The Circus is Back in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday September 21, 2010 - 02:12:00 PM

This week, ladies and gentleman, we offer for your viewing pleasure the return of one of the greatest shows on earth—well, anyway, one of the scariest shows in Berkeley. Yes, Mesdames et Messieurs, the Berkeley City Council is finally back in town, appearing occasionally at a venue near you, and visible from time to time on your computer screen for sensational at-home entertainment. Live and/or taped coverage can also be enjoyed on cable television Public Access Stations B-TV Channel 28 and C-TV Channel 33

You really have to see it to believe it. And you can’t tell the players without a program, so first check out the agenda , which in a mere several hundred pages will allow you to preview all the action before it starts. If you can bear to read it, you’ll know more than you ever wanted to know about how this city works. 

This week’s hot act: the appeal of the Zoning Adjustment Board’s unanimous (read homogeneous) decision to let former city planning director Mark Rhoades and his developer partners tear down the building which now houses Berkeley Honda on South Shattuck in hopes of building more—wait for it—condos or perhaps student rentals. 

Here’s the description: “a mixed-use development with two 5-story mixed-use buildings (2598-2600 Shattuck Avenue) and one 3-story residential building (2037 Parker Street), with a total of 155 dwelling units, 22,905 square feet of ground floor commercial space, and at least 170 parking spaces…” 

Appellants are—accursed category—neighbors, including Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey, who object to the city’s decision to exempt such a large project from scrutiny required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Others expressing concern include the Machinist’s Union, which fought hard to preserve the union jobs at the Honda agency when a new owner tried to get rid of them, and the LeConte Neighborhood Association, which wants the traffic and parking implications of such a large development to get the thorough vetting which a full CEQA review would provide. 

At this time, the appellants are simply asking the City Council to hold a public hearing so that all concerned can voice their doubts in the full public forum. Even that might be more than city officials, both employed and elected, are willing to allow, however, given how well-wired the developer applicants seem to be. 

As for the side shows, you’ll have to watch them yourself. A note for those who can’t stay up until the wee hours of the morning, should the action last that long: you can always review previous council meetings, which are archived on line, and even use the (somewhat clumsy) fast forward button to skip the dull parts. If we have time, we might watch them for you and report back on this site within the week if there are any big changes, though that seldom happens. 

Councilmember Arreguin does have an action item enabling enforcement of anti-blight laws on the absent owners of vacant lots, who currently exploit loopholes in the law to avoid penalties for neglecting properties which are often being held for speculative purposes. With construction financing now scarce, developers are tempted to demolish buildings while they have the chance and leave the site vacant (and sometimes blighted) until the economy improves, a fate that neighbors fear might befall the property which is now the Honda building.  

While we’re on the subject of landbanking: a recent visit to Montreal reminded me of all the hoo-ha over the south side of the U.C. campus in general and Telegraph Avenue in particular. When election time rolls around, challengers love to run against Telly—George Beier is making his third appearance in the ring doing just that in District 7. Incumbent Councilmember Kriss Worthington is being held to account for all the sins of the world as they are committed on the fabled Av, and even for People’s Park, which has been “that way” since before Councilmember Arreguin in District 4 or candidates Jason Kingeter (District 1) or Stewart Jones (District 8) were even in kindergarten.  

We stayed in Montreal’s Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter), near the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM), a choice which caused the friends we’d come to visit, who live in quasi-suburban enclaves on the city’s outskirts, to roll their eyes just a bit. Our bed-and-breakfast was an urban and urbane restored historic Victorian, charming, comfortable and within walking or Metro range of all the sights of lovely Old Montreal.  

Yes, the university neighborhood was also a bit dirty and more than a bit noisy—so as Berkeleyans who live within walking distance of UC and who did business on Telegraph for many years we felt right at home. Street people had all the usual punkish paraphernalia intended to signal that they were part of an individualistic crowd: tattoos, piercings, exotic hair colorings, creative clothing--uniform in their attempt to be original.  

We saw the usual assortment of street beggars, just like home, sometimes as many as three in a block, many with the eroded teeth that signal methamphetamine or heroin addiction. Some were even sleeping in doorways, possible in the temperate fall weather, but we wondered what they do when it gets really cold, as it will soon in Montreal.  

And it was noisy! As some Canadians say, just like their Alaska and Minnesota neighbors, You Bet it was.  

Post-game ruckus assaults anyone in earshot of fraternity row in Berkeley, sometimes even up on Panoramic Hill. My dear friends in the LeConte neighborhood are wont to complain if partyers run up the amps on weekends. But those Canadian students YELLED—it seemed like 24 hours a day. Granted, it was the first back-to-school week, so maybe they’ll calm down as midterms approach, but while we were there we heard a constant stream of basso chants—we thought it might be a demonstration, but no, just healthy guys having fun. And some LOUD street fights, right under our 3rd-floor window. 

A major difference from Telly, however, is that the main drag, Rue St. Denis, is block after block of “resto-brasseries artisanales” (brewpubs) and music clubs, some of which seemed to stay open all night for the benefit of roistering young people. This scene makes Telegraph Avenue look wimpy, with its sidewalks almost all rolled up by about ten. 

Another difference is the amount of litter left on the street. By the end of an active day sidewalks and streets in Montreal’s Quartier Latin were strewn with trash of all kinds, but on at least three nights out of five I heard a heavy-duty sweeping machine pass by in the middle of the night, so by morning most of the junk was gone. This doesn’t happen here—litter falls, and there it rests.  

Crime rates too are equally high there, as in near-campus neighborhoods all over North America and probably the world—it just seems to go with the territory when students come and go at all hours, often carrying expensive electronics. Montreal doesn’t have the problem we do with guns, but there are knifings there. 

A couple of years ago Berkeley activists Anne Wagley and Doug Buckwald participated in a conference on town-gown relations in Boulder. They reported that in many university communities as the campus perimeter expanded the attendant problems, including crime, expanded right along with it. The similarities in such neighborhoods in Montreal and Berkeley and many other college towns far outnumber the differences, which is why it seems so silly to blame incumbent councilmembers in campus districts for intractable problems.  

And why Measure R, on your November ballot right now, falsely touted as a “Downtown Plan”, is the ultimate tin fiddle. It will permit unbridled UC Berkeley expansion, allow viable older buildings to be torn down with no replacement in sight, and encourage the do-nothing council majority to pretend to be doing something that they have no intention of doing. 

On some blocks in Montreal, UQAM buildings from the fifties and sixties have all the grace and charm of the notorious public housing high-rises built in the same period in U.S. cities, and seem to have similar problems. If Measure R passes, or if the independent progressive candidates are defeated, Berkeley could be in for some of the same, with the same outcomes predictable.