For the first time in three years, Mayor Tom Bates addressed the city in a special event Wednesday designed to highlight the challenges and opportunities Berkeley is facing.
About 70 people attended Bates’ “State of the City” address at Berkeley City College to hear what the mayor had to say.
After an introduction from Berkeley City College president Deborah Budd — who said Bates is known as the school’s “founding father” — the mayor highlighted Berkeley’s downtown housing and restaurant boom, a clean-up effort underway on Telegraph Avenue, the city’s 50-year low in crime reports, and a variety of sustainability successes around town.
Details were slim, but Bates also launched a new school-related initiative, the Berkeley Pathway to College, that will aim to help local students attain higher education levels than they do currently.
He said the city budget — though currently largely balanced — continues to be Berkeley’s biggest challenge, with “just no money” for major spending, and a bleak outlook in the years ahead due to rising pension and health care costs.
“We have to figure out how we can do the job better, or as good… with less people,” Bates said. “It’s not going to be easy.”
Bates described the extensive development underway in downtown Berkeley as “the greening of downtown,” due to its push to have more people living and working near transit hubs in the city center. He pointed to successes in building the city’s start-up community — in collaboration with UC Berkeley, the city’s Office of Economic Development and other partners. And he said, at this point, the main need downtown is for high-quality office space.
In discussing his efforts to help clean-up Telegraph Avenue, he said he had initially been hesitant to get involved because, technically, it’s the territory of the council member who represents that area, District 7. He pointed to positive atmospheres on Solano and College avenues, recognizing council members Laurie Capitelli and Gordon Wozniak by name, but said the sorry state of Telegraph ultimately forced his hand.
“I finally said, ‘I just can’t take it anymore,'” Bates said, as he described stepped-up clean-up and beautification campaigns, money he’s designated from his own office fund to help make changes, the fledging Sundays on Telegraph street festival that started last year, and a decision by the City Council on Tuesday night to allow for more density on the avenue.
(District 7 is part of Councilman Kriss Worthington’s area of the city, though Bates did not mention him by name. Worthington was among four council members, as well as Jesse Arreguín and Max Anderson, who were not in attendance Wednesday night. Councilwoman Linda Maio is traveling out of the area this week.)
The mayor spent a long time Wednesday speaking about the city’s efforts to fight climate change, noting that he himself became a “convert” to the cause after meeting former Vice President Al Gore. Bates said climate change would be the one issue he saw himself fighting until the end of his life.
Bates described Berkeley as an excellent place for environmental progress: “There are more Prius cars here than in Japan,” he told the crowd with a smile.
He also said there are more than 1,200 solar installations in the city, and that Berkeley has one of the lowest permitting costs in the state for allowing them. He pointed to the 5,000 new trees the city has planted since 2000, as well as reductions in water use and landfill waste throughout the community.
He also mentioned the conversion of 8,000 Berkeley streetlights to LED bulbs — expected within the next year or so — which he said will reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 6.5% and save $380,000 a year.
As part of his own push to fight climate change, Bates sold his car years back and is known for using his feet as his main form of transport around Berkeley. He said, however, that he loves new cars and that the switch hadn’t been easy: “That’s why I need a Tesla,” he quipped. “Though I’m not quite in that bracket.”
He said the city has 375 electric cars, and mentioned an increasing number of charging stations around town.
Bates gave a quick pitch about upcoming elections, asking attendees to support county transportation tax Measure B — which would bring $3 million a year to Berkeley — as well as the parks tax and the sugar tax.
But he urged the community not to vote for a plan he said is designed to “stop growth downtown,” the Green Downtown Public Commons Initiative. (Berkeleyside will be writing about all the initiatives underway; bookmark our elections section to stay tuned.)
Bates talked about the continuing success of the city’s 2020 Vision program to help close the achievement gap, and ended his hour-long talk with a brief mention of the new “Berkeley Pathway to College” plan, which is in the very early stages.
Sbeydeh Viveros Walton, the mayor’s senior aide, said the mayor’s hope is to make it easier for all local students to reach college, and that the announcement was a call to action to help build out the concept. She said the mayor’s office is working with Berkeley City College on a “cohort model” to help students be more successful, and is also seeking grant funding to take a closer look at the needs of current students.
Despite the lack of detail, several attendees said his Pathway to College concept was among the most inspiring ideas presented by Bates on Wednesday. Attendees said they appreciated the “very balanced overview,” and the details about sustainability successes.
But several members of the public also said they were worried about the increasing density downtown and throughout the city.
“It’s important to concentrate people in the core,” said Moni Law, a Berkeley resident. “But it needs to be affordable and accessible as well.”
One resident who attended said it’s time to stop the growth altogether.
“There are too many people living here now,” said Ralph Witten. “I can’t even park in front of my own house.”
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)
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