North Berkeley Synagogue Plan Takes a Big Step Forward; Moses Mayne Wins District 6

So, is there going to be a casino on the former Oakland Army Base or isn't there?

Berkeley’s city planning staff continued their push for Temple Beth El’s expanded synagogue and school complex last Friday, recommending that the City Council certify a decision of the Zoning Adjustments Board on March 8 to grant Beth El’s use permit for a site at 1301 Oxford Street. Going quite a bit further, city staff also recommended that the council appeal the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s March 5 denial of Beth El’s alteration permit–perhaps wishing to save Beth El the bother of having to appeal that decision on its own behalf. Neighborhood activists and environmental groups had no illusion that the City Council would campaign for their concerns, and drafted their own formal appeal of the ZAB’s approval in time for this Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

At issue is a roadway and parking lot planned for the now-culverted portion of Codornices Creek crossing the north end of the site, as well as the scale of the proposed 33,000 square-foot complex in the North Berkeley residential neighborhood. The ZAB did make changes before approving the plan–the building size was reduced by six percent, and the parking lot was moved slightly so that it no longer squats exactly on top of the creek, though the lot’s location still prevents future daylighting. Opponents argue that these changes are “only cosmetically different” from the original proposal.

Joining the Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association in the appeal filed Tuesday were eleven other organizations, ranging from local chapters of the Sierra Club and Audubon Society, to community resources like Friends of Five Creeks and the Urban Creeks Council to wider-ranging nonprofits like the International Rivers Network and the Center for Biological Diversity. Petitions signed by over 2,300 area residents also support a revised plan that allows for protection of the creek.

“We’re not opposed to construction of a new Temple Beth El,” LOCCNA member Alan Gould insists. “Our efforts are to provide constructive alternatives that will allow both Congregation Beth El and Berkeley to benefit.” So far, neither Beth El nor the city of Berkeley has agreed there is any benefit in protection and restoration of this section of creek. “It’s been an uphill battle all the way,” Gould says–probably a lot like life for the Codornices Creek steelhead.

On Tuesday night, the City Council did what adjudicatory bodies usually do when pressed on all sides by angry interest groups–they stalled for time, holding over the decision to certify the ZAB’s decision until next week. The council is expected to hold a public hearing on all Beth El matters sometime in July, in the hope that all these appeals can be rolled into one noisy night.

Meanwhile, the council played for time on another sticky subject–the controversy surrounding Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory employee Gordon Wozniak. You may recall that several months ago City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque ruled that four members of the Landmarks Commission could not rule on the Beth El project, because they had previously expressed an opinion on the subject as part of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. Activists seeking to curtail the lab’s use of tritium noted that since Wozniak both works for the lab and sits on the Community Environmental Advisory Commission, Albuquerque’s new conflict of interest rules ought to apply to him as well. Albuquerque agreed and recommended that Wozniak get the boot, but Wozniak decided to take his case to the City Council.

This issue finally made its way to the council on March 20–but since Wozniak couldn’t attend that meeting, the council tabled it until March 27. That night, councilmembers couldn’t get a majority to agree on any ruling; Dona Spring‘s motion to let Wozniak sit on the commission but recuse himself on lab-related votes came the closest, but Linda Maio abstained, so the council held it over until April 17. Unfortunately, the agenda was so packed that night that the City Council just didn’t get to Wozniak, so now it’s been held over yet again. “I don’t think it will happen at least until April 24,” says Spring. “No wait–that’s a public hearing night. At least until May 8.” At this rate, Wozniak will have retired by the time the council can resolve this, and the whole issue will be moot.

After an at-times cantankerous race, the Oakland City Council District 6 seat goes to carpenters’ union rep Moses Mayne Jr., who squeaked to victory on Tuesday with a 129-vote lead. Running a close second was BART director Carole Ward Allen, followed by former Oakland School Board member Toni Cook and community activist Nancy Sidebotham. Mayne–with a $38,000 war chest–had been the top fundraiser, and had received the endorsement of many of the East Bay’s political heavy-hitters, including Oakland City Council president Ignacio De La Fuente, state Senator Don Perata, and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, all of whom had variously assisted Mayne’s campaign by lending their aid to phone calling, precinct walking, and sponsoring a $250-to-$500-a-plate fund-raising reception.

Tuesday’s special election was held to fill the seat formerly held by Nate Miley, who left the council in January to join the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. It was the first such election after Measure I, a ballot measure Oakland voters passed last autumn which required the council to fill midterm vacancies by special election, rather than through appointments. In response to earlier concerns that special elections are generally costly and ignored by most voters, the final draft of Measure I had included several mechanisms designed to boost voter turnout; those put into place for Tuesday’s election included the advent of touch-screen voting as well as the addition of a weeklong “early voting” period that allowed residents to cast ballots at several different sites. Did it work? Slightly over 20 percent of the district’s registered voters turned out to vote–a relatively high percentage–although only about 400 residents took advantage of the early voting period. Still, it’s not too shabby for a special election that fell right on the heels of the Florida fiasco–let’s just hope Ward Allen doesn’t claim that some of her supporters accidentaly voted for Pat Buchanan.

If you thought tax day was hard, imagine what it was like for those who work down at the local post office. Not only did mail sorters and carriers have all those thick envelopes and frazzled customers to deal with, they were still reeling from a hard-hitting management campaign to improve productivity, according to one Berkeley Post Office employee. The fed-up mail carrier, who asked to remain anonymous, forwarded us a list of “Poor Work Habits” that was allegedly handed out at the office, and we must say that any number of these complaints about employee work habits come off sounding rather petty. Our favorites include: “Wandering Around,” “Going to Swing Room, Etc., for Coffee, Soft Drink, Etc.,” and “Wasted Motion.” But far be it for us to tell the post office how to do its job.

So is the plan to build a casino at the former Oakland Army Base dead or not? The answer is as mysterious as the talks City Manager Robert Bobb has reportedly been having with as many as seven Indian tribes about the idea. At least the city’s attempt to receive the parcel of land from the Army is on track: Earlier this month, the Oakland Base Reuse Authority (OBRA) voted to submit its plans for the reuse of half of the base to the Army, deciding on a flexible alternative that includes office space, high-end retail, a convention center, and a hotel as well as space for the Oakland Produce Market and a public park. The other half is to be utilized by the Port of Oakland.

In the past, OBRA plans have hit serious snags. The group had to rethink its plans last year when the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), the entity that oversees all things waterfront in the Bay Area, ruled that the entire base had to be devoted to Port of Oakland uses. After some impassioned pleas from Mayor Jerry Brown, among others, BCDC changed its mind and allowed Oakland to go ahead with its plans to develop half of the base–but only if the base switched parcels with the Port of Oakland. That meant that OBRA had to stop its work of six years and start over again, now with the other parcel of land in mind.

The plans that OBRA submitted to the Army don’t include a casino–but they don’t preclude the idea, either. The plans are basically an indication of what Oakland is going to do with the base once the military transfers ownership–a vague outline for the Army’s benefit. The actual developments are going to be approved later by the Oakland Redevelopment Agency (ORA), once the city takes ownership of the land, which is expected to happen in Spring 2002.

In order for a casino to be approved, it would need to be discussed in an addition to the Environmental Impact Report prepared for the base, and then get an approval by ORA. But the casino is definitely not at the top of the list for the West Oakland Community Advisory Group (WOCAG), which advises OBRA from the community’s point of view. The advisory group submitted its own plan of how the base should be used, a plan that included elements mostly absent in the final reuse plan–including a guarantee that the World War II administration building on the site be retained as a monument to the former use of the base. Advisory group member Ellen Wyrick Patterson jokingly suggested a tradeoff to the OBRA members as they packed up to leave the meeting, having already voted on the future of the base. “If you give me the administration building,” she cried out to OBRA member and City Council president Ignacio De La Fuente, who by that time had hid his face in his hands, “I’ll give you the casino! Won’t we have a good time–it will be a real Fantasy Island!” Maybe Patterson has hit on the one way to save both–how about a casino in the administration building?

Eat your heart out, Ralph Nader: A vigorous campaign is underway to elect General Sherman, the giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park, as the country’s national tree. The tree’s platform includes being 2,100 years old, the largest living tree in the world, and having a hole big enough to fit a car through. A California native, the tree has gained the support of local politicians: Says Senator John Burton (D-San Francisco), “The Giant Sequoia is the oldest, biggest, and the only one you can drive through.” But, the sequoia is facing some stiff competition from twenty other candidates, such as birch, pine, and oak trees. The polls–found on the National Arbor Day Foundation Web site–will close on April 27, after which the results will be made available to members of Congress, who will then officially designate the winner as the national tree. And with just a few more years until the next presidential election, looks like we could have another solid green candidate in the making.

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