The first time I met George Beier, he was charming, friendly, and he told me exactly what I wanted to hear. It just wasn’t the truth. Beier is a self-described “neighborhood activist,” but when Elmwood residents and merchants needed a champion, he took the side of the developer who would have destroyed our neighborhood.
In 2007, the City of Berkeley broke laws and protocol to approve John Gordon’s project for a 5000-square-foot, late-night restaurant and bar in the old Wright’s Garage near Ashby and Benvenue. The project was adjacent to a residential neighborhood and had no parking for patrons or employees; food deliveries and garbage pick-ups were to be right on Ashby Avenue, since Gordon did not own the land behind his building. It promised to be a disaster for our neighborhood, so a number of us banded together to form the Elmwood Neighborhood Association. We filed suit against the City and Gordon Commercial after the City Council failed to give us a public hearing to reconsider the permit.
A few months later, I went to a Willard Neighborhood Association meeting to enlist support for our lawsuit, and that’s where I met Beier. The first thing that he said to me was that he was a friend of John Gordon’s, but he had opposed John’s project. Maybe I was naïve, but I believed him. Weeks later, in the process of preparing for settlement talks, I read the entire project file and discovered how Beier had misled me.
Beier spoke about John Gordon’s project at the Zoning Adjustments Board on two occasions. He spoke both in his capacity as President of the Willard Neighborhood Association and as a private citizen. As President of WNA, his job was to bring their concerns to ZAB, but when he spoke as an individual, he effectively undercut all of the neighborhood concerns that he’d presented earlier.On January 25, 2007, Beier told ZAB,
"...Speaking for myself as an individual, I actually came here to speak on the applicant's behalf... [John Gordon] has made every effort, I think, to mitigate the damage he's going to do with development, and I respect that…I'm grateful he is working with us."Beier was no less controversial in an earlier appearance at ZAB. Some of our neighborhood’s greatest concerns about the project were the lack of parking and the necessity of making food deliveries and garbage pickups on Ashby Avenue, since C & C Cleaners owns the land behind Wright’s Garage.
On January 11, 2007, Beier addressed ZAB and discussed the idea of the City using its power to drive a hard bargain with C & C Cleaners – even to the point of using eminent domain – to get the land for his friend’s project.
"...Also, I think that the City should be more aggressive about the eligible space. She owns the cleaners. Behind the cleaners is that empty lot which is frankly of no use to her- I don't think - and it's got a space for about six parking spaces and potential deliveries. So it really would ease the strain on Ashby, and we get six additional parking spaces, which is a big concern. I think she wants to sell it for north of $1.5 million. I don't know if there's an eminent domain possibility, but the thought of going in there and making - working a hard negotiation would be a good idea. There's also toxic problems. It's my understanding that she would sell for that price and not clean it up. It's pretty exorbitant. It seems to me if we could have that capacity available to us, the whole building makes a lot more sense. I'd like to urge the City to pursue that. I know they are. I'd like to push them a little harder to do that."
Are these the words of a true “neighborhood activist?” I can see why people are seduced by Beier’s easy charm, but the real neighborhood activist is the man he seeks to unseat: Council Member Kriss Worthington.
Judith Epstein is a Co-Founder of the Elmwood Neighborhood Association