Mayor's Address Touches on Schools, Commerce, Housing

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Mayor Shirley Dean began her annual State of the City speech Tuesday night with resolve to focus on the year ahead and work at the grassroots level to build a "brighter future for all the people of Berkeley."

In her hour-long speech before a full crowd in City Council Chambers, Dean addressed everything from health care and animals to traffic and the city's strained relations with the university.

Following a school year marred by devastating fires at Berkeley High School and conflict between high school students and Downtown area merchants, Dean suggested that the city play a role in fixing the Berkeley Unified School District's ills. She made it clear, however, that she does not plan to "do a Jerry Brown" and interfere with the curriculum.

"What the city and district need to discuss frankly are jointly provided services such as maintenance, cleaning and safety," she said.

"The city must assist the school district in ensuring that truant students are returned to the school grounds, discouraging out-of-district students from gathering around the high school and identifying students who create problems in our Downtown area," Dean added.

After talking about schools and youth, Dean moved on to commerce, revealing her longtime goal of attracting a department store to Downtown Berkeley and denouncing the city's reputed antipathy toward business.

"Berkeley must shed the perception that it is anti-business," Dean said. "There is no department store from Hilltop Mall to 19th and Broadway in Oakland, and if you live in Berkeley and want to buy an ordinary item like a sheet, you find yourself driving to Walnut Creek."

Another problem Dean said she wants to attack is traffic. She suggested ferry use for transbay commuters and a citywide bus pass that would give Berkeley residents unlimited rides for a small, possibly mandatory fee, much like UC Berkeley's Class Pass. While admitting a need for more parking, Dean also proposed experimental steps to discourage automobile use altogether.

"I support an immediate demonstration project of car-free student housing in the Southside to see how it works before we launch into the approval of such projects on a grand scale," she said.

Acknowledging the city's qualms concerning university expansion, Dean called on Chancellor Robert Berdahl to work with her on issues such as student housing.

"My inclination is to find some projects we can agree upon and pull them together jointly," Dean said. "I'd like to start with building student-faculty housing on the vacant lot at Haste and Telegraph. Small projects, done successfully, will establish a foundation to guide the bigger picture."

During the course of her speech, Dean also alluded to the City Council's partisanship, saying at one point that an early childhood health program she proposed was removed from her office at some council members' urging and subsequently all but abandoned.

Since 1996, Dean's "moderate" wing of the council has been outnumbered by the "progressive" wing 5-4.

"Over most of these years I have had a less than friendly council majority to deal with," Dean said. "Much of what I have proposed has prevailed; some has been stalled. Tonight I have added more proposals to be worked on, more dreams to be fulfilled."

The divergent reactions of the two City Council members who attended the address reflected the partisan makeup of the council.

"I thought it was a wonderful speech," said Councilmember Betty Olds. "Somebody was telling me it was her best speech and the most that has been accomplished by a mayor since Wally Johnson. Her proposals for new ideas are good and I hope that they can all come to fruition."

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, meanwhile, said the mayor did not go far enough on certain issues such as student housing.

"There are real specific issues right here in Berkeley that need addressing that if we as a city work hard together we might be able to get them accomplished," he said. "She hasn't addressed the real substantial problems and provided real substantial solutions."

Many Berkeley residents who turned out for the address said they were impressed by the breadth of Dean's ideas.

"She touched on every single issue that was at the hearts of Berkeley residents," said Zasa Swanson.

"She has courage - she's not a whiner," said Gail Keleman, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission. "There's a lot of divisiveness in the city but she doesn't dwell on it."

Barbara Wittstock, a longtime Berkeley resident, said that as the wife of a businessman, she appreciated the mayor's outreach to the business community. Pediatrician Peter Levine said he was struck by her proposals to help underprivileged children by building more playing fields and offering youth mentors.

One observer, however, said she wanted to see a greater focus on homelessness and that it was "unfortunate" Dean began the address by promising "not to concentrate on what has been done."

"It wasn't exactly what I expected in that I thought we'd talk more on the progress that has been made," said Heidi Goldstein. "The goals are nice, but the process stinks."

Goldstein's eight-week-old daughter - perhaps the youngest member of the audience - did not offer an opinion on the State of the City.

"She's getting an early start on politics," Goldstein said.


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