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Density works - try it

Richard Register
Friday August 24, 2001


I was there when Becky O’Malley planted her feet solidly on the floor at the Planning Commission meeting and said, “I’m so glad they are building the Gaia Building. I’m glad is sticks out like a sore thumb. Because everybody is going to hate it. I’m glad they are building it because the people of Berkeley will never allow another tall build be built here – ever,” in approximately those words. 

But density works. Density is people. Do we want to provide for people, or keep them out of town? 

I like the Gaia Building enough that I voted with my feet and moved in the first day it was open. The following morning from the roof deck the sunrise was the first I ever saw with the bay waters in view, shimmering in bright turquoise and teal. The Golden Gate Bridge was a radiant vermilion red, salmon – pink to slate gray fog drifted around the base of luminous San Francisco buildings reflecting the sun.  

Berkeley’s two story houses, trees and the long walk up to the hills always seemed to get in the way of such fabulous sunrises. 

I’ve called for rooftop accessibility, terracing, trellises and garden like this and higher density near transit for the whole 27 years I’ve lived in Berkeley. And since I never lived in such a building and had to endure taunts of “hypocrite” for not living in the kind of building I said I liked (never mind that none existed yet), it made my conscience feel righteously correct to actually try out the first such building. 

So for me, the Gaia Building is a real breakthrough, a genuine historic step into the future. The terracing, trellises and future rooftop garden are the first to bring life up to rooftop level in the city’s history, to bring a serious addressing of environmental problems smack dab into the public view, and not only that, but with design that is friendly as well as big and transit – oriented. Too bad Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association sat this one out, or rather more accurately, fought vehemently against the only future historic architecture to happen here in a generation or more. 

It is already fun being there – or rather – here. As to Michael Katz’ rant in a recent letter to the editor that the building is “Stalinist” I can only say is ugly, as well as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I look at the Gaia Building and far from nightmares of oppressive architecture and government I remember my adolescent summers in Bermuda and a large and graceful old hotel across the Bay I used to look at with real pleasure. The Gaia Building has those. 

Its function is rather significant, serving me for one and giving 150 other people the chance to live here, 20 percent of us in lower cost subsidized apartments. 

What some want to keep out of downtown is, in reality, us. They would prefer to maintain the city’s enormous imbalance of commercial space over housing, but fortunately, that balance shifted slightly with the construction of the Gaia Building. All but seven of its apartments are now rented and only six cars are owned by residents at this point. Not totally car free, but well on the way. 

The place is a bit noisy, I’m afraid but that’s because of the big crude beast of the city, the automobile. The Oxford Street parking lot at night is an immense light reflector for the overhead lights and not too much fun to look at with the black oil spots where the cars park by day. There is considerable glare at night from light flooded onto several of the University buildings driving the stars right out of sight. The Gaia Building itself is lit up in a way I don’t approve. 

Better to simply let the building glow in the light of the city. But that’s a quibble compared to the services the building provides. 


Richard Register