The Berkeley City Council and the Planning Department allowed local developer Patrick Kennedy to put extra stories in several of his building projects in exchange for ambiguously defined "cultural amenities" which never materialized, went bankrupt, or didn't "pencil out."
Kennedy doesn't deny it, he just waives his hands helplessly and tries to scrounge up a new tenant, any tenant, that can help justify the city's largess and his own broken promises. One project follows the next, each proposed "cultural amenity" hitting the same shipwreck on the same obvious rock.
The latest embarrassment is the building project replacing what was once the Fine Arts Theater, where Pauline Kael and Ed Landberg set into motion a quiet revolution in intelligent cinema, an amenity which, as in previous projects, Kennedy promised would be replaced with some cultural equivalent, excusing or at least ameliorating yet another oversized building to a dubious neighborhood.
A recent letter in a local paper suggests that discouraging though it is for the project to lose its theater, perhaps the space could be utilized as a grocery store. A sensible suggestion from the perspective of those who watched helplessly as the Planning Department turned cartwheels over throwing out decades-old Edie's Restaurant in favor of a remodel-whoops-demolition to accommodate Eddie Bauer, the clothing business that Berkeley woke up with one morning and noticed to its dismay was just, well, gone. The Blue and Gold and the PennySaver markets were edged out, making marketing a long, weary hike for downtown residents, something the planners clearly prioritize well below a shiny new facade.
But Warhol tomato soup cans aside, a grocery store hardly fills the "art" bill the community was promised, and in some cases paid for with forgiven loans of public money and variances which rob them of sunlight and sight lines.
The City Council and the Planning Department should certainly insist on honest retail spaces, so that the musical chairs of failing retail businesses someday ends. But they should not only insist on more honesty in the "cultural space" elements of future projects, they should demand that the false art spaces sitting in limbo from past projects become dedicated art spaces open to the public for the public's benefit. No conversion to grocery stores should be tolerated in a town where artists and art space gets no discount from market rate living, workshop, gallery and event rental space.
Developer Patrick Kennedy could address the debt he owes the Berkeley community by fitting out the art spaces at his own expense, and offering the spaces in rotation to a variety of space-starved community groups who need them for meetings and events. He could do this without community or political pressure, of course. But it wouldn't hurt to publically encourage him to redress the absent art space his buildings currently represent. And it would behoove him to do so before some artist has the clarity of mind to simply squat them.