Thursday, August 20, 2009
At 4:30 p.m. today, the Alliance for a Green and Livable Downtown will turn in 9,200 signatures in support of a Referendum on the Downtown Area Plan passed on July 14th by the Berkeley City Council. In attendance will be Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington, both of whom were in the minority on the 7–2 Council vote to approve the Downtown Area Plan, and both of whom backed the Referendum. When at least 5,558 signatures are verified by the City Clerk and the Registrar of Voters, the Plan will be placed on hold until it goes before Berkeley’s voters at one of the regularly scheduled elections in 2010, unless the Council votes to rescind the Plan in the meantime.
“We’re optimistic that we have more than enough signatures for the Referendum to prevail,” said Lisa Stephens, chair of Berkeley’s Rent Board who was active on the Alliance organizing committee and who was also a member of the Council-appointed Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), a 21-member citizen committee that crafted a compromise plan after two years of negotiations and over 100 meetings — a plan the Council rejected, instead using as their template a plan written by a Planning Commission controlled by members who earn their livelihoods in Berkeley development.
“Requiring more affordable housing only lost by one vote. After these signatures I hope affordable housing will get 5 Council votes,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who had pushed to have more worker-friendly provisions included in the plan approved by Council, and who also wanted the Plan changed to prevent developers from evading strong environmental standards.
In addition to the high number of signatures required for the Referendum to succeed, for the first time in Berkeley history there was a heavily organized effort mobilized to discourage and often to physically prevent the signature gatherers from engaging voters, with the Chamber of Commerce contributing money to fund pamphlets attacking the Referendum, and with blockers assigned to closely follow the signature-gatherers at popular commercial locations, including the Berkeley Bowl and Berkeley’s Farmers’ Markets. Some of the counter-petitioners were so physically aggressive that the police had to restore calm.
“I was shocked but sadly not really surprised at the vehemence of the counter-petitioners,” said Rent Board commissioner and former Zoning Board chair Dave Blake. “Many of them were people I knew personally who would never think of themselves as capable of engaging in this sort of behavior, which is in substance and function just what the right is employing now to prevent the health-care town halls from functioning. It’s frightening just how far a group of people reinforcing each other can talk themselves into going.”
But the petition gatherers continued collecting signatures despite these obstacles, accumulating enough for a comfortable margin of error. (The counter-petitioners spent a lot of effort trying to get signers to request their signatures be voided.) “The Council rejected the compromise community plan that they themselves set in motion. Now the people of Berkeley will get their say,” said Laurie Bright, an active member of the Alliance committee who is also on the board of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the strong voter sentiment in favor of revisiting the Downtown Plan,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who represents the Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods on the Council. “Even during a month when lots of people were on vacation, more than one hundred Berkeley citizens of all stripes cared enough to gather signatures or to donate money if they couldn’t gather signatures themselves. And, obviously, the voters responded, despite the huge organized blocking campaign.
People really care about their Downtown, and want to see it alive with successful small businesses, a thriving arts and theater district, high green standards and open space for all of us — shoppers, visitors, and residents alike. My constituents also want to be sure that the already-dense surrounding neighborhoods are adequately protected from the spillover effects of the huge changes proposed for the Downtown, especially the intense height increases the Council Plan proposed along the borders of the enlarged Downtown area.”
Councilmember Jesse Arreguin
Councilmember Kriss Worthington
Rent Board Commissioner Lisa Stephens
Rent Board Commissioner Dave Blake