Sprint Makes Waves at Cal; Ask Jeeves Stays Put; West Berkeley’s an Office-Free Zone, Council Says

Giant lizard keeps Chron editor off his toes

We always thought that San Francisco Chronicle executive editor Phil Bronstein ‘s grudge against the New York press had something to do with the contempt in which Gotham’s highbrows held Left Coast journalism. But maybe it lies with the treatment he’s gotten from the city’s more prosaic fish wrappers. According to our East Coast correspondent, Bronstein’s recent misadventure with a Komodo dragon at the Los Angeles Zoo was received with much amusement by the staff at the New York Post, that renowned standard of tabloid journalism. “The Komodo dragon, apparently bored with its regular menu of white rats, sank its teeth into the toe of [Bronstein] and sent him to the hospital,” the Post reported. “Bronstein entered the dragon’s lair after taking off his white sneakers so the ten-foot lizard wouldn’t mistake them for its usual meal. But that just made it easier for the dragon to sink its serrated teeth into Bronstein’s toe.” If this kind of coverage weren’t enough, Bronstein couldn’t have been pleased with the headline: “Sharon’s hubby’s toe nailed by leaping lizard.”

It seems, by the way, that the lizard has the amazing ability to leap in size as well. The day after the incident, the Chron reported the dragon’s length to be five feet (or ten feet, if you read the same story on the Chron‘s Web site). The day after that, when Bronstein himself was able to recount the tragedy, the paper reported the length at seven feet. The incredible dragon stayed at seven feet for two more days, then decreased in size to six feet, ten inches.· · ·

Early this year, the Berkeley City Council bowed to community pressure and passed a six-month moratorium on new wireless telecommunications towers. That’s good news for citizens concerned about the potential health risks that cell phone towers pose for those who live or work nearby, but the city’s moratorium doesn’t apply to the Cal campus. There, UC administrators struck a deal with telecom giant Sprint to install a tower atop Boalt Law School’s Simon Hall. They didn’t count on a couple of inquisitive administrative assistants: “We found out [about the tower] because the people doing the work had to get to the far wall of our office, and they told us that the university is allowing these three antennas right on top of our heads,” says law school admin assistant Ayn Lowry . “I’ve worked before with radiation victims, so they just happened to walk into the wrong office.”

Lowry says she checked with the school’s building services and administration, neither of whom knew anything about the project. Law School Dean John Dwyer got involved, and Lowry and her co-workers were told the project was on hold–but then she saw a crane out her window delivering materials for the tower to the roof. Lowry alerted building services, which must have been pretty upset to be getting information about their own building from an administrator rather than from official channels. In any case, those materials were subsequently removed (and building services reportedly asked for reimbursement for damage done to their roof) and now the university’s capital projects department says the Sprint tower project is “on hold.” Lowry says she plans to appeal to the City Council to urge the university to join in the moratorium, and her union, the Coalition for Union Employees, may also step into the ring.

Lowry argues that until more research has been done on the safety risks of cell phone towers, the towers should be placed farther away from high concentrations of people. “There are a lot of studies showing [the towers] are a problem, and here in this country they’re not credited, but in other countries they are,” she says. “Personally I don’t care to be a guinea pig, but that’s what they’re making us. They’re saying, ‘If five years down the line you have cancer, and can prove it came from the antenna, then we’ll know, won’t we?'”· · ·

It hardly comes as a shock to learn that the company that wanted to be everyone’s online butler got a little too big for its britches. Emeryville’s Ask Jeeves announced last week that it will try to sublease the 159,000 square feet of office space it commissioned a year ago at 555 City Center, the landmark skyscraper now being built in downtown Oakland. Ask Jeeves has been showing signs of financial problems for some time now, firing almost half of its workforce since November. Says one former employee, “There was just too much spending going on. We had pizzas almost every Friday; we had a Halloween party and there were kegs of beer there, and we had it catered.”

