In Berkeley and Everywhere, Citizen Input on Planning Decisions Counts for Nothing

By Becky O'Malley
Monday November 18, 2013 - 05:45:00 PM

Sorting through a huge pile of file boxes this week, detritus accumulated in 40 years of living in one Berkeley house, pursuing three careers encompassing several jobs, and closing three office locations from businesses I managed, I’ve come to the conclusion that citizens are not running the show almost anywhere these days, if indeed they ever did. In particular, I found a truly staggering volume of paper produced by various civic entities which purported to be making decisions relevant to the way public business is conducted—and realized that most of those so-called decisions were bypassed by the civil servants who were supposed to be executing them.

We the People, as our brothers and sisters in the Tea Party wing of the OMG movement would say, don’t count for much in the long run. While I think the Partiers are wrong about almost everything that they’d like to do, their perception that no one’s paying much attention is grounded in observable reality.

In evidence, I offer the reams of paper copies I’m throwing out which I got during almost 8 years on the Landmark Preservation Commission. Most of what we talked about, most of what we “decided”, just never happened, or at least didn’t happen the way the materials we received promised. 

In the pile there was a big fancy promotional piece produced by an architect (or at least a promoter) still working Berkeley today, for the “Seagate” building, on a historic block in downtown Berkeley, which languished for years and years under a succession of owners, and is now, finally, being promoted for high-rent pads for—whom? Techies who’ll BART into SF? It is, in any event, nothing like the glossy promo piece I have in my files, and it pays little respect to its historic neighbors. 

And how about those turtles? That would be the ones which were supposed to end up in the fountain in the variously named Civic Center/Provo/Martin Luther King park between the old and the new City Hall buildings. In endless LPC meetings on the topic of refurbishing the park (known primarily to generations of Berkeley High students as the place to smoke dope during lunch period) a central focus was what was going to happen to the landmarked fountain. As I remember, it was a relic of the 1939 World's Fair on Treasure Island, and had once featured some sort of dancing lights, now long dead. In the 60s or 70s a promise was made by someone to someone else that it would become an hommage to some indigenous people who once lived somewhere around here—I think. For some reason this idea got mixed up with turtles, which in my mind were associated with the “turtles all the way down” stories. 

[Digression: one of the perks of this “job” is the chance to search out odd bits of miscellany on Wikipedia when an idea occurs to me. The entry on the turtles is especially delicious: “ ‘Turtles all the way down’ is a jocular expression of the infinite regress problem in cosmology posed by the "unmoved mover" paradox. The phrase was popularized by Stephen Hawking in 1988. The "turtle" metaphor in the anecdote represents a popular notion of a "primitive cosmological myth", namely the flat earth supported on the back of a World Turtle.” 

Hawking’s version is fine, but the best one, quoted in the entry, is the one from linguist (and Chinese food maven) Haj Ross’s Ph.D. thesis: 

'After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.
"Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it's wrong. I've got a better theory," said the little old lady.
"And what is that, madam?" Inquired James politely.
"That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle,"
Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.
"If your theory is correct, madam," he asked, "what does this turtle stand on?"
"You're a very clever man, Mr. James, and that's a very good question," replied the little old lady, "but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him."
"But what does this second turtle stand on?" persisted James patiently.
To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. "It's no use, Mr. James---it's turtles all the way down." 

—J. R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax 1967”

Pretty much all I remember from the LPC discussion of improvements to the fountain is this: it was supposed to, somehow, incorporate those turtles. How and why used up hours, days, months of commission and staff time, and yet—as of the last Saturday farmers’ market that I patronized—there are still no turtles there. Rumor has it that four fine cast bronze turtles now live somewhere in the basement of City Hall, never to see the light of day in the fountain. 

And how about Plans: General, Downtown, West Berkeley and the rest? When I was in law school my Local Government professor said disdainfully “Don’t worry about plans, no one ever follows them anyway.” My classmate (a Berkeley local activist at the time) and I were infuriated by that statement, but you know what? The professor was right. 

Since then I’ve participated in the “successful” multi-year effort by many, many citizens to overturn the staff draft for Berkeley’s last General Plan, watched (thanks to Planet reporter Richard Brenneman) the labors of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee, and observed the way the city of Berkeley honored the decisions of the citizen-spearheaded West Berkeley Plan. All of these, each in its own way, too tedious to detail here, was sabotaged in turn by city staff and elected officials in thrall to the major developers who funded their campaigns. 

These are just the tip of a very large iceberg. 

One more case in point: what’s going on at the old U.C. Theater on University? It was supposed to open in 2010, but it’s still boarded up, and my bet is that some developer somewhere actually has condos for techies on the drawing board for the site, the same ones that were proposed before the building was landmarked in 2002 in order to save it from demolition. 

Time and tide may wait for no man, but deep pocket developers and their stooges in city government can sit out a lot of dances before waltzing to the bank. Citizens with no financial stake in outcomes, on the other hand, count for approximately bubkes when it comes to enforcing public decisions.