Downtown Berkeley street will not be renamed following public hearing

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Plans to rename Harold Way in Downtown Berkeley to Dharma Way have been abandoned after an unfavorable public hearing took place Thursday to debate the religious connotations of the name.

At the hearing, the city’s Public Works Commission decided not to send a recommendation to the City Council to rename the 99-year-old street, as it felt the word “Dharma” raised issues of establishing a harmful precedent.

“Although no formal vote was taken last night, it was clear that the Commission did not favor our application,” wrote Jack Petranker, director of Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages, in an email to the commission. “Under the circumstances, we have no wish to pursue the matter further. You can consider this email a formal withdrawal of our pending application.”

The Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center — which owns Dharma College and the Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages — initially applied for the renaming of the street in April 2011 in honor of the centers and their sister organizations in the area.

In June, Berkeley City Council heard proposals for the change, though the issue was not addressed and was instead sent to the commission for further deliberation.

Supporters of the change said at the meeting that calling the street Dharma Way would unify the buildings on the block with a common and cohesive name.

“(Dharma) means true, it means correct, it means the right way to act,” said Santosh Philip, a Berkeley resident who attended the meeting and supported the renaming.

Yet some attendees argued that “Dharma” was a religious term and should not be used for a public street.

“Changing a name of a facility or a street to a name that would reflect a specific religion would confront nonbelievers and people who have other convictions with something they might find offensive,” said Bruce Reeves, member of the East Bay Atheists.

Berkeley Historical Society President Steven Finacom said in order for street names to be changed, they are required to have historical significance due to city policy.

Finacom said the street’s 99-year-old presence is part of Berkeley historical heritage, whereas renaming the street Dharma Way would be a private organization expanding its image through public property.

Furthermore, Finacom said most streets in the city have their original names, and changing a street name in Berkeley is a rare occurrence.

“To have an existing private entity on a public street — to connect it — seems to be precedent-setting to me,” said commissioner Ray Yep. “That’s what is a little troubling to me.”

Yep said that if the precedent was established, any business, like Safeway, could apply for a street name.

Although the commission planned to send its recommendation to the City Council in November, the meditation center’s application withdrawal closes the matter.

“We look forward to working with the City in the future,” Petranker said in the email. “I personally am pleased to have been part of such a great example of a democratic decision-making process.”

Contact Gladys Rosario at [email protected].