Berkeley Finally Gets Some Good News

by Randy Shaw on August 24, 2009

These have been tough times for the city of Berkeley. It has lost high profile retailers like Cody’s and Black Oak Books, and there are trails of vacant retail spaces in downtown, along Solano, and even in its renowned Gourmet Ghetto. But two major developments in recent weeks might foreshadow better days. First, the beloved but long closed UC Theater on 2036 University Avenue will be transformed into a top-notch concert venue, featuring the type of artists who play at the Fillmore or Great American Music Hall. Second, activists appear to have qualified a referendum for the 2010 ballot halting the city’s ill-conceived Downtown Area Plan. The Plan, which would allow either two 22-story hotels or two 16-17 story office or condo towers across the city center, has potentially provoked a political alliance sufficiently diverse enough to overcome Mayor Tom Bates and the Council majority he controls.

Berkeley, California has been a municipal pioneer on issues ranging from the banning of Styrofoam cups to rent control, to the imposition of traffic diverters, and its early switch from honoring Columbus to Indigenous People’s Day. Berkeley long had the most and best bookstores per capita of any U.S. city,, and the entire “grow and eat local” and California cuisine movements was begun by Alice Waters at her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.

But times changed. Shopping malls, the Internet, escalating home prices, and residents’ focus on national politics left Berkeley declining economically, and with its civic engagement in even worse shape. But now there is reason for hope.

Revival of UC Theater

Many readers recall seeing a movie at the single-screen UC Theater, not recognizing at the time how rare such an experience would become (incredibly, even the historic single-screen Fox and Bruin theaters in Westwood are now at risk!). We didn’t realize how home videos would hurt venues like the UC, which relied on classic and non-first run films and became widely known for its midnight performances of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The UC closed in 2001. Although there were various plans, none came close to fruition.

Until now.

David Mayeri, once the chief operating officer of Bill Graham Presents, is joining with Dawn Holliday, who runs Slim’s and the Great American Music Hall, to transform the UC into a 1000-1500-seat concert venue. Mayeri was raised in Berkeley, attended movies at the UC, and now is finalizing one of those wonderful stories where the young kid grows up to be a success, and then uses his talents to save his historic hometown theater and cultural landmark.

The restored theater will retain the interior’s decorative features, while the landmarked exterior will be unchanged. And the owners decided to keep the UC name, which maintains historic continuity.

Music’s Economic Boost

While concert attendees will be the prime beneficiaries of the renovated UC, downtown restaurants, cafes and bars will see a major infusion of customers with each event. Mayeri estimates that 120,000 will attend annually, which will particularly help merchants during the long stretches — including June-August — when UC Berkeley undergrads are largely gone.

This week also marks the opening of downtown Berkeley’s new Freight & Salvage Coffee House, as the legendary center of Bluegrass and Folk moves from its longtime location off San Pablo. The Freight’s relocation will also help struggling downtown eating and drinking establishments, joining with the UC Theater crowds in increasing public safety by adding to the numbers walking at night in the area.

While the downtown Berkeley Repertory Theater is a cultural jewel, its crowds are limited and in my experience most attendees head straight for their cars following the show. The UC and Freight bring in a younger crowd more likely to patronize local businesses before and after events, which is what Berkeley’s downtown greatly needs.

Public Rejects the Downtown Plan

Berkeley’s downtown clearly does not need 22-story high rises from Hearst to Dwight. This seems to explain the success last week of a referendum designed to overturn a proposal enacted by Mayor Tom Bates and other former “progressives” — some of whom built their political base criticizing the excessively pro-development policies they now espouse.

Since Bates defeated Shirley Dean in a classic left-right mayoral contest in 2002, Berkeley’s longstanding political alliances were overturned. Bates became the politician who never saw a development project he could not support, and adopted a “Best of all Possible Worlds” approach that obscures his failure to generate the economic revitalization he claims to have already brought.

Those outraged by the excessive NIMBYism that indiscriminately attacks nonprofit projects steadfastly support Bates as the only bulwark. Others support him due to his Assembly success at expanding Berkeley’s waterfront parks, and may know little about his record as mayor.

Bates won re-election easily last fall, and has a Council majority that puts new meaning into the term “compliant.” But when it came to reshaping downtown so that it would apparently look more like Walnut Creek, Bates and his cadre finally went too far.

A referendum campaign emerged that will force Bates and his forces to defend their plan on either the June or November 2010 ballot. The campaign finally brought together the type of diverse coalition capable of defeating Bates, and could possibly only have emerged through a measure that specifically rejects an easy to reject plan.

Berkeley’s Civic Awakening

The prospect of highrise towers across Berkeley’s downtown appears to have awakened people (even I made sure to sign a petition!). The election will not occur until either June or November 2010, but it appears that many of those involved in the referendum plan will stay involved until the issue is decided.

It would be good for a city once fondly known as the People’s Republic to again have elections decided upon ideology rather than funding and name recognition. If Berkeley can bring back the UC Theater, restoring spirited elections could be next.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron.

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