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Berkeley Neighbors Take Issue with Thai Temple

New America Media, News Report//Video, Story/Photos: Viji Sundaram//Video: Jonathan Sanchez Posted: Dec 04, 2008

Editor's note: Berkeley, the hotbed of diversity and left wing politics, finds itself in the middle of a cultural conflict between a Thai temple and its neighbors. NAM editor Viji Sundaram reports.

This is a streaming MP4 video - you'll need Quicktime 6 or later to view it.

BERKELEY, Calif. It's a tale of how some people's gastronomical delights are proving to be unpalatable to some others.

The story is happening in Berkeley, on Russell Street, at the 32-year-old Wat Mongkoiratanaram Thai Temple, where every Sunday, for the last 15 years, temple officials have been serving brunch for a "donation" ranging from $5 to $7. Diners exchange dollar bills for green and red tokens.

The feast has consistently been drawing anywhere from 400 to 600 people, who sometimes wait in line for a half hour to dine on pad thai, chicken curry and other spicy dishes prepared in the temple's kitchen by volunteer Thai cooks.

Diners, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, say that aside from the food, the brunch gives them an opportunity to hang out with their peers.

"Food is a great bridge to community," observed Skye Weir of East Oakland, who described himself as a regular at the Sunday brunch.

"Every time I come to the Bay Area from D.C., which is once a month, I come here," said Ivan Vidangos, 33, who was sitting on the lawn of the South Berkeley Public Library with a bunch of friends outside a building on Russell Street, eating a plate of chicken curry and rice. "I developed a taste for Thai food after spending five months in Thailand."

UC Berkeley student 21-year-old Reetu Mody, who was eating a plate of vegetarian pad thai, said she has been coming to the Sunday festivities since her freshman year because the atmosphere is very "Berkeley-esque, the food good, and it's just great fun."


Popular as it is with many, the brunch program has pitted the temple against some of its neighbors, who view the temple as a "commercial restaurant" in a residential zone. They have asked the city to close the kitchen.

Both sides are set to meet with a mediator Dec. 4, to see of they can find common ground.

If they can't, they will meet with the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board Jan. 22, which will decide whether to grant a request from the temple for a permit to continue the brunch program.

The current zoning permit the temple has was issued in 1993. It limits the temple to serve food only three times a year.

That's what the temple was doing in the early years, said Christina Jirachachavalwong, a temple volunteer.

But as word spread about the brunch, more and more diners showed up each week.

"We hadn't anticipated it would grow this way," Jirachachavalwong said, acknowledging that the temple had overlooked getting the permit modified.

Last April, when temple officials approached the zoning board for a permit to build a new shrine, some of the neighbors started complaining about the noise, smell and traffic congestion they say is caused by the Sunday brunch.

After investigating the complaints, the city declared that the temple has been violating its original permit. The city told the temple it needs to modify it.


Opponents say the smell of food being prepared, the noise from pots and pans clanging, and the vehicular traffic generated in their neighborhood on Sundays is more than they can handle, said Victor Herbert of East Bay Community Mediation, who, at the city's behest, met three times since April with the two disputing parties to find a way to solve the problem.

Apart from coming to an agreement about the entrance to the proposed new sanctuary, "we couldn't come up with any common agreement," said Herbert.

Among the more than a dozen neighbors who signed a petition demanding that the Berkeley zoning board stop the Sunday brunch program is Tom Rough, whose home on Oregon Street abuts the temple's boundaries.

Rough declined to speak to NAM reporters who showed up at his door, saying the media "has never treated me fairly," but in an e-mail last September to project planner Greg Powell, Rough is cited as saying that the neighbors who have signed the petition are unhappy that the city is turning a blind eye to their complaints, and that it "has a responsibility to act."

Nearly 2,000 people have petitioned the city to keep the program going.

Temple officials maintain the brunch program serves two purposes: The money raised helps support the many temple programs to keep Thai culture alive, and it will allow them to build a new sanctuary on the premises to house three statues of the Buddha.

They say the food offering program is an integral part of the Thai Buddhist religious practice of communal food sharing that gives volunteers an opportunity to earn good karma.

"It is an opportunity for them to practice their religion," said Virada Chatikul, 26, who has been a student at the temple's Thai language and dance courses since she was six. "The temple has allowed me to have pride in my culture."

"My four-year-old daughter attended a summer program at the temple and was able to communicate with my mom, who doesn't speak any English," noted Christina Jirachachavalwong who, like Chatikul frequently volunteers at the temple. "That has made a big difference and given her pride in who she is."

Jirachachavalwong said that the temple has done everything it could to address the neighbors' concerns. She said it starts preparing the brunch at a later hour, has cut the brunch hours by two hours, and has organized a volunteer cleaning squad that "picks up anything lying around on Russell and Otis streets just to keep the neighborhood clean."

In order to relieve the traffic congestion around the temple, diners can park at the Any Mountain parking lot on Shattuck Avenue, where 23 parking spaces have been made available, she said.

Berkeley's zoning officials have recommended to the zoning board to give a new permit for the Sunday brunch, mediator Herbert said, noting that the Sunday brunch "is like a county fair.

"Everyone is happy, except the neighbors."

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Cambodia and Thailand's Standoff Threatens Regional Stability

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