Real Issues Set Aside as City Council Sticks To Infighting

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At its Tuesday night meeting, the Berkeley City Council did not cast a single vote that altered law, instituted new policy or otherwise affected the lives of Berkeley residents.

The meeting demonstrated once again the slow pace of Berkeley's government and the inefficiency of the City Council.

The council failed to address most of the issues on its agenda because it spent most of its time in contentious debate over obscure procedural points. It took no final action on the items it did discuss and will not address them until its next meeting on April 16.

Council members blamed the meeting's failure on their counterparts across the political aisle.

Councilmember Dona Spring said the moderates were "stalling and filibustering," while Councilmember Polly Armstrong pointedly advised Councilmember Kriss Worthington to stop "micromanaging."

The council adjourned before it could address the city's General Plan, which will dictate a 20-year vision for nearly all aspects of city policy. Three years in the making, this document has been on the council's docket since last fall, during which time it has proved a continual source of divisiveness.

In December the council passed elements of the plan dealing with housing, transportation and land use. But the bulk of the plan remains unapproved, and will remain so-at least until after the council returns from its four-week spring recess.

The city adopted its current general plan in 1977. A quarter of a century later, the plan cannot conceivably provide much vision for the future. Council members agree on this, but adopting a new plan has bitterly split the council along partisan lines. The value of a nonbinding statement of "vision" is questionable if it is adopted in such a divisive manner.

The council did address an appeal of a Zoning Adjustment Board decision to allow the building of a 40-unit housing development for low income seniors.

After much discussion, it voted to hold a public hearing at a date to be determined later, despite warnings from the city's staff that delaying the project could result in a loss of public funding.

The council's failure to make a final decision on the senior center could be excused as a onetime breakdown of process. But it follows a pattern of bureaucratic foot-dragging common to the city, particularly with regard to housing.

Nowhere is the city's inefficiency more evident than when it considers proposals for housing construction. Battles between developers and residents can stretch for years.

Proposed construction within the city begins at the zoning board. But the City Council can overturn the board's decisions and start the process over again.

This is essentially what happened Tuesday night with the senior center-a prime example of the city's red tape.

A cumbersome city bureaucracy that allows public input at every stage is to blame, said Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy.

"Residents can slow things down to such a degree in this city that it is amazing," he said.

Kennedy estimated that "several hundred units have been scuttled" in Berkeley because of resident opposition.

He said his company, Panoramic Interests, needed three and half years and six building plans to gain tentative approval from the zoning board for its Jubilee Courtyard Apartments. The company was forced to slash the number of planned rooms from 63 to 35 in the process.

Evidence supports Kennedy's assertion that a small number of activists can block needed housing. But his projects draw the wrath of neighborhood activists because his building plans, in the words of Spring, "push the zoning envelope."

His massive Gaia Building on Allston Way, for example, towers over its neighbors and has made its mark on Downtown, for better or worse.

It also advertises market rents starting at $1,500. But some say those rents are not the affordable housing the city needs.

Berkeley resident Peter Lipson opposed Kennedy's Jubilee Courtyard in front of the zoning board. His views mirror those of many of the city's activists.

"The projects that (Kennedy) says get blocked are the ones with problems," Lipson said. "Projects that are acceptable have no problem getting through."

Ultimately, the city may never see efficient government unless it reaches some semblance of consensus among moderates, progressives, students and the university.

"Berkeley needs to figure out what kind of city it wants to be," said Mayor Shirley Dean. "We need a shared vision."


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