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The Berkeley Party is Out of Touch

Kirstin Miller
Wednesday May 08, 2002

To the Editor: 

If the Berkeley Party has its way, planning for the future in context with the rest of the world won’t be allowed anymore. 

The Berkeley Party, a group mostly comprised of local architectural preservationists who seem to want to return to the first half of the 1900s, is circulating a height initiative that would be more appropriately called a “short” initiative. This group would make it a law to keep all the buildings in town at no more than four stories. They want this in order to stave off anything they would consider out of scale with their tastes. 

Their lack of concern for anything except their own particular aesthetic is alarming, provincial and even elitist. They even try and wrap their antiquated logic in green by telling people that keeping things low is better for the environment! (Of course, when the Berkeley Party talks about the environment, they are referring exclusively to their own front and back yards.) 

If Berkeley were the only city on the planet, then perhaps the Berkeley Party could one day almost return to the past. Everyone could live in little bungalows and play tennis in the afternoons. All the low-income people who live in apartments – students, artists, other people needing housing and real environmentalists who care about humanity’s future on a larger scale – would magically disappear once and for all. Complex issues like the dynamics and reality of sprawl, global warming, species extinction, commuting, housing, jobs, children growing up, diversity, culture, vitality and commerce wouldn’t bother them anymore and interrupt their pleasant lives. 

But the rest of the world isn't going away, and Berkeley can't return to the past. However, it could eventually become an even more pleasant and healthy city than it was in 1900. What the Berkeley Party COULD be secretly enjoying in the future is reduced traffic and congestion throughout the city and a more pedestrian, vital, lively and vibrant community with even quieter and more peaceful neighborhoods. This can begin to come about if we place some taller, well-designed, car-free-by-contract buildings in the city transit centers where people will be able to live and work without depending on the automobile. 

There are many of us in Berkeley who are advocating for appropriate density and diversity where people can live car-free lifestyles. We picture a range of heights that are “in scale” with the type of form and function that works for a particular place. A height of 20 stories wouldn’t be right for Berkeley, but a few building of 10 or 12 stories would be right in the downtown, alongside other buildings of various heights. Would you rather have row upon row of only four stories, or a variety of heights clustered in central transit areas, some one or two, some five or six, and a few ten or twelve? Which sounds more interesting, and in fact, better at providing views and different sun angles and allowing for diversity and creativity in design and function? 

Some people love to study the past and preserve as much of it as they can in an attempt to honor and celebrate what came before. Of course, someday TODAY will be the past too, and what will we have to show for it? Will we be accused of trying to return to a distant past that is no longer in context with our time while we flat out ignore the real needs of the people of today? The Berkeley Party is itself out of context with the rest of the community and is certainly out of touch with the rest of the world. 

Those of us who honestly care about people, housing, diversity, the environment and the future, here and everywhere, should join with other land use, transit, housing and environmentalist groups to tell the Berkeley Party that their height initiative is elitist and exclusionary, anti-environmental, and plain old boring. If only they would open their minds a little bit more and be able to realize that a few taller buildings in town will actually help bring about more of what they really want to see in their neighborhoods – reduced traffic and the potential to save and even create more open space elsewhere. 


- Kirstin Miller