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Height ordinance boosters defy logic, disregard environment

- Richard Register
Wednesday May 15, 2002

To the Editor: 

Seldom are we treated to such a display of truly poor quality thinking. Or could it be the authors of the proposed Berkeley height ordinance are not confused, but instead trying to confuse others in their attempts to freeze Berkeley in splendid isolation? 

Let’s start with bad statistics. These folks have claimed repeatedly that Berkeley is the third densest city in Northern California. San Francisco is number one and guess what’s number two? Daily City! You gotta be kidding! To the passing observer of Northern California, you’d swear dozens of blocks in Oakland, San Jose and Sacramento are way more dense than even the densest dozen in Berkeley. Daily City? Even more dense?  

City areas, in the crudest way of calculating, can include lots of open space — even large bodies of water — in some cities and very little in the case of others. Tilden Park is well-used by Berkeley and it is big, but it’s in Oakland’s legal boundaries so that makes Berkeley look more dense and Oakland less. Why use statistics like that that are obviously misleading? To mislead, obviously. 

Let’s add to bad statistics, internal contradiction. The height ordinance reads, “WHEREAS Berkeley is one of the most densely populated, traffic congested cities in Northern California, with diverse neighborhoods featuring mainly low-rise houses and apartments....”  

I hope most people are bright enough to catch that one, and all within a single sentence. How can it be so frightfully "densely populated" and yet be "mainly low-rise"? You got it — it can’t. "Mainly" is a real understatement too - Berkeley has 1,275 blocks and how many of them do you really think are "dense"? If you said 75 you’d be stretching it by any definition but those of abject sprawl. And 1,200 blocks of low-density development is not just "mainly," it’s 94 percent. It’s almost all low-density, and not the frighteningly crowded city they portray. 

Now it is true that Berkeley is frequently crowded with cars, but if the crew promoting the height ordinance ever looked outside our city limits and were honest about it, they would be yet more horrified — because in many dozens of towns any of us can visit a situation that is truly Dante-esque. Traffic is not just hell out there, but the lower levels of it. Bad as it is, we are absolutely not one of the most car-clogged communities in Northern California. 

Wind tunnels between taller buildings, they claim? Simplistic thinking in the extreme. If the buildings are tall and the streets are narrow, wind is reduced. If the buildings are tall and the streets wide, wind is increased. If the streets are straight and oriented toward the prevailing wind, expect higher wind speed. If the streets are diagonal to the prevailing wind, curving or change direction jogging this way and that, then taller buildings slow the wind. If the climate is decidedly wimpy like Berkeley’s, so are the people who think modestly taller buildings are some kind of climatological nightmare. Relative to the need for housing, efficient transit and environmental solutions, this micro-inconvenience — if it exists at all! — is practically nothing. 

Solar energy wrecked by higher density development? Solar’s just fine but you gain 10 times the efficiency if you move from an all-solar house in the ‘burbs into any town where you can sell the car and walk to most of your needs, 10 times over! Peter Calthorpe was the first to demonstrate this in the 1970s and the figures are almost identical today. 

Traffic congestion? Are they the last to learn on the whole planet? Higher densities, not lower, solves most traffic congestion problems, empowering transit and bicycles. Strain the infrastructure? Though on any given land area higher density means more infrastructure in total quantity, it means far less per person than in the same area of low-density development. 

Earth quake hazards of taller buildings is another repeatedly-used scare tactic of the height ordinance boosters, and this is close to irrelevant too since the strength and design of the building is the essential component for safety. I have photographs of a mosque in Turkey taken after a recent earthquake with a standing six-story dome surrounded by delicate-looking minarets that must be 12 stories high and all around there are three- and four- story buildings, some standing and some completely flattened. Surprise to the height ordinance authors: the weak ones fell and the strong ones stood up. 

The fallacious logic is relentless in the height ordinance and the most unconscionable thing about it is that it never begins to consider the rest of the world that Berkeley is part of and our responsibility for relating to it in a socially and environmentally healthy manner. Providing housing for those who need it? Working to save energy, prevent pollution, stop climate change, sustain other species? Underlying their logic is the simple ethic that it’s OK to ignore all that and freeze in place exactly what they enjoy now. That’s not enough for a healthy future. 

In sum, the proposed Berkeley height ordinance is one of the most thoroughly deplorable pretenses at reasoning I have ever seen. 


- Richard Register