Berkeley at a Crossroads

Why the mayor's race, two council contests, and several ballot measures will shape the city's future.

On a recent weekday, Fourth Street between Bancroft and Allston ways in West Berkeley was mostly abandoned. Unlike the upscale stretch of shops and eateries on the other side of University Avenue, this section of Fourth Street, a former hub of West Berkeley’s once bustling industrial and warehouse sector, is now an empty reminder of glory days gone by.

Doug Herst, who owns the property on both sides of this area of Fourth, once operated a successful manufacturing business here. Peerless Lighting, his family business, designed and produced energy-efficient lighting fixtures. But faced with stiff competition from overseas companies using cheap labor, the West Berkeley Peerless Lighting manufacturing plant closed in 2006.

Similar scenes, of course, have played out across the United States over the past several decades, as the nation’s manufacturing base has eroded and jobs have fled overseas. West Berkeley is no different. Over the past decade or so, this area of the city has lost 1,500 jobs — jobs that, in all likelihood, are never coming back.

But Herst has a vision for how to bring this bleak strip of Fourth Street back to life. He wants to turn it into a vibrant live-work community, featuring an artists’ colony with fifty affordable lofts for working artists, amid about three hundred units of workforce housing. The condos and apartments would surround artisan shops and green-tech businesses, including Peerless Lighting’s still-thriving research division, so that residents could walk or bicycle to work. Known as Peerless Greens, the development also would include rooftop solar panels, and both a community garden and hanging gardens for residents to grow their own food.

“It’s going to be a wonderful project,” said Berkeley Councilman Darryl Moore, whose district includes the Peerless Greens property. “It really fits with our Climate Action Plan. It’s about reducing greenhouse gases, while also bringing in jobs.”

Moore shares Herst’s vision, as does Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, a longtime West Berkeley resident who is one of the most progressive members of the California Legislature. The proposal is also backed by a majority of the liberal Berkeley City Council, including Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmembers Laurie Capitelli and Susan Wengraf.

But Herst’s plan for Fourth Street may never come to fruition unless Berkeley voters approve Measure T this November. The ballot measure not only would allow the Peerless Greens project to move forward, but it also could help revive five other similar, underused sites in West Berkeley. Skinner, Bates, and the council majority view Measure T much like the city’s new downtown plan, contending that the measure would help Berkeley’s struggling economy by spurring urban growth, thereby helping limit suburban sprawl and assisting the city in meeting its climate-change goals.

However, Peerless Greens and Measure T are facing stiff opposition this fall from a coalition that includes a small but vocal group of West Berkeley residents who are afraid that such developments will drive up rents and property values in the area and thus displace some residents, artisans, and small businesses. The coalition also includes longtime Berkeley anti-growth activists (who often refer to themselves as “preservationists”), plus far-left progressive city leaders — including Councilmen Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín, who also often vote “no” on proposals that would increase urban density in Berkeley.

Worthington also is running against Bates this fall in the city’s mayor’s race. And so is candidate Jacquelyn McCormick, who opposes Measure T as well and is backed by members of the city’s anti-growth crowd. In fact, the positions taken by the three leading mayoral candidates, along with those staked out by candidates in two city council races, on Measure T, and measures R, U, and V, represent a striking example of the competing visions for Berkeley’s future.

On one side stands the pro-growth group, which includes Bates and Councilmen Moore and Capitelli, who are all running for reelection. They agree that the best way to revitalize Berkeley’s economy is by repopulating the city (a concept also known as smart growth or transit-oriented development). In their view, bringing more people to town would not only provide more customers for Berkeley’s restaurants, bars, shops, and small businesses, but would also produce more tax revenues, thereby helping the city avoid raising taxes on an over-taxed community and slashing more services for the needy.

