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Berkeley planning is too complex

Howie Muir
Monday December 10, 2001



Thank you for such an illuminating article on the Planning Department. A good start to examining how Berkeley municipal government works — or doesn’t. A serious difficulty with hiring and retaining employees? I think Mr. Rhoades may raise an important point: just how competitive is the employment package offered by the city? To the extent that there is a serious discrepancy with surrounding jurisdictions, that could contribute significantly to a morale problem. 

One might also ask how the numbers employed in Berkeley’s planning department compare with those in other, similarly sized jurisdictions. 

Yet, I think Mr. Rhoades put his finger on the pulse of a far more subtle and crucial problem, and perhaps wisely left the reader to judge: the complexity of Berkeley’s codes. In my 18-month experience with navigating the city’s processes and ordinances, they are unnecessarily complex, procedurally opaque, provide for poor internal flow between responsible boards, commissions, and offices, and impose remarkable barriers to meaningful citizen in-put.  

If I were to offer a single suggestion to begin to repair the planning department’s problems, it would be to establish a commitment to consistency between plans and ordinances. Then use this commitment to reduce the remarkably high degree of discretion in Berkeley’s ordinances and procedures. Discretion, verging on the arbitrary, pervades every turning in the planning department to the point that there are few rules and no basis on which either a citizen or a developer (let alone staff) can base a reasonable expectation. No wonder the poor developers go nuts trying to propose a project in Berkeley! No one can tell them what they are actually allowed to build because so much of it is subject to discretionary decision by a host of bodies. Worse, the poor citizen can never get a straight answer about the maximum appropriate dimensions to a proposed project, for the same reason — exacerbated by that fact that the developer winds up shooting for maximum envelope (or beyond) in the hopes of being left with something adequately feasible. The present framework sets developers and concerned citizens on a collision course. Most of the zoning districts have maximum heights that aren’t maximums, but may be exceeded by use permits, and further exceeded with variances. Only five of the eighteen zoning districts with a residential component actually have an established maximum residential density, the rest are either limitless or to be determined, project-by-project, on the basis of “surrogate factors” that are nowhere defined. 

Historic failure to establish a municipal vision with goals clearly supported by a community consensus is one reason for this problem. Ignoring the plans that have been developed by broad-based community effort is another reason. The University Avenue Strategic Plan languishes unimplemented five years after its adoption. The West Berkeley Plan was poorly implemented with respect to development on San Pablo Avenue. The present General Plan appears headed for piece-meal destruction after nearly three years of broad-based development with wide public in-put. Yet, even when the General Plan, in whatever form, is adopted, the absence of the city’s commitment to consistency between its plans and ordinances (a privilege of being a Charter City), means that it has no obligation to implement the promises to which it pledges itself when adopting a plan. Berkeley could correct this by imposing that obligation upon itself.  

Establishing a commitment to consistency, to implementing that which it adopts as its guidance, would begin to introduce a discipline and symmetry that would reduce the alleged need for so much low-level discretion — a discretion unavoidable in the absence of clear directive, policy, or a Plan that is honored. 

Juggling all that discretion requires time: time to gather information, analyze, consider, and recommend. That creates a burden of work from which planning cannot otherwise escape and, with an increasing work load, cannot adequately perform. It places staffers in a position demanding a degree of even-handed integrity that not a few of Berkeley’s citizens have come to wonder might be over-taxed. That citizen commissions and boards play a role in the exercise of discretion offers no real solution. The individuals that compose them may or may not demonstrate sensitivity to the complexity of the issues, substantive knowledge of them, or appreciation for due public process. They are given minimal orientation and, in many instances, even less support by an over-worked staff. But faithful stewardship is hobbled by the inconsistency and complexity of the city’s practices. Berkeley’s ordinances are needlessly complex. Commitment to consistency of ordinances with plans would begin the process of whittling away arbitrary and inconsistent decision-making processes, stream-lining procedure, and clarifying the rules of the game. And through it all, we might re-establish the professional pride of the planning department and the public’s confidence in the work it performs. 

Howie Muir