In November Berkeley’s “body politic” will likely answer a question nearly as old and at least twice as essential to the future of the city as the mortar in the foundation of City Hall — to what extent the will the design, development and planning of the city “accommodate more growth” or to what extent will it begin to “discourage sprawl.”
At the crux of this urban planning dilemma are essentially a handful of components and key players who have been debating and arguing the issue in public forums for years.
There are developers like Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Properties. There is the Planning Department at City Hall, the zoning Adjustments Board and the City Council itself.
And then there are the Neighborhood activists — homeowners and preservationists — thwarting what they refer to as “the advances of urbanization” while committed to holding onto their vision of Berkeley. They want Berkeley to be a city connected by quaint neighborhoods and made up of single family homes. They want to hold onto the “quaint Berkeley charm.”
Martha Nicoloff, the author of the Berkeley Height Initiative, said she’s prepared for this fight for two years.
She knows it will be a hard-fought battle and is prepared to take on City Hall to stop what she refers to as “out of scale developments.”
But developer Patrick Kennedy contends that the “neighborhood activists” are “fanatical NYMBIES” trying to get in through the backdoor with an argument they’ve already lost.
“We’ve already dealt with the issue of development in the General Plan and that took 15 years to come up with. And now this initiative is there way of coming back with it again,” Kennedy said. Kennedy also said that the Berkeley Hieght Initiative would affect every property owner in the city.
“If this Initiative passes, then everytime a homeowner wants to add a garage onto his property he would have to go through the same process I go through to get a project passed — which can be a three tofour year process.
“Berkeley creates its own unique brand of fanatics, and this happens to be the hothouse variety of them,” he added.
Kennedy took part in a development survey that assessed how potential voters feel about planning decisions. The survey says that the majority of voters do not have a problem with four- and five-story developments. In addition, he says that if the height ordinance passes, Berkeley will have a much larger dilemma on their hands.
“At the heart, their initiative would wipe out rental housing. It is a disguised attack against rental housing in the city,” Kennedy said. “They may say they are not against affordable housing. But many of the people promoting this petition have spoken out against vehemently against affordable in general. They say they are not against affordable housing, and they know the practical implications of this initiative would eliminate affordable housing in the city of Berkeley. The city would have to figure out where to get the millions they need to build housing in the city because [developers] won’t be building in Berkeley anymore.”
Initiative advocates want to restrict the density of all Berkeley developments. They point to San Pablo Avenue as a good example as to how developers have had their way with urban planning to the detriment of neighbors and the community.
“Sure San Pablo is a commercial street but it’s butted right up against a residential zone,” said Marie Bowman. “We are not asking to take away the property rights of developers, but we are asking them to be good neighbors. And one person executing their rights should not be at the cost of their neighbor’s life being unlivable.”
Bowman disliked the argument that Height Initiative critics were putting forth that liken her group opponents of affordable housing.
“We are not against affordable housing. The people at City Hall don’t want people to live in homes. They are not happy unless everyone’s living on he second-floor in little eight by ten compartments,” Bowman added, reaching for her cell phone to call Howie Muir, another initiative supporter. There were five initiative supporters out on Friday, but they said there were approximately100 people used to gather signatures for the petitions and who would likely be taking part in the campaign.
Nicoloff, a former planning commissioner, former neighborhood organization president and well known activists in Berkeley said arguments against the Berkeley Height Initiative wreaked of discrimination.
“I think it’s peculiar that on College and Solano you have restrictions of 28 feet then on San Pablo developers are allowed variances up to 60 feet,” she said.
The people in the neighborhoods targeted for high-density development have said time and time again that they don’t want this type of development, but they are ignored, she said.
Several developments on San Pablo Avenue are believed to have contributed to a certain element of blight in south Berkeley. The street has a disproportionate number, (relative to other Berkeley commercial centers) of large parking lots and boxy retail centers. This type of urban planning is designed for car-driving customers and is known to exacerbate traffic. In addition, this form of urban planning has been labeled as “unsightly” and has been loosely linked to increased crime and the depreciation of property values in the neighborhoods surrounding them.
Proponents say these conditions are examples of what happens when developers, instead of residents, are allowed to make the planning decisions.
“Patrick Kennedy (a local developer) lives in Piedmont and yet he wants to build here and make Berkeley crowded and ugly,” said Art Goldberg, another initiative supporter.
The key to Berkeley’s future will likely lie in the ability of involved parties to make good arguments to the voters — because the vast middle ground in this debate is occupied by people who, in Kennedy’s words, “probably have a lot better things to do with their time than debate the archanna of the city’s general plan.”
Berkeley City Councilmember Linda Maio agreed with Kennedy, stating that the key to the Height Initiaitve will be educating the public.
Maio has concerns about the initiative.
“It doesn’t protect adjacent property owners and it doesn’t provide the city with much flexibility,” Maio said.
And though Initiaitve proponents tout statistics of how Berkeley is the third most densely populated city in the Bay Area, Maio pointed out that the population in Berkeley has actually decreased in the last ten years.
“And after all, this is a college town,” she added. She said that Berkeley does have high-density housing but only in certain areas. The approximately 30,000 students who attend UC Berkeley are transient and are not going to stop coming because the city decides it will no longer house them.
“And what happens then?” Maio added. “They come anyway, but in cars.”
Maio is a proponent of affordable housing and believes that the initiative would further deter developers from building housing in the city.
“Not that the neighbors don’t have reason for concern. I think there’s a lot of us are operating without a clear way of understanding what the rules are” Maio said. “I think we all need to develop a better understanding of development bonuses, but this is one of those situations where you’re killing a fly with a hammer.”
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