Now, those pizza parties have knocked a gaping hole into what was meant to be the flagship of redevelopment projects in downtown. Developer Shorenstein Realty has secured a number of other tenants for the building, and the empty space left by Ask Jeeves is likely to be filled sooner or later; analysts have been arguing since last fall that Oakland’s office space real estate market won’t be hit as hard as that in San Francisco, where vacancy rates have soared. But the loss of an anchor tenant doesn’t look good, especially since it’s happened to Shorenstein, a well-respected national firm. Smaller, local developers have told us that some projects have been put on hold while investors watch 555 City Center as an indicator of the market.· · ·

Surprisingly, a moratorium on office development in West Berkeley is moving forward, when just a month ago it looked like it was facing insurmountable obstacles. The idea first came up last December, when planning commissioners Zelda Bronstein and Rob Wrenn noticed that conversion of industrial space to office space in West Berkeley’s sensitive Mixed Use/Light Industrial (MU/LI) district was continuing at a steady pace.

The idea of a moratorium squeaked by the planning commission with a 5-4 vote, and after many delays, finally hit the council’s agenda last week. The way that the moratorium idea was originally proposed–as an urgency moratorium–would have required a supermajority of the City Council to vote for it (the aforementioned insurmountable task). But Bronstein and Wrenn hit upon an idea that needed only a simple majority of the council–they proffered a “temporary zoning ordinance amendment” that stops office conversion for one year.

West Berkeley’s Councilmember Linda Maio , who wasn’t completely convinced of the need for a moratorium in February, waxed enthusiastic about the idea at the meeting. Councilmember Betty Olds , however, couldn’t see the reasoning behind it. “Every other city would be thrilled to have this development,” she scoffed, “but not Berkeley. I predict it won’t last.” Predictions aside, the council voted to go ahead with the planning commission’s recommendation of the temporary amendment rather than City Manager Weldon Rucker ‘s idea that the issue be studied for a year.

A moratorium is desperately needed, Wrenn said to the council. “Offices are a permitted use everywhere in Berkeley,” he pointed out, “but the only place where industry is allowed is in West Berkeley.” The amendment will now be shuttled back to the planning commission and go through a public hearing process, which includes a mailing to all affected property owners in West Berkeley.· · ·

Time to redefine “elementary school teacher” from “overworked, underpaid, superhuman” to “overworked, underpaid, incredibly generous superhuman.” Faculty members at Piedmont’s Wildwood Elementary beat the curve last week by announcing they will donate the individual testing bonuses to worthy causes. The bonuses are awarded by the state to teachers whose students fared well on mandatory standardized testing. At Wildwood, students averaged between the 75th and 91st percentile on one test–while the state as a whole came in between the 33rd and 58th percentile.

But some faculty members say those test scores are an inappropriate measure of success. The teachers concede that what they call “fair assessments of students’ learning” is very important, but their open letter argues that the current system of standardized tests falls short of being a true measure of education: “Teaching to the test to improve scores may make the politicians look better,” the letter reads, “but it will not serve our students in their future lives. Our training, our experience, and our convictions tell us that we should encourage our students to think deeply and support their ideas. There’s no place for these crucial skills in a curriculum geared toward the current STAR test. Wide-ranging knowledge, creativity, and problem solving simply don’t fit into a multiple-choice format.”

Plus, the sixteen teachers add, “It has been well documented that standardized test scores are correlated with socio-economic status.” For this reason, they’re opting to send their money–which adds up to $6578–to worthy causes that help kids who often have less of a head start than the high-scoring students at Wildwood: the Oakland Public Library Foundation’s after-school homework program and the Museum of Children’s Art “Discover Arts” teacher training programs. Some of the money will also go to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit advocacy organization that aims to stop what it calls the misuse of standardized tests.

All in all, the teachers have hit upon a particularly clever tactic: they can protest an issue close to their hearts, and they’re doing so in a way that makes it impossible to criticize them. Who can condemn generosity? Even Piedmont district leaders–who may or may not share the teachers’ views on testing, but who must follow state rules about testing–have only good things to say about the donation of the bonuses. Piedmont Superintendent Gail Uilkema says, “It’s a very generous offer, and many children will benefit from their generosity.”

The teachers even got a chance to seamlessly bring up their own grievances: “Teachers are poorly paid in general, and Piedmont teachers are near the bottom of the heap when it comes to compensation,” they wrote, “so we aren’t usually able to give as much money as we might like to worthy causes. Although all of us need and deserve extra compensation for our ongoing and underpaid efforts to educate children, we cannot keep money which requires our acquiescence to a bad test, catastrophic consequences for education, and the reinforcement of inequity in California’s schools. We’re looking forward to donating our bribe money.”

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