastrophes in the United States: the Charleston massacre and the Berkeley balcony collapse. Both were covered extensively in French papers, so the people we met knew all about them. 

Our close Paris friend has a history of struggling against racism. Her son who now lives in Berkeley, also our friend, is bi-racial, with a father of African-French heredity via Martinique and a mother of Tunisian origin, ethnically Jewish but secular leftist in culture. She ran an anti-racist film festival for many years, and also wrote her Ph.D. thesis on films about what the French call the Shoah (here the Holocaust.) 

With that background what happened in Charleston was sadly no surprise to her, nor was it to us. Yes, this country has a sizable population of residual racists, mostly crazy, and yes, they can easily get their hands on guns. She worries that her son now resides amongst us, but then, Paris has its own share of crazies with guns these days, doesn’t it? 

Berkeley’s own tragedy, just a couple of days earlier, was covered extensively in the European press for the first couple of days, but Charleston displaced it. After Paris we (six family members in all) took the train to Languedoc, a rocky wine-producing rural area near the Pyrenees on the Spanish border. There we stayed in a house in a medieval village which had been restored by a French-Australian architect who lived next door with his wife. 

We had the opportunity of discussing the balcony collapse with him from a technical point of view. Australian codes, he said, were very strict. But on the other hand, he told us to my great surprise (and we were speaking English then) that France has essentially no building codes—but maybe more common sense? He was aghast that any builder would construct a cement balcony supported only by wood. 

So, here, back in Berkeley, I’m still wondering how it happened. I followed as best I could the fragmented press reports online. I had a long phone call from a sharp-sounding L.A. Times investigative reporter, formerly based in South Florida, who was used to dealing with the kind of developer corruption memorialized by John McDonald and Carl Hiassen. I’d reported on that stuff myself, in my investigative youth, with a story on how the Disney Corp. bought off the Florida legislature in order to build Disney World. 

I told her, reluctantly, that I didn’t really think there was that kind of graft story here. The city is, yes, awash in developer money, contributed in gobs for pro-development ballot measures and candidates. But even though the Planet reported, complete with picture, on still-Mayor Tom Bates’s backing of Library Gardens in 2004, we’ve never found any real evidence that any Berkeley officials have been lining their personal pockets with cash from the building industry and/or the trades it employs. (It’s true that the convoluted structure of real estate finance, with Real Estate Investment Trusts and Limited Liability Corporations and other arcane vehicles, makes it hard to follow the money.) 

When I got home I tried to catch up by watching the video of the June 30 city council meeting. Others had told me that it was beyond belief, even by the usual standards of the Berkeley City Council presided over by a mayor who no longer bothers to hide his contempt for the public or his colleagues. 

I tried to watch it, I really did, but reader, it turned my stomach so much that I had to stop. I surfed through it at random, but couldn’t bear to devote the 5+ hours it would have taken to watch it end-to-end. 

Oddly, what was most upsetting to me was not Mayor Tom Bates’ ugly attack on preservationist Carrie Olson, once his supporter, which many friends had told me about. That kind of behavior from Bates is not news. 

What saddened me most were the bravura performances by the many, many concerned Berkeleyans attempting against all odds to use logical persuasion on the majority councilmembers who had long since sold their souls for a mess of Berkeley’s gourmet pottage. The ones that especially moved me were citizen Moni Law and Councilmember Max Anderson, both inheritors of the African-American tradition of speaking eloquent truth to power. 

Two issues produced the most drama: the anti-homeless measures proposed by Maio for Downtown Berkeley (which was ultimately shelved until fall) and discussion of a landmark application appeal which might affect the big buildings wealthy speculators would like to plant downtown. 

I just wonder how Maio, Wengraf, Droste and especially Moore can muddle through their hours on the dais without understanding that their constituents are speaking to them. Perhaps they understand, but don’t care any more? 

Capitelli and Bates don’t surprise me at all. I expect both are in on the deals in a bigger way, probably greased by the building industry contributions promised for Capitelli’s run for Bates’s seat. The rumor everywhere is that the Mayor will resign in December, in a window provided by the City Charter that will allow Bates’ captive majority to appoint Capitelli as interim mayor—and then he can run in 2016 as an incumbent. 

And Bates seems to have turned into an enthusiastic bully in his last months on the job, judging by the way he abused those who were speaking on behalf of landmarking the view from the Campanile at the meeting. He yelled “you’re tricking me” at former Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair (and Move-On founder) Olson when she quite properly asked to speak as the applicant for the designation after former commissioner (and Planet contributor) Steve Finacom had spoken as the appellant of the denial. 

If Bates has any friends left, they should really press him to step down sooner rather than later. 

The denouement of this round will come at next Tuesday’s City Council meeting, supposed to be the last one before the Council takes off on Wednesday for its long summer vacation. 

Last week the Zoning Adjustments Board, voting along party lines, voted to certify the Environment Impact report for 2211 Harold Way, but as of this writing their Notice of Decision on that vote has not been issued. Per California law, the EIR decision of a non-elected body like ZAB can be appealed to the elected body which appointed them, and citizens tried last week to do just that. 

They were foiled, however, by a bit of administrative sleight-of-hand, as quasi-articulated in an email by ZAB staffer Shannon Allen: 

It is the City’s practice to issue the Notice of Decision for both the project and the EIR at the same time. The Notice includes the official date of decision and sets the appeal period. The Final EIR was certified by the ZAB on June 25; however, the process for project approval is on-going -- discussion of the Structural Alteration Permit is on the LPC agenda this evening and the resolution related to significant community benefits for tall buildings in on the City Council agenda for July 14. Depending on these pieces, project approval may be before the ZAB on August 27. It is not possible for staff to predict when the project might be approved, and therefore not possible at this point in time to “schedule” the release of the NOD.
Is that perfectly clear? Only after the vote’s been taken, after the deal has gone down, will you get your chance to appeal the flawed EIR which was supposed to have guided the decisionmakers. That’s a tricky one, isn’t it? 

With this kind of shell game the standard operating procedure in Berkeley during the 12-year Bates era, it's no wonder at least one disasterously flawed building took young lives. There may be more such "accidents" waiting to happen. Last night the Landmarks Preservation Commission, in a 5-3 vote which miraculously appeared to track the alignment of the councilmembers who appointed the commissioners, agreed to schedule a special meeting on August 13 to approve 2211 Harold Way. The LPC will issue the structural alteration permit because the project involves the partial demolition of a designated historic resource, is on a historic site, and will dwarf the adjacent landmarked Shattuck Hotel. 

Clearly, fixer Mark Rhoades, former city planner, has his ducks in a row: LPC approval August 13, ZAB approval August 27, Council ratification and appeal disposal on their return from recess Sept. 13. And it looks like there’s not a damn thing citizens can do about it, short of suing on the patently inadequate EIR or challenging the procedure for setting Benefits criteria in court. 

Meanwhile, the council is frantically trying to (1) enact a pallid set of standards regarding what might constitute the kind of “significant community benefits” technically required of the 5 tall buildings provided for in the downtown plan and (2) create a series of glaring loopholes in these same standards through which fixer Rhoades can drive his pet project, saving his financial speculator clients an amount estimated by one non-majority councilmember as between $8 million and $13 million. That’s on top of the tens of millions of dollars which the proposed standards are leaving on the table for developers of all the big buildings, based on the just-released “nexus report” which was supposed to provide a guideline for what the benefits could and should be. This topic is way too complicated for my jet-lagged brain to spell out today—I’m going to try to find a better qualified economist to explain it all to you.