The Wright Stuff 

Elmwood development foes win a battle, but will likely lose the war.

The Berkeley City Council may be stuck in a holding pattern for several weeks, unless a member changes his or her vote on the future of Wright's Garage. If you're headed toward the hills on Ashby Avenue, that's the boarded-up building on the left just before you hit College.

It's the usual saga. Its owners want to convert the former auto repair shop into a large restaurant and bar, a yoga studio, and retail space. But neighbors and business owners are fighting the plan, citing Elmwood's already gridlocked traffic and parking. Last Tuesday, Madeline Landau told the council of three near-deaths at Ashby and Benvenue, including a quadriplegic struck in the crosswalk, a pedestrian hit just this year, and a Berkeley cop, her neighbor, "literally pinned to my Benvenue fence when a car with road rage jumped the curb."

The Elmwoodians had just five minutes to plead their case and beg city leaders for another public hearing. "It's a big, cavernous building," Debra Sanderson of the Berkeley Planning Department told the council, and would add as much as 7 percent to the district's existing retail and dining space.

Developers John Gordon and Janis Mitchell counter that without changing its overall size, they will convert a rundown blight into something to be proud of. Harry Pollock, their rep at last week's meeting, said neighbors' concerns were vetted at a number of Zoning Adjustment Board meetings, and that 68 conditions were added to get the project approved.

Now here's the twist: The project should have been a done deal by now. According to one inside source, the developer is a well-liked guy who's generous with Berkeley pols — the council majority and Mayor Tom Bates clearly support the plan. But council moderates Laurie Capatelli and Gordon Wozniak will sit this one out.

Capatelli has a real-estate interest within five hundred feet of the property, and Wozniak simply blew it by publicly supporting the project before it came to council. He posted an article on, an influential Web site that lets the busy or burned-out weigh in without attending city meetings. Given his electronic outburst, the city attorney advised him to step aside.

With those two down, the Elmwoodians won 4-3, but still lost their bid for a public hearing because council rules require five votes for approval. Under these circumstances, another council rule forces the item onto the agenda for thirty days, or until one side gets five votes. That could mean five straight meetings dealing with Wright's Garage.

Opponents had better stock up on their coffee. Bates says he'll put the project at the tail end of the agenda, where it won't typically be heard until around 11 p.m. If they don't like it, there's always KitchenDemocracy.


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