Berkeley’s updated General Plan, now before the City Council, bars the construction of downtown buildings taller than seven stories. That is a mistake that the council should reverse.
The anti-height stipulation reflects the activism of a small coterie of preservation-minded citizens who follow matters before the Planning Commission very closely. The implication is that they represent the majority of the voters, but the electorate as a whole has thought very little about downtown density.
Like the Bay Area as a whole, Berkeley suffers from a severe housing shortage. But with a thriving university and a downtown in better shape than in years, we are ready to make our downtown a major new apartment-based residential community as it continues to serve its present commercial and cultural functions. The district should be conceived on a generous scale, a carefully and integrally thought out mixed-use settlement, with innovations centered on distinguished architecture and a substantial amount of high quality apartment housing within walking distance of the University and the BART station. A more populated and increasingly auto-free downtown will protect traditional neighborhoods from growth pressures, while it gives them a more complete and livelier center for services and shopping, notably including the maturing Arts Center. It can ease prices by enlarging the housing supply substantially, including moderate income housing.
If buildings can rise toward the height of the Wells Fargo building, there will be better latitude for design and much more space for street-level open greenness, as proposed by Richard Register.
The nostalgic activists have missed the damage that regional sprawl out across the Carquinez Bridge and the Altamont Pass has done to the Bay Area, multiplying cars and gridlock throughout our region, including here at home. The “preservers” do not see that their politics rule out living near work and study for hundreds of people, and have helped drive up the price of housing to indefensible levels, making us a gentrified and “exclusive” place, to our embarrassment. That may benefit existing landlords, but is it fundamentally fair to people with a legitimate need to live here?
Many of the current NIMBYs came to town years ago as graduate students and post-docs. They certainly would have felt ill-treated if, for lack of housing, they had had to put a young spouse and small children in Pinole and buy a wreck of a car to commute to campus or lab. The watchdogs of low height limits are also preventing more senior Berkleyans from moving to a comfortable and accessible apartment in a European style, reducing driving and management demands, while maintaining their social networks by living at the center of their lifelong community.
The “preservers” are right that central Berkeley should not be developed helter skelter, but holding down building heights is a blunt instrument approach. Instead, Berkeley should have a hard look at its downtown, and think about doing some serious planning. The city should draw up a “specific plan,” a detailed framework within which developers will work.
Such a plan is a big effort, but among other uses, it would provide a meaningful setting for individual proposals, such as the parking study moratorium or the Mayor’s call for parking under Martin Luther King Park, now very awkward to deal with adequately, in large part because they are taken up piecemeal and in isolation.
The Gaia Building, and Allston Oak Court give an idea of the civilized possibilities of living downtown. Future structures could make owned apartments available as well as rentals, and be more elegant than Gaia, which becomes externally bulky because it encloses an internal courtyard. New buildings could easily absorb the existing residents of downtown, plus lots of older Berkeleyans looking for a less hassled and car-dependent way of living, in addition to handling the huge backlog of housing-seekers.
Rather than just clamping a low ceiling on downtown, let’s think some bigger thoughts about bigger opportunities.