To the Editor:
The League of Women Voters is a venerable organization noted for its commitment to fair and candid dialogue about public affairs. It was thus disappointing to read the letter from the officers of the League's local chapter that appeared in the Planet's Easter weekend edition.
That letter accuses the City Council, the Planning Commission and the Hearst-Curtis-Delaware Neighborhood Association of succumbing to “fear of change,” manifest in the recent downzoning of the 1100 block of Hearst Avenue from R-3 to R-2A.
The downzoning, the LWV contends, betrays the principles of the Housing and Land Use Elements of the city's newly updated General Plan, approved first by the Commission and then by the Council in the latter part of 2001.
According to the League, “Those policies and those documents are meaningless, and all those years of study and public input are wasted, if they can be set aside so soon after their adoption.”
In fact, the downzoning of the 1100 block of Hearst is in keeping with both the letter and the spirit of the revised General Plan. As the League observes, the Plan calls for increased housing to be built along transit corridors.
But the League then goes on to contend that “Surely, the concept of increasing apartment development along transportation corridors also includes encouraging or at least permitting such development in appropriately zoned areas very close to transit corridors.”
On the contrary: the new General Plan nowhere encourages or permits new construction on areas “very close to transit corridors” [italics added]. As even a brief visit to the area makes clear, there is a marked difference between San Pablo Avenue and the adjacent 1100 block of Hearst Avenue. The Plan formally recognizes that difference by designating San Pablo as a Major Street and the 1100 block of Hearst Avenue as a Local Street.
The League also fails to note that the first goal of the Land Use Element is “to maintain the character of Berkeley.” Policy LU-3, dealing with in-fill development, states: “Encourage sensitively designed, thoughtfully planned in-fill development that is compatible with neighboring land uses and architectural design and scale.”
Policy LU-7, treating neighborhood quality of life, reads: “Preserve and protect the quality of life in Berkeley's residential areas through careful land use decisions.”
And the first goal of the entire General Plan is to “preserve Berkeley’s unique character and quality of life.”
The League seems to think that the policies informing the General Plan are perfectly consistent with one another. That is not the case. The goal of increasing housing--especially affordable housing--is in tension with the goal of preserving and protecting the special character of Berkeley, and the distinctive quality of residential neighborhoods in particular.
In our dense, built-out city, this tension is not going to disappear; it can only be carefully negotiated, project by project, site by site, through the city's discretionary zoning process.
When it approved the Planning Commission's unanimous recommendation to downzone the 1100 block of Hearst, the City Council successfully conducted just such a negotiation. It balanced the competing goals of new housing construction and neighborhood preservation.
The League would have us believe that the newly applied R-2A category forecloses any further development on this block. But the R-2A zoning actually permits an additional 22 housing units to be added to the 45 existing units, for a total of 67 units--an increase of about 50 percent.
In other words, it allows for a moderate amount of change that will respect the medium-density character of the neighborhood.
A final note: it has become commonplace for advocates of “the sky's the limit” development to accuse their critics of fearing change. What a simplistic charge! Are we really expected to believe that all change is for the better?
The new General Plan provides a conceptual framework for judicious decision-making that evaluates proposals for development in accordance with the complex, nuanced character of Berkeley's settlement and life.
Zelda Bronstein, Chair Planning Commission
Hearst-Curtis-Delaware Neighborhood Association