On March 30, our local League of Women Voters published an open letter to the Council and the community entitled “Getting Beyond Fear of Change to a Thriving Community.” The article disagreed with the recent Council action to downzone an area around the 1100 block of Hearst. Since then, I have heard from the neighborhood and two members of the Planning Commission have published letters expressing their disagreement with the League’s letter. Now, I’d like to add my own two cents on this important subject. Our need for housing and where it ought to be built will have an enormous impact on Berkeley’s future.
Let’s start from an area where I hope we can agree—there is a need for more housing, particularly housing that enables our work force, from cashiers, to teachers, to professors, to live in Berkeley. The League of Women Voters is correct in reminding all of us of this need. Berkeley’s "fair share" of new housing in the Bay Area has been set by the Association of Bay Area Governments at 1,269 units over the next five years. Of these, 354 are to be for very low income, 150 for low income, 310 for moderate income and 455 for above moderate. "Fair share" goals have been set for many years. I don’t believe there have been any legislative consequences over the years of not achieving these set goals, but that may be changing. A bill was introduced in Sacramento that would have penalized cities that came up short on their housing goals by denying them future State transportation funds. That bill was defeated, but others are very likely to be introduced as concern for producing housing spreads. Right now, cities can apply for incentive funds awarded by the State through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for the development of affordable work force housing. These funds can be used for improvements such as parks and transit.
The two members of the Planning Commission are correct in pointing out that the Hearst Avenue downzoning was compatible with the City’s new General Plan. Actually, it was compatible with much of the development that has occurred prior to the recent adoption of the Land Use Element of the General Plan. For some years now, the City has been approving mixed use, retail on the ground, residential above buildings with mixed income units (20% of units above four are set aside for low income) in the Downtown and along major transit corridors.
It is awful to imagine what would happen to a community where every single parcel was developed to the maximum extent possible. Such a policy would overwhelm Berkeley and destroy forever our neighborhoods and the attributes that make this place a community rather than a collection of buildings. Most people don’t really know what their zoning allows. They look around their street and think what they see is what their zoning is. That is not always a correct assumption. When the people who live in the 1400 block of Hearst Avenue neighborhood discovered the implications of what their zoning would allow, they did an amazing thing. They carefully studied the issue and put together a compelling set of facts that persuaded the Planning Commission and City Council to change their zoning. It was true civic involvement in that they worked with the facts, and as a group, they politely and effectively presented those facts over a series of meetings. That is not easy to do, but they did it with charts, maps, letters, and their presence.
The resultant downzoning does not mean no development will occur. Their neighborhood is still zoned for multiple units. They will still be faced with reviewing specific proposals to build new apartment buildings, backyard units, and additions. The fact that downzoning will allow a smaller number of units will not cause Berkeley to fail to meet its "fair share" of housing. This downzoning, however, sends a powerful message that neighborhoods count.
Housing issues must be addressed on a local and regional level if we are to successfully plan for the thousands of new people projected to be living in the Bay Area by the year 2020. It isn’t enough to say, don’t let them come, because these new people are mostly going to be the children of residents who currently live here, our very own children! Every Bay Area city has been given a "fair share" housing goal to meet. It won’t be fair unless varying levels of existing density are factored into the goals. Having already been engaged in the debate with other mayors from those low density cities, I know it won’t be an easy task to convince them to increase their already too low density. We must also ensure that the full range of housing goal units at all income levels are met within each city. One of the most important actions to have happened recently was approval by Alameda County voters of Measure D that established urban growth limits in Southern Alameda County. That’s a first step. The next step is to convince those same cities not only to build at denser levels but to provide affordable work force housing for all the workers that now clog our freeways getting to jobs from homes that are miles away.
Berkeley can’t escape responsibility to be a part of the solution in this complex mix of problems. So, when we set policies to build housing on transit corridors we still need to review those projects carefully for their impacts on neighborhoods. Our obligation is to achieve good design and pay attention to the details that indicate respect for existing development. That’s why Berkeley, like no other city in Alameda County, reviews each new housing unit built even when the proposal meets zoning requirements.
It is a given that not everyone is going to agree with all the decisions made by the Council regarding specific housing proposals. We seek a reasonable and delicate balance between our obligation to build more housing and to preserve our neighborhoods. That includes downzoning where the case can be made. In the instance of the 1100 block of Hearst Avenue, the case was made—it was the right thing to do.