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Ballot divides environmental community

Matthew Artz
Friday September 20, 2002


A November ballot measure to reduce the allowable heights of new developments has driven a wedge through Berkeley’s environmental community. 

The Northern Alameda Board of the Sierra Club on Tuesday failed for the third time to reach a consensus on the height initiative, known as Measure P, and has decided not to take a position. The nine-member board required six votes to oppose the ballot measure but after hours of intense debate opponents of the initiative could only muster five votes. 

Two weeks ago the Berkeley Green Party split on the initiative and also decided not to make a recommendation to voters. 

This leaves Berkeley’s two biggest environmental forces, with a combined membership of 10,000 people, on the sidelines during debate of one of the city’s most environmentally contentious initiatives in history. 

The height initiative lowers allowable building heights for developments in several neighborhoods and along major transit corridors such as San Pablo and University avenues. City planners have targeted these arteries for dense affordable housing development. But the initiative would interfere with these plans.  

The initiative pits the environmentalist’s goal of reducing suburban sprawl against the equally attractive goal of slowing local development. 

Environmentalists who oppose the initiative say the measure would directly harm the Bay Area’s environment. 

“Sprawl is one of the biggest enemies we have,” said Hank Resnik, who led the local Sierra Club’s effort to oppose the initiative. Reducing the number of building stories available to Berkeley developers would make new development unfeasible, he said. 

Instead of building on developed land near mass transit lines, developers would be encouraged to build on open spaces outside of Berkeley, increasing car traffic and air pollution and reducing valuable open space. 

Lindsay Vurek, a Sierra Club member, disagreed with Resnik’s analysis. 

“Intensifying development in Berkeley does not save nature,” Vurek said, noting that most people who move to the suburbs are motivated by the amenities of open space, safe neighborhoods and good schools. Even if Berkeley built more affordable apartments near transit corridors, he said, many locals would still move to the suburbs. 

But for other Berkeley environmentalists, the height initiative is seen through the prism of local politics. Many believe that City Council and city staff have allowed Berkeley developers to exploit zoning laws and overdevelop their properties. They argue that only strict height limits can keep developers from trampling on the rights of residents.  

Height initiative supporters point to the Gaia building in downtown Berkeley that was built by Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy. Zoned for seven stories, the cultural center and housing complex stands nine stories after Kennedy was able to win city approval to build higher. 

Vurek said he didn’t want the Sierra Club to oppose the initiative, and appear to side with developers. 

Stuart Cohen of the Oakland-based Transportation and Land Use Coalition said he has noticed a trend: The more involved environmentalists are in Berkeley politics the more likely they are to support the height initiative. He said that residents are angered by what they say are perks given to developers such as Kennedy and view the initiative as anti-development rather than anti-environment. 

Cohen, however, said passage of the height initiative would make Berkeley a tool for developers. “The sprawl developers are laughing at Berkeley,” Cohen said. “They know they can use the initiative to prove that sprawl development is needed to support regional growth.” 

Berkeley’s largest environmental organizations have decided not to stand for or against the height initiative. But not because the members don’t have opinions. Vurek said heavy debate has taken place. 

“This has been a very divisive issue,” Vurek said. “I don’t know if we will heel from it.”