Photo: Mike Morgan
Berkeley always punches above its weight when it comes to making news. Photo: Mike Morgan

There was no shortage of news in Berkeley in 2014, but a few issues stood out, and they informed Berkeleyside’s list of the most important stories of the year.

In a separate post we will detail our most viewed articles of 2014, but below is the editors’ selection of what really shaped the city during the past 12 months.

Frustration over police killings spills into Berkeley’s streets

Police and protesters on Sunday Dec. 7, 2014. Photo- Kelly Own
Police and protesters on Sunday Dec. 7, 2014. Photo: Kelly Own

For a week starting Dec. 6, the eyes of the nation were on Berkeley, which suddenly, and unexpectedly, became a focal point in the national debate over police conduct and the perils of being a black man in a sometimes racist system.

What started out as a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protest march at Bancroft and Telegraph escalated into the most violent — and some say most brutal — demonstration in decades. Berkeley police lobbed smoke bombs and tear gas canisters into what they regarded as recalcitrant crowds after a handful of demonstrators pelted them with rocks, bricks, sandbags, an ice pick, and other items. Those gathered on the street told a different story. They said the police fired tear gas at them for no good reason.

City Manager Christine Daniel and Mayor Tom Bates, shocked by the use of force, told Chief Michael Meehan not to use tear gas again unless absolutely necessary. The next night, Dec. 7, police held back, which allowed  an unruly element to rove Shattuck and Telegraph, smashing dozens of store windows and looting. Over the next few days, thousands of people went out into the streets at night, blocking trains, shutting down the freeway, crowding onto city streets in an attempt to stop business as usual.

One man may have even died as an indirect result of the protests when emergency personnel were delayed in reaching him. In one shocking art installation, a group that identified itself as black, queer and people of color hung life-size cardboard cutouts of people who had been lynched from Sather Gate.  The protests calmed down when the rains came and UC Berkeley students had to study for finals.

Berkeley is ground zero for the soda-tax movement

The No on Measure D campaign covered the Ashby BART station with signs - on the floor, on the walls, and next to the ticket machines. BART made the campaign takes some of the signs down on Oc. 8. Photo: Marian Mabel
The No on Measure D campaign covered Ashby BART station with signs  to try to defeat the soda tax. Photo: Marian Mabel
The No on Measure D campaign covered Ashby BART station with signs  to try to defeat the soda tax. Photo: Marian Mabel

The November 2014 election was important in many ways. Berkeley residents elected a new city council member (by 16 votes), something that doesn’t happen very often. Not only is Lori Droste a young mother, but she is the first openly gay woman elected to the council.

Berkeley residents also convincingly trounced Measure R, an initiative that would have put more height and growth restrictions on downtown. The 28-page initiative filled with dense zoning laws made Measure R a hard sell, but its 74%-26% defeat definitively showed that the majority of voters want greater density in Berkeley’s downtown. And donors contributed $3.6 million into various campaigns — a new record.

Measure D, a proposal to place a one-cent per ounce tax on sugary beverages won by a huge 75% margin, the first time any soda tax measure has ever won in the United States. The American Beverage Council spent $2.4 million on an ad blitz fighting the measure, even covering all available floor and wall space in two Berkeley BART stations with ads. Berkeley’s broad-based Yes on Measure D coalition was helped greatly by the deep pockets of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spent a total of $657,000 in direct and indirect donations to help get the measure passed. Underneath all the razzle-dazzle was a hardworking group of volunteers who spent hours on the phones, canvassing precincts, and handing out literature to pass Measure D. Advocates for the tax have vowed to help other cities pass their own version of a soda tax.

Berkeley feels impact of Bay Area tech boom

Minimum wage rally in May 2014 in Berkeley. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Minimum wage rally in May 2014 in Berkeley. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Berkeley briefly became the focus of the backlash against the tech boom in mid January, when a group calling itself Counterforce launched a demonstration outside the Elmwood home of a Google engineer. While protesters in San Francisco had blockaded buses that transported thousands of high-tech workers to the South Bay every day, this was the first time an individual was targeted. It was a sign that the impact of the tech boom — rising rents, a scarcity of affordable apartments, an increase in the number of restaurants and gathering places to serve the Bay Area’s new wealthy, had made its way to the East Bay.

One sign of the new paradigm: the number of rental units under construction in Berkeley’s downtown skyrocketed to 1,400. Rents went up, as did housing prices, which prompted a popular op-ed on Berkeleyside by a Berkeley homeowner who wrote about getting priced out of her own “million-dollar” block.

Still, Berkeley was a relative bargain compared to other cities. A 3-bedroom home in Berkeley averaged $949,000 in November compared to $1,115,000 in San Francisco, $1,225,000 in Mill Valley, and $2,040,000 in Palo Alto. Maybe that’s why Target, one of the nation’s largest chains, decided to build one of its new-style city stores on Shattuck Avenue.

The growing income disparity prompted Berkeley (and other cities) to increase its minimum wage. Workers now get $10 an hour; that will grow to $12.63 by 2016.

Berkeley schools get new space; more desperately needed

Th gym in Berkeley High's new Building M. Photo: Pete Rosos
Th gym in Berkeley High’s new Building M. Photo: Pete Rosos
Th gym in Berkeley High’s new Building M. Photo: Pete Rosos

In March, Berkeley High unveiled its spanking new Building M, which provides students with 15 new classrooms, a state-of-the art gym with two basketball courts, a weight room, as well as a multi-purpose space for gatherings and events. The new structure was part of the $46 million South of Bancroft project funded by the Measure I, Measure A, and Measure AA bonds. Just a year earlier, BUSD had finished building the Tim Moellering Field, a block-long green space that includes a baseball field, soccer field, and basketball courts. Prior to that, the district rebuild the Jacket Stadium, which now includes 2,200 bleacher seats, athletic offices, locker rooms, a press booth, team rooms and storage. Work finished on a new softball field on the BHS campus about a month ago.

While all of this is good news for high-school students (and Jefferson School also got a redo), space allocation has not been as effective in the lower grades. The district has been forced to scramble to find new transitional kindergarten classrooms the last two years as more children than expected have enrolled in Berkeley’s schools. Projections show that as many as 250 new students might enroll in the next three years. This has meant that classrooms once used for art and music have been converted to full-time classrooms. There are a group of parents and community members who are concerned the crowding is a result of illegal enrollment of students from other districts, an issue Berkeleyside examined in depth in April.

Other notable school events, not all of them good: In October, a BHS staffer was hurt during Spirit Week when a group of 500 students, some of them drunk and unruly,“participated “in hazing and bullying behavior,” on the quad. Fifteen students were suspended. A few months earlier, a crowd of BHS students and B-Tech students got in fights downtown on consecutive Fridays. Hundreds swarmed through downtown to watch the melée. But in a sign of just how creative and inspirational Berkeley students can be, one group of BHS students orchestrated an anti-sexual harassment campaign in November, and hundreds of high schoolers conducted a moving and powerful #BlackLivesMatter march and protest in mid-December that brought some observers to tears.

The most important Berkeley stories of  2013 (12.30.13)
Berkeley resolutions for 2014 – and how 2013 went (01.01.14)
Biggest Berkeley crime stories of 2013 (12.31.13)
Top 2013 stories in Berkeley: Newsy, quirky and plain fun (12.31.13)
The most important stories in Berkeley in 2012  (12.28.12)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...