Page One

Plan first - then build

Becky O’Malley
Friday August 24, 2001


This season’s crop of land–use controversies reminds me of shopping with my friends at discount outlets like Ross Dress for Less. We get some great bargains, sometimes, but we make some awful mistakes too. It’s one thing to squeeze into a dress that’s a bit too small, but too small shoes will almost never work out. For would–be builders, there’s a terrible temptation to acquire rights to a “bargain” site, and then to try to cram way too much into a too–tight space.  

The Beth El project is an obvious example. The congregation got a good deal on a piece of property with significant problems: the creek, the historic status, the neighbors. . . After a huge amount of public wrangling that exhausted all parties, the announced solution has Beth El promising to put their project on a diet so that it will fit elegantly into the site by September. I hope they can do it. 

The project that threatens to be the worst example of a dubious bargain is the Oxford lot. Such a deal! A pie–shaped slice of downtown, city – owned, currently used only for parking. Realtor Mickey Tenenbaum, an old friend, told me he estimates the value to be about $6 million on the open market. BUT...everyone in Berkeley wants a piece of it, and if they all get what they want, it will be a mess.  

I counted eight different uses in Mickey’s latest letter to the Planet. To cram them all onto the modest site, he and performance artist George Coates propose expanding the already–crowded concept approved by the Planning Commission to seven stories. The one–size –fits–all arts megaplex seemed to be one of the best ideas of the 1970s, but performer friends tell me it hasn’t worked out all that well at the Yerba Buena Center.  

Common complaints are cramped design and heavy cost burden on performing organizations to compensate for overly optimistic initial business plans.  

The Tenenbaum/Coates proposal would never fit the kind of arts organizations most in need of space in Berkeley, those which attract substantial audiences and pay artists living wages. Their proposed 450–seat theater is exactly the wrong size: too big for equity–exempt experimental cutting edge productions, and too small for larger professional groups. The Berkeley Symphony (a union orchestra) desperately needs a space which would allow two 1,000– seat performances of each concert. For groups such as the Festival Opera, Zellerbach is too big to fill, too pricey to rent and too hard to schedule.  

Just from a spatial perspective, the arts megaplex proposal seems ill –conceived, as letter writers to the Planet have pointed out. One of the best things about downtown Berkeley is the view of the hills from Shattuck over the tops of the buildings. It would be a real shame to sacrifice even more of that just because the city happens to own a piece of land that seems like a bargain to would–be developers.  

Before Berkeley rushes into any more expensive projects which claim to benefit the arts, we need a thorough professional needs assessment. This should have happened before the Berkeley Rep got such a big chunk of public money. We already have a lot of existing small performance spaces in Berkeley which serve the community well. I am happy to be able to walk to the charming Berkeley Opera in the Julia Morgan Theater, and it’s even on the 51 bus line, the only really functioning transit option in town. Why move it to a downtown already too crowded at night with suburban theatergoers and their SUVs? And then what happens to the Julia Morgan? 

If there’s a documented need for a new building, there are still many under – utilized sites close to transit, for example near the Ashby Bart Station. With better planning, we can get better projects which serve the whole arts community, instead of apparent bargains which turn out to be expensive mistakes.  


Becky O’Malley