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Insiders differ on city density

By Devona Walker, Daily Planet staff
Friday March 15, 2002

As the City Council steps closer to finally inking the General Plan, 15-plus years in the making, some say there are still unresolved questions concerning density and how it will affect the diversity of the city’s population. Citizens will also likely vote on a height restriction ordinance in November, written by Martha Nicoloff. 

“I think many of these so-called progressive thinkers are going to have to resolve themselves with the fact that a lot of this no-growth rhetoric is going to leave us with a city of nothing but students and very rich white people,” said Councilmember Polly Armstrong, who added that even she has a difficult time voting for increased density and affordable housing projects in the face of vehement neighborhood opposition. 

“One side of me says well OK, that’s fine. It is true. I would like to live in a city that is less crowded and with lower density. I too would like to enjoy some of the benefits of our hometown appeal,” she said. 

But without increasing the housing stock, through increased density or by other bold measures, Armstrong says the city will become even more victim to a socioeconomic divide that is driving low-income and moderate income minorities from the Bay Area.  

Councilmember Miriam Hawley agreed that it is very difficult for elected city officials to vote on issues about affordable housing when there is so much organized resistance from neighborhood groups. 

“The truth is the neighborhood preservation movement is very strong in this city right now. And it’s very hard for a city politician to say ‘no’ to an organized group of people who are saying ‘not in my backyard.’ ” 


What about the front yard? 

Richard Register of Ecocity states that much of the opposition in Berkeley to development is short-sighted and that the city does have to look outside of its traditional thinking to resolve the imbalance of housing and jobs that have been created over the last ten years. 

“We really do need to provide for people somewhere, and in our city’s front yards is the only place that makes sense because of the transit that is available,” said Register who envisions a Berkeley with dramatically increased density in its downtown corridors and more green space in its residential areas. 

“Because what happens is that people commute very far away to work here in Berkeley and you have traffic congestion and air pollution,” Register said. “So it’s ultimately a contradiction here. They claim to be progressive but they say they want lower density and they are simply excluding lots and lots of people. A lot of people are very proud and rightfully they should be because there a lot of social services here. But if you don’t have many people here that can use those great services, how great can they be.” 

And it’s also a contradiction when people say they are pro environment lock people into a low development pattern, because they are essentially locking the community into complete dependence upon their cars and long commutes,” he added.  

Becky O’Malley, however says she personally takes offense to that remark and does not believe that increasing the housing supply will benefit low-income families or people of color. 

“First of all, Berkeley is the third densest city in the Bay Area and the only way we are going to get more affordable housing is to be careful that the infil housing has a large percentage of affordability,” O’Malley said. “All development does not benefit people of color, and it’s a foolish myth to say a rising tide lifts all boats.” 

O’Malley went onto say that she does not personally want to live in a city that provides dormitory style living accommodations to single wage-earners but is an adamant believer in providing more affordable housing. 

At present, all residential developments in Berkeley (Berkeley has prioritized residential development over housing development) has a 20 percent set aside for below-market rents.  

O’Malley added that the real danger in not providing close oversight for residential development is “using up all of the supply on luxury housing and it leaves no space left for affordable housing.” 

“The only way we can keep the economic mix of cohabitants in Berkeley is if we structure our planning,” she added. 


Rob Wrenn of the Berkeley Planning Commission states that he personally believes the city has addressed the issue of density already, and has clearly stated that they want a moderate increase in density and do not want taller buildings. He also stated that simply increasing the stock of housing will not ensure that there will be additional housing for low-income people. 

The general plan said things are just right, and that’s the way we want to keep it. There are some areas where modifications should be made.” 

And ultimately according to Wrenn the majority of residents in Berkeley are simply not in agreement with Register’s view of environmentalism. 

“The majority of people in Berkeley don’t buy that particular version of environmentalism,” Wrenn said. “And the real key to the thing is affordability. The people who are driving in are people who can’t afford to live here. They are not going to be able to afford if we build a thousand luxury apartments downtown either. That’s why the real focus of the general plan is affordable housing.” 

If the city has made their statements known on the issue of density, November may also provide an opportunity for its citizenry to voice their opinions on various development subjects as Martha Nicoloff has authored a height restriction ordinance she wants placed on the November ballot.  

“The citizens of Berkeley are going to have a chance to voice their opinions now because this will be on the ballot,” said Martha Nicoloff. 

The Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhoods will be holding a meeting this Saturday at Live Oak Park at 9:30 a.m.