Mayor Tom Bates. Photo- Frances Dinkelspiel
Mayor Tom Bates, pictured here last year, gave his annual State of the City address on Feb. 12 at the Ashby Stage. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Mayor Tom Bates last night delivered a picaresque tour of developments in Berkeley in his State of the City address at the Shotgun Theatre’s Ashby Stage.

Bates lauded projects and improvements in each of the city’s main areas, singled out efforts to address street repairs with revenues from Measures M and BB, talked about the need for affordable housing, the police department and the December protests, and touched briefly on challenges the city faces with unfunded pension liabilities and an aging infrastructure.

“That’s a general rosy picture of how we’re doing,” Bates said at the conclusion of his main tour of what’s happening in the city. 

The expectations of a State of the City might conjure images of the president addressing the joint houses of Congress with a carefully honed speech of rhetorical and meticulously planned policy announcements. Bates’ approach does away with soundbites and set pieces, preferring to roam around different topics in a loose structure.

The one new policy idea came at the very end of the address when, almost as an afterthought, he said he would push for a “1% for art” policy on new developments in Berkeley.

“The economics of our city are inherently tied to culture and to art,” he said.

But, for 40 minutes before that, Bates went through different city neighborhoods, pointing to a general picture of progress. In South Berkeley, he said, “there are a lot of opportunities.” He mentioned the potential of a linear park on Adeline and options to tackle the sea of parking around Ashby BART.

Bates said Telegraph Avenue “continues to be a challenge,” but commended the work he did with Councilman Kriss Worthington to allow office space on Telegraph. He alluded to the running dispute with Ken Sarachan about the empty lot on the northeast corner of Telegraph and Haste.

“There’s one owner we have worked with forever and I can’t leave office until we get something done,” he said, to laughter from the audience. “Stay tuned. I think we’ll get something done.”

Downtown Berkeley, Bates said, was “going from strength to strength.” He lauded the 74% vote against the downtown initiative, Measure R, before offering a brief olive branch to its advocate, Councilman Jesse Arreguín, saying he was sure everyone wanted the best for downtown.

He said that, when the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive opens its new building on Center Street “it will be fantastic,” and that “there is serious interest” in developing a hotel on the Bank of America site on Center Street.

“People really want to come here and they really want to stay here,” Bates said. He noted that the hotel occupancy tax has gone up in recent years.

The interior courtyard of the  proposed project. Courtesy Trachtenberg Associates.
Rending of a proposed apartment project on the Grocery Outlet site in West Berkeley: a sign of continuing growth in the city, according to Mayor Bates. Courtesy: Trachtenberg Associates. [Read more about it.]

Bates then turned his attention to West Berkeley, noting the success of the Fourth + U development, and a new apartment project on the Grocery Outlet site across Fourth Street. He said there is new retail planned for the north side of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto, being developed jointly by Abrams-Millikan and Spenger’s.

Farther north in West Berkeley, he said “Gilman is another big success,” referring to the new Whole Foods Market and burgeoning Gilman District development.

He said the passage of Measure BB will finally produce the money to tackle the notorious Gilman/I-80 intersection: “This is the first time we can say we have the money and we are going to do this,” Bates said.

The mayor said the introduction of the GoBerkeley parking program had been a success. “Not only has it worked, but we’re getting a lot more money,” he said.

He added, “It could be as much as $1 million,” but City Manager Christine Daniel, sitting in the second row, shook her head at that sum.

Bates next turned his attention to the city’s relationship with UC Berkeley.

“I have a wonderful relationship with the new chancellor, but I have to tell you the university has its own agendas,” he said. “It’s been a challenge to work with them.”

Despite that, he said the university would be adding retail space to its new development on Shattuck north of University, and will also have some space for private company offices.

Street repairs, a constant issue for the Berkeley City Council, will accelerate, Bates said, with funds from the city’s Measure M and Alameda County’s Measure BB. He said the city will be spending around $11 million a year, compared to $1 million annually currently.

Bates spent less time talking about the challenges facing the city. He cited the shortfall in PERS — the public employee retirement system — caused by the 2008 crash. Bates also cited aging infrastructure, including sewers and storm drains: “It’s an old city,” he said.

Finally he noted that city employees have gone without a raise in three years: “We’re now in negotiation with all our unions.”

In conclusion, Bates spoke about the opportunity gap in Berkeley. He said he wanted to get more money into the Housing Trust Fund, which helps finance affordable housing in the city.

“I want to get money so we can buy rent-controlled properties,” he said. “When I say ‘we,’ I mean non-profits.”

He said too many rent-controlled properties are let to students and other short-term tenants, allowing landlords to raise rents each time there’s a new tenant.

 dec 8 protests-5 photo kelly owen
Protesters clash with police on Dec. 8 in Berkeley: Mayor Bates said police had training to try to reduce prejudice. Photo: Kelly Owen
Protesters clash with police on Dec. 8 in Berkeley: Mayor Bates said police had training to try to reduce prejudice. Photo: Kelly Owen

During the evening, Bates spoke briefly about the December protests and the resulting police response.

“I think we have a great police department,” Bates said. He said all of the force had undergone “fair and impartial” training so it learned how to diminish prejudice in its actions.

And there was a moment of zen when the mayor asked the audience to participate in an exercise. Try this at home:

  1. Think of the fourth letter of the alphabet
  2. Think of a country that starts with that letter
  3. Think of an animal whose name starts with the last letter of that country
  4. Think of a fruit whose name starts with the last letter of that animal

Done that? If your answer is “orange,” it demonstrates, Bates said, that most of us think along pre-programmed lines. The implication was that most of us harbor deep preconceptions and prejudices that are difficult to shed.*

Berkeley mayor launches new education initiative at State of the City address (05.01.14)
Mayor on downtown, Telegraph, bike sharing, minimum wage at State of the City (04.28.14)
City Manager Christine Daniel details Berkeley’s finances (11.01.13)
Mayor Bates on tackling city’s worst deficit in years (06.17.10)

* The most common sequence is D, Denmark, kangaroo, orange. Your Berkeleyside reporter was derailed by choosing koala. An audience member behind Berkeleyside eruditely went for Djibouti instead of Denmark.  

Nearly all the initiatives and developments raised by Mayor Bates in his address have been covered by Berkeleyside in the past year or so (as the links in the story above demonstrate). Help us keep you ahead of the news by supporting us. Become a Berkeley Members today.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...