A steady stream of latte drinkers and Internet users moved in and out of the Royal Ground Café on Shattuck Avenue and Channing Way last week, creating a backdrop hum for a lunch-hour interview with Raudel Wilson, the District 4 City Council candidate, challenging 14-year incumbent Councilmember Dona Spring.
Spring, the only Green Party member on the Berkeley council, was interviewed mid-afternoon on the tranquil tree-lined deck of her home, some eight blocks west of the downtown buzz.
The locations chosen by candidates for their interviews reflect two distinct parts of District 4: a business area noted for its restaurants and cafes, but lacking a solid retail mix; and a nearby residential district of single-family homes and low-rise apartments whose community fiercely guards itself against incursions from a downtown that includes businesses, a growing number of UC Berkeley facilities, and the city and schools administrative buildings.
The district runs roughly from Dwight Way on the south to University Avenue on the north below Grant Street, and extends north to Vine Street above Grant; it runs more or less between Sacramento Street on the west and Oxford Street on the east.
Downtown is key to the city’s revitalization, said Wilson, who manages the Berkeley branch of Mechanics Bank, was former president of the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA) and has the endorsement of the Chamber of Commerce. A healthy downtown will boost Berkeley’s sales tax base and pay for the social services and low-income housing that people want.
“We don’t have to go back and ask (residents) for more taxes,” he said.
“Right now, downtown Berkeley is the lowest generator of tax revenue in the entire city. I think it’s embarrassing and unacceptable. Downtown should be the driving engine of the entire city,” Wilson said.
Economic realities bear some of the blame for the lagging downtown: both Eddie Bauer and Gateway Computers gave up brick and mortar stores for internet sales, Wilson said. Also, the university pays neither property nor sales taxes.
As he’s gone door to door campaigning, Wilson said people ask him: “What’s the point of going downtown?” Downtown revitalization would take an aggressive business retention and attraction program, he said, placing some of the blame on the city’s two-person Economic Development Division: “Maybe it’s four (people needed); maybe it’s five. It can’t be one or two,” he said.
Spring says Wilson ought to have been more proactive when he was head of the DBA.
As councilmember she said she encouraged the DBA to create the Business Improvement District. She also obtained funding for a downtown façade improvement program.
To promote a better mix of businesses, Spring spearheaded a moratorium on fast-food restaurants downtown.
The councilmember, endorsed by the Sierra Club, further says she’s been a long-time advocate of the UC hotel-conference center downtown, now in the planning stages. She said she attended meetings on the concept over a decade ago with environmentalists Richard Register and Sylvia McLaughlin, as well as university representatives.
“So the seeds for that were planted over a decade ago and that’s coming to fruition,” Spring said.
Spring addresses health issues
Spring, who is disabled and uses a motorized wheelchair, has frequently attended council meetings via telephone in the recent past.
Spring said she discussed the issue of her health with others when weighing whether to run again, and they told her: “It’s what you do and say that matters.”
“I’m participating in community events as much as ever, at least two each week,” Spring said. “By not overdoing it on Tuesday nights, I have the energy to get out into the community.”
Spring pointed out that the council chambers are poorly set up for people with disabilities. It’s difficult to manipulate a wheelchair through the crowd that gathers outside the council chambers; she injured her hand one day when someone opened a bathroom door that swings out as she passed; the dais where the council meets is narrow and difficult to maneuver in a large electric wheelchair and, worst of all, there is no heat control. Spring said she has gotten ill going from the extreme heat of the council chambers to the chill of the evening.
Still, Spring says, “When there’s an important district issue, I’ll go to the meeting to talk to (the people) and guide them through the council process.”
Making sure the police have an adequate compensation package is high on his priority list, said Wilson, who is endorsed by the Berkeley Police Officers Association.
Comparing Berkeley to other cities its size, Wilson said the city does not spend enough money on its police, explaining that the concerns came from the police union. Wilson was unable to elaborate, but promised: “If I get the job, I’ll do that kind of research.”
(A quick Internet search reveals: starting Berkeley police officers compensation is $76,248 to $94,896; in Richmond, a city of 103,000, about the size of Berkeley, starting police officers receive $68,556 to $79,104 and in Hayward, population about 145,000, the starting salary range is $72,672 to $87,708.)
Among her public safety accomplishments, Spring points to added bike patrols on Shattuck, won as part of last year’s budget process. With all the attention going to the Telegraph area after Cody’s Books on Telegraph closed, Spring said she pushed for a funding package where Shattuck Avenue, like Telegraph, would get two more bicycle police officers as well as more outreach by social services to homeless people and the use of a new sidewalk-cleaning green machine.
Spring and Wilson are on opposite sides of the Landmarks Preservation Measure that will appear on the ballot as Measure J.
“The current landmarks ordinance needs to be reviewed. If we vote for Measure J, we won’t get that chance to look at the ordinance,” said Wilson.
Spring said the importance of Measure J is the structure of merit designation. The designation does not guarantee preservation of these structures, Spring said. Its significance is that “there is an educational process that happens.” It buys time for discussion, she said.
Calling himself a “consensus builder,” Wilson, endorsed by Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, claims Spring is ineffective, often voting in the minority.
“If you’re bringing items to the table that are always being shot down, or if you’re always voting ‘no’ when others are voting ‘yes,’ it seems like you’re on the wrong side, you’re not in touch with the City Council or the residents who elected you,” he charged.
Spring, who counts Councilmembers Darryl Moore, Max Anderson and Kriss Worthington among her endorsers, points to projects that have taken years to catch on. She was alone in 1993 when she first introduced Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), the process by which voters rank their choices. The citizens approved IRV in 2004 by 72 percent.
Spring notes her work on the Oxford Plaza housing development. “I started working on the Oxford lot in 1999,” she said. Developers wanted to purchase the site, but Spring said she lobbied and got the city-owned site reserved for the public use of low-income housing.
Wilson also supports the project.
Spring points to funding she got for the traffic island at California and Dwight. “That’s another one that took over a decade,” she said.
Spring accuses Wilson of misleading voters in the voters handbook saying he has “worked and lived in the fourth district for nine years.”
Wilson acknowledges he moved to Berkeley two years ago, but said he wrote the statement in that way to conserve words, since candidates are allowed only 150 word statements.