The biggest Berkeley stories of 2015

Hundreds gathered in Civic Center Park Sunday night for a "Month's Mind" to honor and remember those killed in the June 16 balcony collapse. Photo: Ted Friedman
Hundreds gathered in Civic Center Park to remember those killed when a balcony collapsed. Photo: Ted Friedman

2015 was an eventful year. Six young people died when a balcony on a relatively new building broke off. Race was a huge topic, from the controversy surrounding Kamau Bell’s treatment at the Elmwood Café to a racist threat made on a Berkeley High School computer, to a peaceful protest walkout by hundreds of students.

Berkeley approved the first new tall building in its downtown in more than 40 years. It also passed new laws to restrict the behavior of homeless people. The housing and rental markets went crazy, leaving many to wonder: Who can afford to live in Berkeley? Not least as the median price of a home in Berkeley breached the $1 million mark.

But there were some lighter moments too, such as the business owner whose Wall Street Journal was stolen every morning, and our report on naked tree-hugging protesters.

Here is a selection of the top stories of the year. Some were chosen because they drew the most readers and others because they reverberated deeply in city life.


Berkeley balcony collapse 

People look at flowers left in memory of the victims of a deadly balcony collapse at the Library Gardens Apartments, in Berkeley, on Wednesday, June 17, 2015. Six people died and seven were seriously injured in the early Tuesday morning accident. Photo: David Yee ©2015
The day after a balcony collapsed, leaving six dead, people looked at flowers left in their memory. Photo: David Yee

What should have been a night of happiness for a 21st-birthday party turned into a night of horror on June 16 when a fifth-floor balcony holding a dozen young adults broke off, sending six to their deaths. The tragedy thrust Ireland into mourning and raised questions about shoddy craftsmanship, building codes, and inspections in Berkeley. It also brought people together. They left mounds of flowers at the site, held candles to commemorate those who died, and prompted the president of Ireland and the mayor of Berkeley to jointly plant a tree. Berkeley firefighters, police and city staff showed their best selves in responding to the tragedy, while helping both the injured and the emotionally shattered, officials said.

The impact of racism

bhs students
Berkeley High students marched through the Cal campus Nov. 5 in support of racial justice. Photo: Lance Knobel

December 2014 was marked by large Black Lives Matter protests in the streets of Berkeley and Oakland, and questions surrounding race continued to be raised in 2015. There was no one defining moment, but a series of incidents forced Berkeley residents to think hard about race issues. They included the way performer Kamau Bell was treated at the Elmwood Café and a subsequent teach-in about race; and racist threats left on a Berkeley High computer that prompted much of the school to walk out in protest. The Berkeley Police Department took a close look at its response to the December 2014 protests, when officers used tear gas to clear crowds from Telegraph Avenue, as did the city’s Police Review Commission. The Berkeley City Council is set to review those efforts in January. A group of individuals who said police used inappropriate force during the December 2014 protests has filed a lawsuit against the city to pursue damages.

Housing market/short-term rentals

For Rent signs on Spruce Street. Photo by Melati Citrawireja
“For rent” signs on Spruce Street. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

What happened to housing and rental prices in Berkeley this year? They went up. And up. And up. Some landlords converted their apartments to short-term rentals, prompting concern that sites like Airbnb were reducing the city’s housing stock. Some landlords listed 20-bedroom homes near campus for $1,000 a bed per month. Students squeezed together for affordability, prompting neighborhoods to worry about the impacts of “mini-dorms.” And, while there are a significant number of newly built apartments in the city, and thousands in the pipeline, most are “market rate,” which today means a one-bedroom can rent for $2,500 and up.

Berkeley’s first tall building approved in more than 40 years 

2211 Harold Way is one of several tall building proposals in the pipeline that must offer "significant community benefits" under the Downtown Area Plan. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning
Three years after developer Joe Penner applied for a permit, council approved the construction of 2211 Harold Way. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning

The battle over the approval of 2211 Harold Way, a 302-unit, 18-story high-rise abutting the historic Hotel Shattuck and old Hinks Building in downtown Berkeley, stripped bare the city’s politics for all to see. On one side was Mayor Tom Bates and his five colleagues on the City Council — Laurie Capitelli, Linda Maio, Susan Wengraf, Darryl Moore and Lori Droste — downtown business interests represented by the Downtown Berkeley Association, labor unions, and smart-growth advocates. They championed the building because they believed it would bring density and vibrancy downtown and reduce car travel because of its proximity to BART, and create jobs, among other reasons. On the other side is a group of historic preservationists and fierce critics of Bates’ style of governance. It’s a battle that has played out repeatedly in recent years. While the council eventually approved the building, a lawsuit may still be filed. If not, watch for construction to begin in about a year or so.

