A Dangerous Place 

Sure, the City of Berkeley will study your life-and-death issue. See you in another fifty years.

The most dangerous neighborhood in Berkeley isn't in the flats down by the train tracks. It's up where million-dollar homes are vulnerable to fires and earthquakes, and where the only road in or out is a one-lane street too narrow and winding for a full-size fire truck, let alone a smooth escape route for panicking residents.

The city's 2008 budget includes long-overdue money for the Panoramic Hill neighborhood to study the feasibility of an alternate access road. How long overdue? Well, call it historic, since city leaders passed on similar commitments back in the 1950s, then later the '70s. Now it's their grandkids' problem.

In a unrelated and yet closely related matter, Panoramic Hill received a close look at last week's city council meeting because of a plan to build a house on a vacant lot that one resident likened to a black-diamond ski slope. The riddle: How to build a two-story home on a supersteep hillside without blocking the tiny street with heavy equipment. A chairlift, perhaps?

The kicker is that, if the city approves the construction, owner Bruce Kelly may then sell his empty lot. Having dirtied his hands up to the armpits in Berkeley planning politics for the past six years, he could pass along that investment with all of its city-approved restrictions and possibilities.

Now for a flashback to our Nightmare on Elmwood Street. Readers of these pages know that developer John Gordon wants to turn his cavernous, empty Wright's Garage building near Ashby and College into a restaurant and bar. Mayor Tom Bates wants it. Elmwood district merchants and neighbors oppose it, and due to a complex series of events, the item keeps coming before the council (see "The Wright Stuff," Water Cooler, 6/20).

At the latest fracas, one neighbor kicked things up a notch. He threatened to organize a picket of the nightspot if Gordon eventually gets his way. Councilman Kriss Worthington, who opposes the plan, held his nose as he quoted from a letter critical of the project written by his archenemy, former mayor Shirley Dean. "When she's right she's right," he said, playing for laughs to the crowd of angry Elmwoodians, who had to wait until very late to give the council yet another piece of their minds.

The real target of Worthington's political theater was likely the scowling councilwoman to his right, the venerable Betty Olds, who has voted three times so far in favor of Wright's Garage. Dean and Olds are pals — they even spent a well-publicized afternoon up in the oak trees adjacent to Memorial Stadium (near the most dangerous neighborhood in Berkeley!). But Olds wasn't swayed by her colleague, Dean's letter, or another hour of citizen complaints.

Wright's Garage will be back on the agenda for a final hearing July 10.

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