On the other side stands the anti-growth activists, some of who are liberals, too. They want Berkeley to remain much as it is — or, better yet, they want it to return to what it was twenty or thirty years ago, when the city’s manufacturing sector was still viable. This group fears that more residents will bring traffic congestion, and they strongly oppose the direction that Bates and the council majority have been taking the city. They’re also staunch backers of measures U and V, which are designed to provide what they say are vital checks on the council majority, but what Bates, Moore, and Capitelli view as attempts to stop the council majority from achieving its goals.

Finally, there are the far-left progressives like Worthington who don’t agree with the anti-growth activists on many issues, but tend to vote with them when it comes to questions like Measure T and Peerless Greens.

“It’s a watershed moment for the city,” Moore said.

Measure T

Measure T is on the ballot because of what happened to the city’s downtown plan. That plan was designed to bring thousands of new residents to downtown Berkeley, and after the council majority, led by Bates, Moore, and Capitelli, approved it in 2009, anti-growth activists teamed up with Worthington and Arreguín to “referend” it. That’s a procedure in which opponents of a council decision gather signatures to put the issue on the ballot or force the council to rescind its vote.

Worthington and Arreguín had originally voted against the downtown plan, not because they oppose urban growth, but because they believe the city needs to extract more concessions from developers to fund affordable housing, transportation, and social services. The council majority often ends up adopting some of Worthington and Arreguín’s proposals, but typically not all of them for fear that developers, who already view Berkeley as being anti-business, would refuse to build in the city.

After opponents of the downtown plan referended it, the council rescinded it and decided to put it to voters in November 2010. Measure R, as it was called at the time, (not to be confused with the current Measure R, which involves redistricting), was endorsed by numerous environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, because it called for smart growth. Berkeley voters approved it overwhelmingly; it garnered 64 percent of the vote.

The council majority then approved a new downtown plan similar to the one it had okayed before. And though anti-growth activists opposed it, they did not referend it, since voters had already spoken. As for Worthington, he voted against the new downtown plan, while Arreguín voted for it after the council majority added more compromises.

In an interview last week, Worthington said one of the main reasons he’s running against Bates is that he said the mayor won’t work with him. Worthington also contended that Bates doesn’t compromise enough. “If Tom Bates would only throw us a few bones … on affordable housing, transit … more progressives would vote with him.” Worthington also strongly contended that he’s not part of the anti-growth crowd, which he pegged as representing about “20 to 25 percent” of Berkeley’s population.

In a separate interview, Bates acknowledged that he and Worthington often clash, but said that Worthington too often makes the perfect the enemy of the good. Over the past several decades, Bates has worked with numerous elected officials, both on regional boards, including the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the state Assembly, and has earned a reputation for being a pragmatic consensus-builder. But Bates said that Worthington often can be exasperating, because even after the mayor and the council majority adopt some of Worthington’s proposals, Worthington still refuses to vote yes. “Worthington is just so difficult to work with,” Bates said.

Which brings us back to Measure T. Bates and the council majority decided earlier this year to put the plan for West Berkeley directly on the ballot, rather than approving it first, because they were convinced that opponents would referend their decision — just as they had done with the downtown plan. Worthington and Arreguín were the only two councilmembers who voted against putting Measure T before voters.

Under Measure T, six sites like Peerless Greens could be developed in West Berkeley during the next ten years. The sites would be given flexibility in terms of housing. But the new zoning under Measure T is voluntary — developers can choose to use it or can simply abide by the terms of the old zoning requirements. If they do use the new zoning rules, they must strike deals with the city council in which they make concessions, also known as “community benefits.” These benefits can include payments to the city for affordable housing, transportation, and other needs.

Opponents of Measure T are running a spirited campaign. But they’ve also made some false and misleading statements. For example, in their official ballot argument, they asserted that Measure T would allow “75-foot high multi-block office parks” and “huge buildings next to Aquatic Park.”

In truth, Measure T would allow neither. The plan would accommodate buildings of up to 75 feet in height, but would restrict the maximum average height of a development to 50 feet, thus precluding “75-foot high multi-block office parks.” In addition, the council specifically exempted development sites along Aquatic Park from Measure T. As a result, even if voters approve the measure, “huge buildings next to Aquatic Park” would not be allowed.

