A fellow who covered Berkeley city politics back in the day (in the 1990s) used to talk, not without a certain smirk, about the Berkeley 200. That would be that hardy little band of citizens who actually cared about what happened to the city and were willing to tolerate endless meetings in order to make sure that important issues were not just swept under the rug.
In that period the hot topic was the city’s general plan. The then city manager, out of Tucson and with a very-Tucson esthetic, hired a consultant to draw up a draft which featured a downtown laced with many-storied pricey buildings and other features perceived at the time as outrageous, looking in fact a lot like Tucson at its worst. Some of the 200, supported by a progressive majority on the Planning Commission, managed to capture the discourse and eventually to spark a citizen-created general plan more in keeping with traditional Berkeley values like affordable housing, preservation of historic resources and open space.
But citizens come and go, and city staff are paid to outlast them. No sooner was the plan completed than those who thought they knew better began scheming to outwit it.
This point has been made abundantly clear with the production of a chummy little e-mail correspondence between two city planners, Aaron Sage and Steven Ross, and their former boss, Mark Rhoades, who exited city service through the proverbial revolving door and has emerged as a business partner of the developers he used to regulate. It was obtained pursuant to a public records act request by Steve Wollmer, a charter member of the current Berkeley 200. In private life, he’s staff at another public agency, but his outrage at the shenanigans accompanying the approval of the “Trader Joe’s” project near his home has turned him into a Berkeley planning gadfly.
The topic at hand was a project on the corner of San Pablo and Ashby, proposed by Rhoades and his partners in CityCentric Investments, including longtime developer Ali Kashani. It was approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board, then appealed on technical grounds by Wollmer and also by another citizen for different reasons.
At their last meeting, councilmembers declined to take up either appeal, but Councilmember Worthington read the documents obtained by Wollmer into the record, and the Planet got a copy.
Reviewing the ten pages of e-mails, we couldn’t find anything illegal in the discussions, though Wollmer and his attorney may disagree if he pursues his appeal in the courts as he’s threatened to do. But it is the duty of public servants to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and here the planning staffers seem to be on shaky ground.
The tone of Rhoades’ letters is that he and the staff, as well as City Attorney Zach Cowan, are all on the same team trying to push his project to completion despite objections from citizens. For example, on January 15 he told Sage and Ross: “I…think we should meet as early as possible next week (maybe with Zach?) to walk through it and to make sure that we are all obn [sic] the same page.” And later the same day: “How quickly can we check with Zach on this particular issue? I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.” On February 11: “Let’s us chickens meet prior to your meeting with Zach next week (or I am happy to sit with Zach as well to strategize).”
The role of staff should be to supply impartial information and advice to decision makers: to the Zoning Adjustments Board and if there’s an appeal, to the City Council. In these e-mails, Rhoades seems instead to be treating city staff, even the city attorney, like his own employees, not to mention “strategizing” with them inappropriately. When you add to the calculus that Rhoades is married to the chief lobbyist for building bigger buildings in Berkeley, Erin Rhoades of Livable Berkeley, everything looks even cozier.
Here’s where the part about outwitting the general plan comes in. On January 15 he wrote: “Aaron and Steve…you should be prepared to remind the ZAB that Berkeley, as a charter City, is not required to be a consistency jurisdiction (Zoning/General Plan). In fact, pursuant to our General Plan, we are not a consistency jurisdiction by design.”
Translated from plannerese, that means “we’ve set things up so that our zoning doesn’t have to follow what the general plan specifies if we don’t feel like it.” This attitude on the part of a former Planning Department honcho explains a lot about what’s been happening in Berkeley in the past 6 years—much more of what the development lobby wants, much less of what citizens wanted when they endured a lengthy public process to draft that general plan.
But it’s still hard to squelch Berkeley citizens with blood in their eye. Two full years of free citizen labor on a blue-ribbon committee (DAPAC) produced a new Downtown Area Plan largely consistent with the general plan, though with more than ample compromises to mollify both the University of California and the bigger-is-better crowd. But since there’s no longer a progressive majority on the Berkeley City Council, the city’s Planning Commission has meanwhile been packed with players in the building industry, who have engineered a revision of the DAPAC draft that strongly favors the interests of the developers.
DAPAC alumni are fighting back. The council is scheduled to take up both drafts on Tuesday, probably in a slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am fashion calculated to oblige the corporate patrons of its current non-progressive majority. Proceedings are supposed to start with a “work session” at 5 p.m., preceding the 7 p.m. council meeting, so that councilmembers can survey the territory out of the public eye. Nonetheless, knowledgeable members of the current cohort of the Berkeley 200, including DAPAC alumni, plan to be on hand to represent the public interest in the comment period beforehand. Anyone who cares about what Berkeley is becoming is urged to join them.