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Ecocity Builders’ policy isn’t what it’s cracked up to be

Howie Muir Berkeley
Thursday March 14, 2002



Mr. Register made light of the public process in his letter of Dec. 18, mocking “the same crowd of a dozen or so [who] turn up at planning and council meetings.”  

He forgets that Jane & John Q. Public have lives, jobs, children to care for and are not at liberty to pursue the defense of their city and neighborhoods with as much convenience as developers whose business interests make the promotion of big, profitable, self-glorifying buildings their full-time job. While supportive of a number of the ideals of the Ecocity amendment, I condemn most of its elements as proposed. Instead, I commend to the public what Kirstin Miller called a “mockery” (March 9), the perfectly viable Eco-Community alternative (available at http://, offering a process-oriented path to many of the same goals. The Ecocity Amendment offers a developers dream cloaked in fuzzy environmentalism. Mr. Register promotes it with with jargon-babble (March 9) that masks its internal contradictions and ultimate hypocrisy. 

Ecocity Policy No. 1 offers utopia without thought: requiring “the highest quality architectural and ecological design for new development projects” sounds good, but the “highest” quality literally would add enormous costs to housing — why not a more thoughtful “good?” Mr. Register is quick to suggest sites for construction of huge buildings (see the PUD and EDP proposals in Policy No. 3), but has not been so quick to offer plans for those ecological public spaces in “higher density city centers” — where, where will these be; where, oh, where, is the proposed ecological balance? 

I find Policy No. 2 downright agreeable, and then stumble on the peculiar implication that although Elmwood and Fourth Street are acknowledged as attractive examples along a continuum of city “centers,” the suggestion that they “should increase appropriately in density” rather begs the characteristics that made them attractive in the first place: their comparatively low height and humane scale. The Fourth Street development is no taller than Elmwood! With no definition of “appropriate” density, the implication is that Ecocity is happy to see the developmental intensity and height of all of the “centers” rise together on the glorious tide of environmentally friendly density. Meanwhile, congestion will tie Berkeley in knots.  

The goal of augmenting affordable housing articulated in Policy No. 3 is already well targeted by the Planning Commission’s draft of the General Plan, and already supported by the state Density Bonus Law and the city’s Inclusionary Ordinance — poorly managed by the city as the laws may be. What heights are Mr. Register’s taller buildings? Turns out they are at least 10 to 11 stories (his letter of Dec. 3). Policy No. 4, urging transfer development rights (TDRs), would push those heights even further. The draft General Plan’s public process has rejected this vision of downtown height. Mr. Register has already has his Ecological Demonstration Project (EDP): the Gaia Building — a project that is 33 percent short of the inclusionary units it owes the city (providing 12 instead of 18 inclusionary units) and a design that uses ecologically insensitive electrical heating, thereby generating three times the greenhouse gases that gas-heating would have. Thank you for the demonstration. It will prove costly to the tenants as well as our environment. Ecocity Builders need no special consideration for other such buildings. 

Ecocity Policy No. 4 packages the concept of TDRs in the heartwarming colors of “Funding Environmental Restoration.” Developers can buy a bit of land, then promise not to build on it in return for the privilege of adding highly profitable floors to downtown projects. Frankly, it recalls the medieval purchase of papal indulgences, buying a little advance forgiveness of sins. As ever, the devil dances in the details. One can, with trepidation, imagine who will compose the “multi-disciplinary group of experts” created to draft the rules! TDRs are a very complex mechanism, the efficacy of which has yet to be truly demonstrated — they look more like a developers’ plaything. 

At 9,823.3 persons per square mile, Berkeley is already the most densely populated city in the county and (for its size or larger) the third densest in Northern California. It is 37 percent more dense than Oakland! Under the General Plan, Berkeley expects to build 3,000 more housing units over the next 20 years, providing denser housing than any other place in California except San Francisco. The public already declined Mr. Register’s formulation of ecological balance and vastly increased density, and will not be pleased if the public stewards accept an end-run.  


Howie Muir