Bates, Moore, and Capitelli, who is running for reelection in his North Berkeley district, all support Measure T. Their challengers oppose it.

McCormick, who is supported by longtime anti-growth activists like Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey, thinks Measure T is unnecessary. “I believe there is plenty of room in the current zoning” for the development of the six sites, she said. She also contended that developers will still develop those sites even if Measure T fails — although Herst has repeatedly said that he would walk away from his Peerless Greens proposal if he does not have more flexibility to build housing on the site.

As for Worthington, he argued that the council should have included a specific list of which community benefits developers must provide. Because he’s in the council minority, Worthington said doesn’t trust the majority to extract enough community benefits, because he views the majority as being too friendly to developers. Proponents of Measure T counter that a one-size-fits-all benefits list could hamstring both the city and developers: It wouldn’t be fair to developers of smaller projects, and could hamper the city if it wants to require more benefits for larger projects.

Sophie Hahn, a zoning board commissioner who is running against Capitelli in North Berkeley and also is being backed by anti-growth activists, agrees with the West Berkeley residents and businesses that oppose Measure T. “I’m concerned about the impacts to the existing community,” said Hahn, who is Worthington’s appointee to the Berkeley zoning board. When asked whether she would have voted for the downtown plan, Hahn responded: “I really can’t say.”

As for Moore, he strongly supports Measure T, and contends that it would not only help revitalize West Berkeley, but also the city and the region, because it promises to spur growth in the green-tech sector. He also sees parallels with the first Measure R.

“It’s some of the same people who didn’t want the downtown plan to go through who also don’t want changes in West Berkeley,” he said.

Moore’s opponents, Denisha DeLane and Adolfo A. Cabral, both oppose Measure T. DeLane, who is considered to be Moore’s top rival, has been endorsed by Worthington, Arreguín, and anti-growth activists. She did not respond to an interview request for this story.

Measures U and V

Measures U and V are two of the farthest-reaching local initiatives in the history of Berkeley politics — and perhaps the entire state. They’re so radical, in fact, that even Worthington said he opposes them. Anti-growth activists — who are deeply unhappy about decisions that the mayor and council have made in the past several years, particularly when it comes to development and smart growth — predominantly back them. McCormick is an ardent supporter of both measures, and is the primary backer of Measure V. Hahn also is in favor of Measure V, but said last week that she had no position on Measure U.

Called the Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance by its supporters, Measure U would impose many strict rules on the city and the council. Several of these regulations likely would greatly increase the length of public meetings in a city in which it’s not unusual for council sessions to last well into the early morning hours. Measure U would require that every speaker at council meetings receive at least three minutes at the podium. On controversial items that draw two hundred speakers or more that could work out to at least ten hours for public comment alone. Measure U also would allow groups of one hundred or more people to place items on the council agenda — and then receive three minutes each to speak about them.

Measure U also would create a new commission with sweeping, unprecedented powers. Designed as an enforcement mechanism, this commission would have the ability to hire private lawyers to sue the council and the city at taxpayer expense if the commission believed that either the city or council had violated Measure U. In an impartial analysis, City Attorney Zach Cowan stated that city staffers estimate that Measure U could cost taxpayers $1 million to $2 million a year. Cowan also stated that the lawsuit provision conflicts with the Berkeley City Charter, because the charter gives the council sole authority to initiate litigation. As a result, if the measure passes, and the new commission sues the city, then the case likely would be tied up in the courts until judges decide whether Measure U is legal.

Backers of Measure U, however, contend that it’s key to ensuring open government in Berkeley. “We don’t have enough transparency,” McCormick said, adding that the new commission is essential to making sure the city and council abide by the measure. “It really, truly needs to be independent,” she said of the commission.