Homelessness and homeless issues come to the forefront

A sign set up by the Old City Hall homeless camp. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
A sign set up by the Old City Hall homeless camp. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

In December, after years of watching in frustration as homeless people and young travelers spread out their belongings on sidewalks and in Berkeley parks, the City Council passed new laws restricting behavior and property storage in public spaces. The laws won’t go into effect, however, until the city figures out how to provide lockers than can hold the possessions of 50-100 individuals. Critics characterized the laws as criminalizing the homeless, prompting a protest group to set up a tent city in front of Old City Hall. They named it Liberty City and asked city officials to give them a space to live and just leave them alone. City officials demurred, and the group packed up and left while police watched. Read more coverage of homelessness in Berkeley. Another notable event brought homeless issues to the forefront: the assault of a homeless man by one of Downtown Berkeley Association’s ambassadors. The video was widely viewed and solicited 305 comments. (The ambassador was fired.)

Naked tree-hugging protesters 

Volunteers pose naked against eucalyptus trees at the Grinnell Natural Area of UC Berkeley on Saturday July 18, 2015 to show opposition to a FEMA-funded tree-clearing proposal. Photo: Ted Friedman
Volunteers posed naked against eucalyptus trees at the Grinnell Natural Area of UC Berkeley on July 18, 2015 to show opposition to a FEMA-funded tree-clearing proposal. Photo: Ted Friedman

The decision by the East Bay Regional Parks District to use FEMA funds to take down eucalyptus trees in the fire-prone East Bay Hills prompted a most unusual protest. Jack Gescheidt, the founder of the Tree Spirt Project, artfully arranged a group of naked volunteers around a eucalyptus grove on the UC Berkeley campus, nowhere near the threatened trees. No matter. The captivating image of the tree huggers went viral. The story garnered more than 221,000 page views, making it our most-read story of the year.

Who keeps taking my Wall Street Journal?

This is the note Richard Nagler left for the thief of his Wall Street Journal.
The note Richard Nagler left for the thief of his Wall Street Journal. Photo: Richard Nagler

Richard Nagler, a photographer and the owner of Skylight and Sun at 2109 Blake St., got tired of arriving to work each day to find that someone had taken his Wall Street Journal. After he installed a surveillance camera, in March this year he finally identified the culprit who had been taking the paper for close to a decade and wrote him a polite note that he attached to the front gate. He said the man could read the paper as long as he returned it by 10 or 11 a.m. in a good state without coffee stains. The Wall Street Journal saw the story and editor in chief Gerard Baker then sent Nagler a note, which two staffers pinned up next to the original note. (Baker also offered the thief a 12-week subscription for $12.) Berkeleyside readers seemed to appreciate Nagler’s tone and stance. The series got about 70,000 page views, and was picked up by local TV stations, the Huffington Post, NPR Morning Edition, Laughing Squid, and Jim Romenesko among others.

Honorable mentions

Readers were captivated by our series on "the barber's dog." Photo: Leslie Smith
Readers were captivated by our series on “the barber’s dog.” Photo: Leslie Smith

Other stories that sparked reader interest in 2015 included the loud Navy fighter jet that buzzed Berkeley, Whoopi Goldberg’s decision to sell her Berkeley home, the email spam mishap that spawned a community potluck and got national attention, and the California drought and its various impacts around the city — which included making Berkeley’s water taste “horrible” earlier this year. A mysterious, recurring boom left many readers wondering about its source in the early part of 2015. Readers also loved our series on one woman’s efforts to save “the barber’s dog,” and close looks at monarch butterflies in Aquatic Park, and Eugene Tssui’s “Fish House.”

Berkeleyside editors would also like to take this opportunity to thank all our freelance writers and regular contributors who brought readers some of these stories.

Related:
The most important Berkeley stories of 2014 (12.31.14)
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)

Are you depending on Berkeleyside for more local news in 2016? Support independent local journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside Member. You can choose either a monthly payment or a one-time contribution.