Commissions Ensure Public Input, But Hinder Progress





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Wedged between Berkeley's overworked city staff and its fractious city council lies the city's third branch of government-45 "advisory" boards and commissions vested with ambiguous powers to make policy and interpret law.

The commissions, which run the gamut from the practical to the redundant to the inane, have become little more than vehicles for the obstructionist tactics of neighborhood activists.

Monday night, for example, the Landmarks Preservation Commission acted against the advice of the city attorney and blocked, at least temporarily, the construction of a six-story apartment building four blocks from the UC Berkeley campus.

It designated two small and undistinguished cottages on Benvenue Avenue as "Structures of Merit," a categorization that will prevent their slated demolition and replacement with an apartment building.

Such a designation violated state law because both cottages are owned by a church, which means they cannot be landmarked.

But some commission members said they voted for the designation, against the city attorney's advice, because they wanted to fight the law in court.

"Sooner or later Berkeley is going to have to do a court challenge (to this law)," said Commissioner Becky O'Malley. "The City Attorney's office has got to bite the bullet and defend us (from this type of development) at some point."

A large number of neighborhood activists attended the Landmark Preservation Commission meeting, as they do with most commission meetings that affect planning and development.

This was the case at last week's Zoning Adjustments Board meeting, where a group of organized activists succeeded in further slowing the expansion of Alta Bates Hospital's Ashby Campus.

Alta Bates has been negotiating since March 1999 to expand its outdated emergency room, which serves almost four times the number of patients for which it was designed.

The hospital has revised its design plans eight times and drastically scaled down the scope of the expansion in the process, said hospital spokesperson Deborah Pitts.

Nonetheless, in the face of stiff neighborhood opposition, the Zoning Adjustments Board sent the hospital back to the drawing board last week.

Despite the stall, however, it is unlikely a major Berkeley player like Alta Bates will be permanently prevented from expanding, whatever the neighborhood opposition.

"I have no doubt that we will get (the expansion) at some point," Pitts said.

That's because any decision of the board can be appealed to the City Council, who can overrule the decision of any commission or board.

That's what happened two weeks ago, when a West Berkeley neighborhood group appealed a Zoning Adjustments Board decision to allow construction of a housing project for low-income seniors.

Although the council apparently favored building the senior home, in the face of a large neighborhood turnout, it scheduled a new public hearing on the issue, despite warnings from the city staff that any delay could result in the project's loss of funding.

"Everything important ends up at the City Council," said Andrew Thomas, formerly Berkeley's Advance City Planner.

Thomas was lured away by the city of Alameda with an offer of more money and shorter working hours. His departure exemplifies the extensive demands the city's commissions place on the city's valuable staff.

Hired to usher Berkeley's long-stalled General Plan through completion, Thomas said he expected the process to take one year. Three years later, he left successful, but disillusioned and exhausted.

"You start to think, 'how long is my career?'" Thomas said.

Thomas said he was forced to go to numerous commissions and hear the same thing "over and over and over again."

It is true the city's more practical commissions might well have over the years given some real benefit to the city.

For example, the trend toward ugly and unattractive apartment buildings sweeping Berkeley in earlier decades was effectively brought to a halt by city commissions, said Michael Issel, a member of the Zoning Adjustments Board.

But in the city that gave birth to the Free Speech Movement, Berkeley's traditions of discussion and debate have ironically brought the city's democracy to a near standstill.

"Berkeley is different because it favors more input, particularly if it looks like you are going to decide not in 'my' favor, and that's not a bad thing," Thomas said. "That's just the culture of Berkeley."

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