Just when Berkeley can't piss you off any more, this city finds a way. For years, Berkeley Bowl owner Glen Yasuda has been trying to build a second store in West Berkeley, where he would sell cheap, healthy produce to the city's last working-class residents who buy canned chili from liquor stores. The site he bought is an empty, blighted lot. His store would provide up to two hundred new jobs, offer underground parking at an enormous cost to Yasuda, and reinvigorate a blasted, depressing stretch of land. Last week, Berkeley came within an inch of killing the best deal it's seen in decades.
On Monday, Yasuda called City Hall and announced he was backing out of the project. Word went around the neighborhood, and panicked residents and business owners flooded him with personal appeals to give the city one more chance. After a few desperate days, Yasuda said he'd think about it. "There was talk of not pursuing it," says architect Kava Massih, a confidant of Yasuda's who designed the new store. "Then there was a big push by a lot of different people, and they've now decided to go forward."
Why did Yasuda try to kill his dream store? Because Berkeley is filled with meddling jerks who nickel-and-dimed the project in a calculated attempt to starve it to death. Glen Yasuda tried to sell fresh vegetables to the poor. Local activists and neighboring businesses manipulated city bureaucracy and cost him millions of dollars.
Berkeley can no longer afford this attitude toward its business community, as if shopkeepers will forever accommodate its willful, ideological delusions. In downtown, the Act I & II cinema has shut down, Radstons Office Plus announced it was closing, and the Eddie Bauer building has been empty for years. Everyone knows that parking is the biggest barrier to a economically healthy district. But rather than build a new garage on the lot at the corner of Oxford and Kittredge streets, the city has opted to spend $4 million subsidizing an environmental office center and affordable housing complex there. On Telegraph Avenue, the closing of Cody's Books is just the latest symptom of an epic decline, and no one has shown interest in turning things around. Retail business has been such an afterthought that two critical commercial corridors are rotting. Berkeley had a choice between Cody's Books and People's Park. It chose the park.
Glen Yasuda was ready to build the West Berkeley Bowl three years ago. He'd bought the land and finished drawing up the plans. All he needed was the green light from the city. That's when the trouble started. Neighboring business owners such as woodworker John Curl and mayoral candidate Zelda Bronstein worried that the new Bowl's size more than 90,000 square feet of retail and warehouse space would have serious traffic impacts, especially at the corner of San Pablo and Ashby avenues. "I've always said that I would be happy to have a neighborhood-friendly Bowl," Bronstein says. "This is over twice as big as the existing Bowl it's the size of an early Wal-Mart."
But their real objection is that rezoning the site from industrial to commercial could trigger a wave of gentrification and force light industrial businesses out of the area. "The very fact that the applicant is asking for a zoning change rather than a variance is tied to his knowledge that the mayor is pushing to dismantle the industrial zones on Ashby and Gilman," Curl wrote in the Berkeley Daily Planet last year. "Does Berkeley want to stop being a real city, and become just an oversized college bedroom town? Berkeley has a history of fighting for social justice, not pushing diversity beyond city limits."
Curl, Bronstein, and other local business owners couldn't stop the Bowl with this argument, so they used the traffic concerns. When the city concluded that the traffic impact would not necessitate an Environmental Impact Report, they hired their own engineer, who disputed the numbers. The city forced Yasuda in early 2005 to pay for an EIR; he had to hire an EIR consultant and a traffic consultant. Then he had to hire an urban planner to manage the process. When Yasuda submitted a report about the structural integrity of the underground parking, he had to pay to get it peer-reviewed. What did the EIR conclude? Nothing. No substantial changes were recommended, just as everyone figured twelve months earlier. Meanwhile, the lot sat empty.
Now the neighbors are asking for an economic analysis before the project is approved. Members of the Zoning Adjustment Board publicly pressured Yasuda to unionize the workforce at his new store. Three years of petty meddling have passed since Yasuda could have started construction. He has shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars for meaningless planning documents. And now the cost of building his new store has risen by 40 percent. Massih estimates Yasuda will have to spend $5 million to $10 million more than he would have three years ago.
City Councilman Darryl Moore, who represents this stretch of West Berkeley, is a little chagrined over this whole affair. "The process has been very long," he says. "Somewhat convoluted. I don't think the city's been very clear about what they want from businesses when they expand."
Gee, ya think? Yasuda wants to open an independently owned grocery store a grocery store, for God's sake and the city did everything it could to make his life hard. By the time this paper hits the streets, the city council will probably have finally approved Yasuda's application. But what other city would take three years to do that? What other city would bleed millions from a man who wants to sell organic produce, while its leaders nitpick and micromanage?
Now Cody's, the other store that so perfectly embodies Berkeley's self-image, is leaving Telegraph forever. According to Roland Peterson, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, the vacancy rate on the Avenue is hovering around 9 percent. Sales tax receipts are just 70 percent what they were sixteen years ago. Business has been slowly collapsing for years, and the city is only now beginning to care. According to City Councilman Kriss Worthington, Berkeley has reduced the number of bike cops on Telegraph by 50 percent, eliminated a team of social workers who deal with schizophrenics who wander through the streets, and wiped out eighteen parking spaces.
But the rot is even more pervasive, according to one City Hall source, and it all has to do with People's Park. From the Free Box to street kids snarfing up Food Not Bombs fare and gobbling Ecstasy doses, neither city nor university officials can touch the worst social problems because the park's activists will always be able to wear them down. As a result, no one tries to improve Telegraph Avenue. Officials with both institutions sleepwalk through their work, because they know in their hearts nothing will make a difference. "People's Park is a running sore," the official said.
That sore has helped kill one of the greatest bookstores in the country. Before Amazon and the rise of Internet retail, the city could afford to have People's Park around, because no one had an alternative to dodging Rottweilers and street kids on their way to Cody's. Those days are long past, but the city has yet to change. Over the last few decades, authors like Toni Morrison would come to Cody's and speak some of the English language's most magnificent prose. Now, the only English spoken on Telegraph is "Spare change?"
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