The brunch at Berkeley's Buddhist temple will continue - at least for now

By Kristin Bender, Oakland Tribune, Feb 26, 2009

Oakland, CA (USA) -- The brunch will go on.

Ten months after a small group of neighbors complained that Wat Mongkolratanaram, a Buddhist temple on Russell Street, was abusing its protections as a religious organization by running a professional-style restaurant that serves Thai food to hundreds of people on Sunday, the city's zoning board this month voted 8-1 to allow the temple to continue the brunches at least for now.

Neighbors had asked the zoning board to put some limitations on the operation because they said it was a "commercial enterprise," operating in an area zoned residential. They also complained about odors, crowds, trash, noise and parking snarls in their quiet South Berkeley neighborhood.

Brunches have been held each Sunday for the past 27 years, although the 1993 use permit only allows for brunches three times a year.

The recent vote was preliminary, and a final vote is slated for March 12, a city planner said. The zoning board's final decision can be appealed to the Berkeley City Council, said senior planner Greg Powell.

The controversy over the brunches began in April when the temple asked the city for a permit to build a Buddha sanctuary. It was then that neighbors got involved, criticizing the expansion and complaining about the massive brunches, which can sometimes draw 600 people. Over the course of many months, temple members and neighbors met six times for mediation, but an ideal solution was never found.

Some changes have been made, such as limiting the number of chairs to 200 and reducing food preparation and serving hours.

But all the fuss has been a strain on both sides, said those involved.

"It's been a difficult thing," said Sukum Sai-Ngarm, a temple member. "Buddhists really don't like this type of situation. I'm not a great Buddhist student, but from what I know, you try and let (disagreements) go. That is one of the major teachings of the religion."

A handful of opponents spoke at the zoning meeting. Many said they were not trying to "shut down" the brunch operation or the temple, as some temple members had claimed, but want the temple to follow the rules just like everyone else.

"All we are trying to do is say that if you are going to run a really large-scale operation, really do it in a way that reduces the impact for people who live right next door to you," said neighbor Carolyn Shoulders. "It's not impossible to have emission controls so we don't smell grease and spices all over the neighborhood."

Supporters far outweighed opponents in the fight over the brunch.

More than 2,700 people signed a petition to save the brunch, and supporters included many groups, including the Associated Students of UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco Center for the Pacific Rim, the Alliance for California Traditional Artists, the Raza and Asian American Studies departments at San Francisco State and others.

The zoning board will weigh in and finalize conditions for the brunch at its March meeting.

Conditions say that all food will be prepared indoors to reduce noise and odor impacts and that food service will be relocated away from adjacent residential properties. The areas where people eat will be relocated away from adjacent residential properties to reduce noise and odor impacts. Occupancy will be limited to 200 people at one time, and a 6-foot landscape wall will go up to buffer noise and screen the food service and consumption areas from the adjacent residential properties.

Volunteers can't start preparing food before 8 a.m. Sundays, and food sales will be between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. only, with the last diner out by 2 p.m.

The food service will be relocated from Russell Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Powell said. A parcel on Oregon Street will be used for an enhanced garden.

Supporters say the Sunday food offering is essential to the Buddhist practice of communal food-sharing because it gives Buddhists an opportunity to earn merits by providing their time, services and donations to the monks and the temple.

Temple officials say the event grew out of a religious tradition whereby Buddhists donate food to local monks.

When the monks are finished eating, the remaining food is shared with the community. In this case, the food is given to the public in exchange for set donations ranging from $5 to $7. The event has grown over the past 15 years, mostly through word of mouth.