Berkeley Voters Can Decide Which Initiatives to Support

By Becky O'Malley
Friday April 25, 2014 - 09:30:00 AM

In case you ever wondered whether you should sign a petition, check out the exciting plans to revitalize the UC Theater.

There has lately been a bit of tut-tutting from Berkeley Councilmember Laurie Capitelli about how risky petition signing might be: Op-ed: Think about the importance of your signature on a petition.

This just in: Signing petitions to put local initiatives on the ballot is nothing to worry about.

Think about it. If it weren’t for the citizen petition process, the U.C. Theater might not be around anymore. 

Way back in the distant past, about 12 years or so ago when I was on the City of Berkeley Landmark Preservation Commission, architect Jim Novosel submitted an application to landmark the UC Theater on behalf of a potential client. At first glance it seemed like a good idea, but the application contained deliberately engineered loopholes sufficient to allow the generous interior theater space to be demolished so that a tower of offices or apartments could be constructed in its place behind a preserved façade. The city’s Planning Department staff endorsed Novosel’s plan. 

( I don’t remember whether future developer Mark Rhoades was the LPC secretary at the time, but he held that job for several years when he was still on the city side of Berkeley’s revolving door planning process. And Novosel has now been appointed to the city’s Planning Commission. It’s an insider’s game, all the way.) 

A citizen named Howie Muir, a film buff, figured out what the consequences would be if the building were landmarked without protecting its complete shell and footprint to make future theater uses possible. He rushed around collecting enough voters’ signatures on a petition which required the LPC to consider an alternative. With the help of planning consultant John English, he created a comprehensive landmark designation statement calling out the significant parts of the building which ultimately saved the whole theater. I seem to remember some compromises in the final language, but the U.C. Theater is still standing, thanks to prompt citizen action, and now it will finally be able to contribute uniquely to downtown Berkeley. 

In his missive, Capitelli pats himself and his colleagues on their backs: 

“I sincerely believe that elected officials must go through a process of gathering information from a variety of perspectives, weighing the public benefits and implications of those perspectives and then developing a policy or law that emerges from such a process.” 

Sure, it would be swell if our elected councilmembers always did this, and always got things right when they did, but sadly, they don’t and don’t. Particularly if big bucks are involved. 

In fact, many times elected officials end up doing the opposite of what the electorate wants. 

A recently released study by professors at Princeton and Northwestern has been widely reported as showing that our political system is an oligarchy, government by economic elites, not a democracy, government by consent of the governed. 

John Cassidy described it in the New Yorker

“From the Dept. of Academics Confirming Something You Already Suspected comes a new study concluding that rich people and organizations representing business interests have a powerful grip on U.S. government policy. After examining differences in public opinion across income groups on a wide variety of issues, the political scientists Martin Gilens, of Princeton, and Benjamin Page, of Northwestern, found that the preferences of rich people had a much bigger impact on subsequent policy decisions than the views of middle-income and poor Americans. Indeed, the opinions of lower-income groups, and the interest groups that represent them, appear to have little or no independent impact on policy.”
This is obvious even in supposedly liberal northern California, though occasionally local voter-backed initiatives succeed in reversing the trend. Around here, the biggest financial interest—Something Else You Already Suspected—is the building industry and its finance adjuncts. That’s why we’ve seen so many initiatives lately, not only in Berkeley but in San Francisco and lots of other places, designed to prevent the electeds from giving away the store to developers. 

In San Francisco, it took a referendum to prevent those good liberals on their Board of Supervisors from making an exception to the city’s height limits as a gift for a big waterfront project with bigtime backers. Now S.F. citizens are trying to make doubly sure that it doesn’t happen again with their “No Wall on the Waterfront” initiative. 

The Berkeley initiatives now in circulation, the very ones the good councilmember wants you to worry about, are similar to those in San Francisco. Here too, there’s a pattern of exceptions to clearly stated public policies made by elected officials for the profit of developers. 

According to Dan Knapp of the Berkeley Bayfront Coalition, which is proposing the West Berkeley Initiative, “the purpose is to reaffirm support for the West Berkeley Plan, which we see as a living document that is being undermined by developers working through City Council.” 

He says in an email that “it has an advisory part on recycling, and a binding part limiting council discretion to grant variances on height limits without a vote of the people… similar to the "No Wall on the Waterfront" initiative …” 

Another such initiative in circulation in Berkeley, the Green Downtown Initiative, is designed to add enforcement provisions to the council-sponsored Measure R, which the voters endorsed in 2010. It adds genuine protection for public, historic and cultural resources, and creates a Civic Center Overlay to the downtown zoning code which is expected to aid in saving the historic Berkeley Post Office. 

Recent developer proposals in both West Berkeley and Downtown Berkeley, such as the one for a downtown hotel which has just been shown to the Zoning Adjustment Board, have been asking for, and often getting, variances to the zoning restrictions which are already in place. Like the San Francisco measures, these Berkeley initiatives add teeth to what was supposed to be existing public policy. It shouldn’t be necessary, but it seems to be. 

And in any event, what’s wrong with letting the Berkeley voters decide? We have here a small town with a well-schooled population that knows how to read—we should be able to make up our own minds what to sign and what to vote for, shouldn’t we? And without Mr. Capitelli’s advice. 

As a teen-aged daughter once said to me, unsolicited advice is rarely welcome. Thank you very much, Mr. C., but no thanks. 

[For more details, see my previous editorial about the U.C. Theater from 5 years ago, as well as these stories. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. ]