I would like to register my support for the University’s effort to solve the vexing problem of affordable student housing. I would also like to dissuade the University from proposing a beefed-up, three-block “megastructure” on the Southside of Berkeley as its most intelligent response to this need.
The last UC architecture historian, Spiro Kostof, portrays the megastructures “craze” in the United States as a dated and perhaps farcical solution to urban problems. In the 1950s UC proposed its contribution to this movement, of which Units 1 & 2 were to be part and parcel. The portions of the plan that was built marginalized the neighborhood dysfunction. This painful history is nothing that I need chronicle. It is common lore on both sides of Bancroft.
As someone who has served on the boards of People’s Park and Telegraph Area Association and who is involved in the restoration of Berkeley’s only National Historic Landmark building (Bernard Maybeck’s Christian Science church on Dwight Way), the least I am good for is alerting the University that the present Underhill plan will amplify the dysfunctional impact. While I question the parking structure, it is the philosophy of warehousing students in domineering towers that I believe is most destructive to the Southside. It is antithetical to the mission of educating community leaders. It isolates students from their community and may reinforce, subtly but effectively, indifference or condescension to their neighbors (’townies’). They literally “look down” on others.
The Southside is a historic community, limping along in its present situation, but capable of recovery. The present Underhill plan could be the proverbial final nail in the coffin.
The Southside needs housing. It can increase its housing to an acceptable level without any towers, present or future.
You might be interested to know that the towers long ago proposed on People’s Park (previously traditional Berkeley housing stock) would have increased the number of beds on the block in the range of only 20-30 percent, according to a professional architect who studied it. Often what is promised in the name of “efficiency of scale” takes extravagant, painful efforts and delivers marginal benefits.
For a number of years I was involved in developing a deteriorating property on the Southside that faced rigid parameters on every front, from neighborhood preservation ordinances to rent control. Investment seemed impossible. However, the right developer came along and now the owner will increase the number of beds by over double the previous, while retaining parking and neighborhood scale.
Is there no way for the University to solve its housing shortage by a multitude of smaller development efforts, rather than this bureaucratic megastructure approach that takes full (false) responsibility for housing and feeding students in an institutional regimen? If so, it would leave the University with more resources to educate rather than play developer and landlord, which the private sector does so much better.
Could the University seed parts of Berkeley with small development grants or create more University/private partnerships that make individual projects appealing and workable? It would give the University a number of private sector partners in the local scene that would support its housing program. This would create University/community good will rather than town and gown chills.
The old fashioned mid-century megastructures were like the bulky mainframe computers of their day. It took concerted effort and a change of philosophy to bring power down to the human scale of PC’s and their remarkable network possibilities. The change was very painful to IBM, I might add, but critical to its survival in the long run.
Would there not be substantial University and community benefit in adopting the philosophy of “faster, smaller, better, cheaper?”
William Marquand is executive director of the Maybeck Foundation. This is a copy of an open letter he sent to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl.