Food-Free Zone? 

Berkeley city planners may finally resolve the beef over Sunday Thai breakfasts.

For fifteen years, the Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple on Russell Street has been serving breakfast every Sunday morning from 10 a.m. until around 1 p.m. — or until the food runs out. Hundreds of people flock to the temple during those hours. The all-volunteer kitchen crew serves beef noodle soup, pad thai, papaya salad, sweet iced coffee, and sticky rice and mango, each for a "suggested" donation — patrons are asked to purchase tokens which they then barter for food. Temple volunteers call the operation a form of "merit-making" — by providing breakfast to the hungry folk of Berkeley, they are garnering "merits" for the afterlife. Neighbors call it a commercial kitchen that's been running illegally since 1994.

The conflict came to light last April, when members of Wat Mongkolratanaram approached Berkeley's zoning adjustments board with plans to build a new edifice. Sixteen feet wide, 24 feet long, and 44 feet high (including a 14-foot spire), the proposed sanctuary would include three Buddha statues on a raised platform, and would take up roughly as much space as a church cross or small steeple, said Pahole Sookkasikon, a Berkeley resident who has been involved with the Thai temple since childhood. The original plan also included a small parking lot on Oregon Street with four spaces allocated specifically for temple members. But when residents balked at the prospect of clogging up their residential block, temple staff moved the proposed lot to Martin Luther King Jr. Way, and expanded it to eight spaces.

In keeping with Berkeley city planning regulations, Wat Mongkolratanaram sought approval from its neighbors before building the addition. According to Sookkasikon, some neighborhood residents reacted unfavorably to the temple's construction plans, mostly because of the parking spaces, and also because the new structure would prevent sunlight from entering the backyard gardens of surrounding residences. (Oregon Street resident Thom Rongh wrote the zoning board that the new development would also pave over a community garden that already been destroyed by the temple.)

But the dispute over the building pales in comparison to the other half of Wat Mongkolratanaram's proposal: A request to institutionalize Sunday morning breakfasts. Although Wat Mongkolratanaram's current zoning permit only allows the temple to serve food three times a year, Thai breakfast has been going on week after week, consistently, since its 1994 inception, and getting steadily more popular (it earned a 2004 East Bay Express "Best Of" award for "Best Breakfast Not in a Restaurant Where You Can Be One with Your Food"). For many years, food preparation started as early as 5 a.m., creating enough clamor to wake up all the neighboring residents, and smells that wafted throughout the area and hung there for days. After numerous complaints, the temple volunteers reduced their hours of operation and started cooking at 8 a.m. But other problems persisted. Victor Herbert, a professional conflict mediator from East Bay Community Mediations, summarized the dispute after an August meeting with some of the parties involved: "The neighbors said the weekend cooking odors were overwhelming and unacceptable, and the ingress of hundreds each weekend overwhelmed their quiet streets and their expected quiet lives."

And yet, for every resident complaining about noise and effluvia, there appeared an enthusiastic devotee ready to defend Thai breakfast to the end. "As a homeowner on Otis Street, I would like to express my support for Wat Mongkolratanaram on Russell Street. ... The brunch that is held weekly brings a wonderful element of community-minded, conscientious, and peaceful people to the neighborhood — both old and young," wrote Martha S. Chazanoff in a letter to city planner Greg Powell. "In terms of its detrimental impact on the neighborhood, it is minimal at worst," wrote Rita Hamad, who lives roughly a mile away. "The gathering itself lasts only three hours, and it is no worse than a typical Sunday event at a church in terms of the parking problems created." Sookkasikon said that his activist group Save the Thai Temple put together a petition in support of the rezoning proposal and got 200 signatures thus far — 118 from within a three-block radius of the temple, he said.

But many temple supporters live far enough away from 1911 Russell Street that they never experience the drawbacks of Sunday breakfast, and have little grasp of what the neighbors are fussing about. "I drive from Point Richmond every Sunday," said Tony Carr, a longtime breakfast-goer who owns Vikram Yoga studio in Oakland. "They have a noodle soup that you can't find anywhere." Carr added that in his observation, most of the houses on Oregon Street have driveways, so he can't understand why they would object to people parking on the street. "I understand there's some problems with the neighbors, but didn't they know about it before they moved in?"

On top of everything else lies the dicey issue of whether or not the Sunday breakfast is a spiritual activity or a commercial enterprise. Sookkasikon wrote that Wat Mongkolratanaram depends on its Sunday morning revenue stream for 80 percent of the temple's overall funds, which ultimately support language and cultural programs, and help fly Buddhist monks in from Thailand. Yet, he hesitates to characterize the breakfasts as an income-generating operation. "It's all volunteer-run," Sookkasikon said. "Volunteers pay for the food and make it. People who come purchase tokens in exchange for suggested donations. ... This happens every Sunday in a lot of regions of Thailand."

Opponents reject the "merit-making" euphemism and the use of tokens as symbolic currency, arguing that at the end of the day, it's really about dollars and cents. Not small change, either — a transportation study on said roughly 628 patrons visit the breakfasts every four hours, which suggests that they generate several thousand dollars each week. Sharon Hudson, president of the Benvenue Neighbors Association in Berkeley, cited Yelp reviews that explained how to get cash for your donation if you purchase too many tokens by accident: "If you get too many tokens, you don't need to save them. Just go back to the counter and return them for some Lincolns and Washingtons," one reviewer assured. "Hmmm," wrote Hudson, "When you go to church, do you retrieve some of your money from the donation plate if the service wasn't fully satisfying? Or is this 'fee for service?'"

Over the past nine months, temple members and neighborhood residents have entered a series of mediations to air out their grievances. Wat Mongkolratanaram made a few small concessions by reducing its hours of operation, posting a few "No Parking" signs in the area (the Any Mountain store on Shattuck Avenue provided 32 additional parking spots), moving their prospective parking lot to Martin Luther King Jr. Way, and assigning a post-event garbage patrol. But as far as weekly food service goes, temple members are digging their heels in. "I had suggested they build a building and enclose it if they want to have a restaurant," said Liz Jennings, an Oregon Street resident who said she has no problem with the temple per se, but disapproves of Sunday breakfast. "You zone it as a commercial kitchen and feed people indoors, instead of having this quasi underground commercial kitchen with no health inspection or containment of odors."

A February 12 hearing at Berkeley's zoning adjustments board will decide the ultimate fate of Wat Mongkolratanaram's Sunday breakfast, and at this point, said Jennings, the board appears to be split on its decision. "We're trying to be professional reasonable human beings, but the problem is these people have not budged," she said. "I think they're gonna bluff us off again till the 12th, at which point the board is going to bluff on their project." Jennings admits she's a pessimist, but said she finds the board's ambivalence disheartening. "How can they be split on something that's illegal?" she asked, then answered her own question. "It's Berkeley, hello."

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