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League’s study of housing is flawed

Howie Muir on behalf of the Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhood Associations
Tuesday April 09, 2002



It is fuzzy-thinking that stands like a great boulder in the path of open discussion about the development of our community, not fear of change, as the League of Women Voters asserted in their 30-31 March letter. It’s a pity that the League’s "intensive study of housing in Berkeley" does not appear to have included the General Plan. If it had, the League would have noted, with respect to the re-zoning of the 1100 block on Hearst St., that the block’s density was not reduced by change from R-3 to R-2A zoning: both are "medium-density" under the General Plan, equating to 20-40 units per acre (same as under the 1977 Master Plan). What did change was the size of the building envelope possible without a Use Permit and public hearing. If proposed development is compatible with the surroundings, it surely will win approval. 

When the League laments that "our children,…those who work in Berkeley schools, in health care, in shops, restaurants, theatres and in all other services that make our city livable" will have no place to live because of "nay-sayers," who does it think lives on Hearst NOW?  

While northern California’s third densest city (official pop. 102,743) has some more room to welcome new residents, the League’s narrow assertion of a population decline over the last 3 decades has a broader context: 1) U.S. Census numbers show that virtually all of the decline occurred between 1970 and 1980, and 2) it is common knowledge that the Census missed some 4,500 students and several thousand other residents, thus suggesting that the City’s real population is probably close to the U.S. Census’s 1999 estimate of about 109,000—only 5,000 short of Berkeley’s all-time high. 

The General Plan (and its EIR) targets Berkeley’s future population at about 116,000, which is two-thirds more dense than Oakland is today. Yet, we estimate that the current densities discussed in the General Plan would embrace as many as 129,000 (at virtually the density of Chicago)! In how dense and congested a Berkeley will our children want to live? Berkeley is receiving applications for housing construction at over three times the pace necessary to meet General Plan and ABAG "fair share" housing goals. The City has been approving projects at an average180% of the new General Plan guidelines and now ponders almost a dozen proposed projects averaging almost 200% the those guidelines. Such unplanned densification betrays promised policies and the shared vision of the community. 

Will balancing jobs and housing more closely in Berkeley reduce commuting and congestion? Possibly. But that easy assumption is belied by the 57% of employed Berkeleyans who continue to commute to work outside Berkeley in spite of the present substantial surplus of Berkeley jobs over employed residents (a ratio ABAG expects to reach 42% by 2005). Where people choose to work and live is shaped by far more than just mutual proximity of jobs and homes.  

This community has provided a disproportionately generous share of housing over the decades. Housing is a regional issue, and a challenge to be shared particularly with those communities that are significantly less densely housed than Berkeley is now. Berkeley’s current housing has, on average, 59% more units per acre than Oakland, 74% more than Emeryville, and is more than four times as dense as Hayward! 

Berkeley, an already built-out city, cannot unilaterally solve the housing crunch. Yet, its contributions, past, present and planned for, deserve more credit than the League bestows.  


Howie Muir  

on behalf of the Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhood Associations