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Letters to the Editor

Saturday May 05, 2001

Four stories on San Pablo good for community 


Gregory Bateson wrote a book in the 1970s called “Towards an Ecology of Mind.” It influenced Gov. Jerry Brown enough that the Gregory Bateson Building was constructed in Sacramento on his watch, featuring as many “green” features as available at the time. 

Time to be mindful again of energy issues, pollution, transit, and infill housing for people of modest income. That’s precisely what the planned development of 48 low and moderate income apartments at 2700 San Pablo is all about. 

Time to transform environmentalists who want to support a better local and global environment into ecologists, that is, into people who see the interconnection of parts in living, whole systems as fundamental to healthy ways of living in our communities and building our communities. 

Time to take the quotation marks off “progressives” who oppose density in places that support housing for the people who need it and transform them into real progressives who support such housing. 

It sounds like news from Mars to a lot of people, but urban form stands at the foundation of either a healthy or dysfunctional way of urban living. 

By urban form, we who ponder such things and try to apply ecological thinking to our communities, mean thinly scattered automobile-dependent development is too expensive in every way imaginable: for low income people forced to buy cars and gasoline, for energy reserves, for the health of native plants and animals, for global climate stability. The urban form that works best on all those counts is pedestrian/transit centers oriented development of modest density - and the proposed 4 stories of the 2700 San Pablo fits well into such a density range. 

Higher density along transit corridors is an important interim step and a parallel development strategy that goes along with centers-oriented development. It will sound like a quibble to those who have not thought about urban form very much, but centers allow even more benefits than corridors, and make it possible to contemplate means to create more open spaces in our cities, such as enough spaces to imagine opening buried creeks and expanding community gardens and parks. But by being located on one of the city’s best AC Transit corridors, 2700 San Pablo takes us a long way in that direction. 

Ecocity Builders, in supporting this project, would prefer it if the building were car-free by rental agreement and did not have the 61 parking space for 48 units. This promotion of the automobile with all its detriments is crammed down the throats of developers and the ordinance that forces this out-dated means of damaging the planet should be overturned. However, while educating about that, we need to at least address the city’s poor housing construction record and build enough apartments to make a dent on the problem. And we need to put that housing in the right place to help build up efficient transit in a time of energy crisis. 


Richard Register 



Four stories ‘good,’ but not for the developers 


Developers everywhere try to convince City Councils, to whom they have given money, that they know better what an area needs than the people who live there.  

Gordon Choyce II takes his home owner exemption on a lovely house, situated on a quiet cul-de-sac, in the El Sobrante hills, where there isn’t a 4 story building in sight. Patrick Kennedy rides down from his hill in Piedmont, an area not known for apartments or affordable housing.  

Together, they act in a paternalistic and patronizing fashion towards the neighbors, implying they know best what San Pablo’s future should be, and calling the neighbors of their pending project NIMBYs and worse. The neighbors, on the other hand are not fighting housing, affordable or low income, but are fighting density and height. They welcome housing and are realistic about its need. I hope our council will consider the impacted neighborhood when voting on the project. 


R. Vimont 



‘Special interest’: saving the neighborhood 


Harry Pollack’s defense (4/30/01) of the ill-conceived and outsized development project proposed for the landmarked Byrne site at 1301 Oxford St. would be just another in the long PR campaign to defend an indefensible project were it not for a remarkable assertion he makes in his opening paragraph: that considerations of the size, siting and details of the project are being driven by “special interests.” Special interests?  

We’ve always understood that to mean political players that exercise undue influence because of their power and connections. Given how easily this development project has moved through the approval process, which of the players here might qualify as a special interest?  

Is Codornices Creek a special interest? Are Alameda Creeks Alliance, Friends of Five Creeks, Urban Creeks Council, Sierra Club (San Francisco Bay Chapter), Center for Biological Diversity, International Rivers Network, Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative, Eco-City Builders, Berkeley Eco-House, California Oak Foundation, and the Golden Gate Chapter of the Audubon Society, all of which have joined the neighborhood association in appealing the Use Permit to the City Council, special interests?  

The choice is not between the synagogue’s plan and the continued neglect of the site, which has been owned by Congregation Beth El for more than three years now. Applications are currently pending for funds to acquire access to and improve this site as a resource for all Berkeley residents, far beyond what the current development proposal will do. The synagogue’s own creeks expert has criticized its proposal. And it is possible to place a religious institution on the southern portion of the Byrne site while preserving the entire riparian corridor to the north.  

Is the maintenance of the residential neighborhood character of the neighborhood surrounding the Byrne site a special interest? For the applicants to suggest that characterization underscores the take-it-or-leave-it approach of the congregation’s leaders.  

To understand what’s at issue, stand at the Oxford Street gate to the Byrne property, and take in the planned building that currently is marked off by story poles. It is approximately a football field in length. Then walk over to the Safeway on Henry St. just south of Rose. The building Beth El is seeking to build is only slightly smaller in floor area than that supermarket. It will house not only the synagogue sanctuary but offices, a day care facility, classrooms for a number of programs, a large and expandable social space and a library. It will be in use, according to synagogue leaders’ testimony, from 7 a.m. until late into the evening, and unlike the current facility, will be used for large weekend parties. 

Count the number of parking spaces in Safeway’s lot, including the underground spaces. Or in the parking lot at St. Mary Magdalene, or St. John’s on College St., or at the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley. Then compare: to accommodate the many users of this building, the applicant will provide on the Oxford Street site all of 32 parking places, leaving the balance of the cars it attracts to be absorbed by the neighborhood.  

“Balance” is the mantra used by Beth El’s leaders since they first proposed this project. Their interest in balance appears to stop at both the boundaries of the Byrne property and the limits of the congregation’s interests.  

We cannot believe this is the balance Beth El’s congregants seek. If it is, there remains no question who the true special interest is in the case of 1301 Oxford St.  

Alan S. Kay, Carole Selter Norris