Although many agree that Berkeley’s existing open government law needs to be improved, good-government groups, including the Berkeley League of Women Voters and Berkeley Common Cause, strongly oppose Measure U. Linda Swift of the League of Women Voters said that the measure is not only overly broad, but also too stringent. “It’s unnecessary,” she said. “It puts far too many restraints” on the city and council. She also argued that the new rules would dramatically slow down city government.

Bates, Capitelli, and Moore contend that slowing down — or even halting — city government is precisely what the anti-growth activists want. Measure U is not a sunshine ordinance, but rather an attempt by a group of activists to block the council majority. “They’re frustrated and paranoid,” Bates said of the anti-growth crowd. “And they don’t like the direction that the council majority is taking the city, and they want to stop it — all of it.”

The council majority views Measure V in the same vein. Like the proposed sunshine ordinance, Measure V looks reasonable at first glance. It would require that, every two years, the city manager or an “independent professional” prepare a comprehensive report on the city’s long-term debt obligations and then “certify” it.

Although there are few objections to preparing such a report, the “certify” provision has sparked a strong backlash. Bates and others call it “poison pill” because if some resident — say, an anti-growth activist — believes that the report does not accurately or completely take into account all the city’s financial obligations, then that person could sue the council and the city.

Opponents of Measure V argue that such a lawsuit would be disastrous and possibly force the city into default, because while the lawsuit is proceeding in the courts, the council would be prohibited from making any financial decisions. For example, it would be blocked from issuing temporary revenue bonds that cities use to maintain cash flow, meet payroll, and pay bills.

Capitelli, who has a reputation for trying to find compromises with those who disagree with him, had worked for a time with the proponents of Measure V, but then gave up when they steadfastly refused to get rid of the “certify” provision. “I think there are plenty of people in town who would try to take the city to court because they don’t like something,” he said. “And then you can’t do anything. … That’s dangerous.”

But Capitelli’s challenger, Hahn, along with McCormick, contends that opponents of Measure V are making too much of the “certify” provision. “If someone were to challenge it in court,” Hahn said of the report, “I don’t think they would get very far.”

The certify provision, however, has prompted the League of Women Voters to also strongly oppose Measure V. And in his impartial analysis, City Attorney Cowan stated that Measure V would also violate the Berkeley City Charter because the charter states that the council has sole authority to make financial decisions for the city. Cowan also stated that Measure V appears to violate the California Constitution.

Measure R

Measure R, the redistricting measure, also has prompted a split in the alliance between anti-growth activists and far-left progressives. Both McCormick and Hahn oppose the measure, but Worthington and Arreguín strongly support it, as does the rest of the city council. Regardless, the outcome of Measure R could prove pivotal to Berkeley’s future.

The measure would allow the council to redraw city council districts, and to ignore the boundary lines created in 1986. Opponents of those old boundary lines contend that they were gerrymandered in order to split the UC Berkeley student vote and thus limit the power and influence of students on Berkeley politics.

There has only been one Cal student elected to the city council in Berkeley history — Nancy Skinner, who is now Berkeley’s Assemblywoman. In fact, Skinner was on the council in 1986 when voters approved the boundary lines. At the time, voters weren’t necessarily enamored with the lines; instead they favored the idea of district elections. Prior to 1986, councilmembers were elected from the city at large. And proponents of district elections rightly noted in 1986 that at-large elections had resulted in some communities not having a voice on the council.

Skinner views Measure R as a way to keep district elections but fix the problem of students having almost no influence on city politics. The old boundary lines, she said, “diminished the power of student votes in the city.”

Numerous student groups strongly back the measure, and so do the League of Women Voters and Berkeley Common Cause. Aryndel Lamb-Marsh, president of Berkeley Common Cause, noted that many Cal students have traditionally lived on the south side of campus, and yet the 1986 boundary lines carved up that section of the city. “The Southside neighborhood is generally considered to be its own cohesive neighborhood, but it’s currently split among three council districts,” Lamb-Marsh pointed out.

McCormick and Hahn said the reason they oppose Measure R is that it would allow the council majority to decide the new district lines. They say that redistricting should be the job of voters or an independent commission. McCormick argued that allowing the council to draw the boundary lines is “gerrymandering. There’s no other way to define it.”

But Bates and other proponents of Measure R point out that it’s common in California and other states for city councils and county boards of supervisors to draw their own boundary lines. Moreover, city residents and groups will have ample time to provide input during the redistricting process should Measure R pass. The measure, Bates said, also “offers for the first time an opportunity to elect a campus-oriented candidate.”

Bates and Skinner also view the opposition to Measure R as being much like that of Measure T. Anti-growth activists know full well that Cal students have traditionally advocated for more housing in the city, and if students can elect a councilperson, then it would make it easier for pro-growth proposals like the downtown plan to become law. “I think some people are just stuck in the past,” Skinner said of the opposition to changing the 1986 boundary lines and revising West Berkeley zoning rules enacted in the 1990s (as Measure T would do). “For me, the question is: Do we want a vibrant Berkeley or do we want a lot of empty storefronts and empty buildings?”

The Contests

There have been several news reports in recent weeks regarding a supposed plan by Worthington and McCormick to team up against Bates and use ranked-choice voting to defeat him. This reported effort has been likened to the strategy used by Oakland Councilwomen Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan to defeat ex-state Senator Don Perata in the 2010 mayor’s race. However, both Worthington and McCormick backed away from such a plan last week. In fact, Worthington said flat-out that he’s not asking his supporters to vote for anyone but him.

It’s also unclear whether a Worthington-McCormick team strategy would work. Quan and Kaplan are both pro-growth progressives who agree on a wide range of issues, and so it was easy for them to team up against the more moderate Perata. But in Berkeley, Worthington and McCormick have very little in common politically. In fact, a substantial number of McCormick’s supporters appear to be moderate or conservative, and so it’s unlikely that they would select the ultra-left Worthington as the second choice on their ballot rather than Bates, who is closer to them on the political spectrum — unless they’re staunchly anti-growth. Likewise, it’s questionable whether Worthington supporters would select the more conservative McCormick, who talks a lot about the problem of public-employee pensions, as their second choice rather than Bates.

Worthington and McCormick also have had no citywide electoral success. In 2008, Skinner trounced Worthington in the Assembly race, and Skinner now backs Bates for mayor. As for McCormick, she could do no better than finish third in a 2010 city council race, and was beaten soundly by incumbent Gordon Wozniak — another Bates supporter. Bates, meanwhile, has won numerous citywide elections over the past decade — both for mayor and state Assembly.

A wild card on the November ballot, however, is Measure S. The controversial measure would ban sitting on sidewalks in Berkeley’s commercial districts, and many local progressives strongly oppose it — as does Worthington. And McCormick’s opposition to Measure S might convince supporters of Worthington to select her as their second choice rather than Bates, who is in favor of the measure.

The North Berkeley council race, meanwhile, could be close. In 2008, Capitelli defeated Hahn, 52.4 percent to 47.5 percent, in the District 5 contest. Over the years, though, Capitelli has gained a reputation for being a well-liked councilman while Hahn has never held elective office.

District 2, which encompasses parts of West and South Berkeley, is harder to handicap. In 2008, Moore won by a landslide, garnering a whopping 82 percent of the vote. This year is different, however, because of Measure T. The measure has stirred a heated debate in West Berkeley, and both of Moore’s challengers oppose it.

The only other contested council race involves incumbent Max Anderson in District 3, South Berkeley, against challenger Dmitri Belser, who has been endorsed by Bates and other pro-growth elected officials. However, Anderson, unlike Worthington, sometimes votes with the council majority on development issues. He voted for the downtown plan, for example. And so it’s unclear whether this race will impact the balance of power in Berkeley, and thus, the city’s future.


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