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Reason, not emotion in low rises, set backs

Norine M. Smith Berkeley
Tuesday January 08, 2002


This letter is in response to one written by Robert Clear, Jan. 4-5 “too much emotion too little reason.” Clear suggests that recent letters printed in the Daily Planet were too full of emotion and had too little reason. I would suggest Clear seems to believe in ‘magic’ and practice selective ignorance. 

First the ignorance; strange Clear is jumping into the fray about high-rises after 55 public meetings over three years on the General Plan that he didn’t bother to attend. This is not brain surgery, one either supports more high-rises downtown or not. The use of a few visual images to make a point is hardly irrational. 

Set-backs: the opponents of massive high rises in Berkeley have always demanded set-backs. Set-backs with trees/bushes make for a more pleasant walking city. Set-backs are currently required only for residential properties because of the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance. The developers are strongly opposed to them. 

Evaluate the last 20 apartment houses or commercial properties developed in Berkeley. They are all built up to the property line, some like the Berkeleyan even hang over a square of the pedestrian sidewalk. I requested set-backs for commercial properties in the new General Plan three years ago and continued the refrain for another year. No dice. It is not in the final draft. 

Difference in scale: the proponents of high-rises are always suggesting Berkeley be more like Paris, Portland, Seattle, New York City or Washington, D.C. I did not compare Berkeley to San Francisco, only to the street experience of downtown Montgomery, Sansome, and Battery streets, if we dot our downtown with vertical walls of concrete. There is a lot more to San Francisco than the downtown financial district. 

This is the city of my birth and youth. I would not refer to it as ‘Gotham City.’ The horrible experience at 101 Montgomery Street, of wind and darkness is not experienced at 444 Market St. because of the 40-foot set back with trees and benches. 

Sprawl and auto use: who ignores the obvious correlation between suburban sprawl and auto use? Here’s where Clear’s belief in magic surfaces. No matter how many new units are built in San Francisco or Berkeley the demand for cheaper housing on the outskirts does not abate. The folks who buy a 4 bedroom, 3 bath house on an acre with pool for $500,000 are not interested in living in an inner city, be it Berkeley or San Francisco. This is why Tracy, Fairfield, Vallejo, Napa, Sonoma, Antioch, Brentwood, Santa Rosa, Windsor, Bencia, Modesto, Merced, Madera, Gilroy, et al keep over-flowing into the surrounding farm lands. 

There is not a finite number of émigrés to our fair state. Eight million come every decade. Once in awhile there is a slowdown like during the current recession but it will pick up again all too soon. Trashing Berkeley is not the solution to urban sprawl, we’ll just end up with a concrete-covered city and the outer ranch land also covered in concrete. The only way to save open space is to give generously to the Nature Conservancy, California Land Trust and all the other organization that buy up ranch land until it can be sold to the Feds or the State for parks.  


Norine M. Smith