Page One

Height limits on voter minds

By Matthew Artz
Saturday October 05, 2002

A November ballot measure to limit the height of Berkeley developments will lead to more traffic, dirtier air and less affordable housing, opponents of the initiative said at a televised debate Thursday. 

Supporters, however, claimed on public access television that the measure’s only consequences would be to make Berkeley a more livable and less crowded city. 

The height initiative, written by neighborhood advocates hoping to stop the proliferation of tall buildings in Berkeley, reduces allowable building heights along major traffic corridors, such as San Pablo Avenue, where the city has called for denser development. 

On San Pablo Avenue, allowable heights for buildings blending housing with commercial space would drop from four stories to two. Along parts of University, College and Shattuck avenues, building heights would drop by about one story. The exact limits would differ by area. 

Developers could apply to build an extra floor but would have to meet strict criteria showing that they’ve made efforts to maximize the number of living units. 

The initiative’s proponents Howie Muir and Norine Smith of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, argued that the height initiative was a reasonable response to the city’s zoning process which they say is corrupted by developers and city officials. 

Meanwhile, the measure’s detractors Matthew Raimi and Nancy Bickel said the measure is a draconian response that will endanger Berkeley’s ability to care for its residents. 

Height limits imposed on streets like San Pablo Avenue would discourage developers from building housing and helping clean up older, crime-ridden neighborhoods, Raimi maintained. 

Muir, who like Raimi lives near San Pablo Avenue, disagreed. He said developers will still profit from smaller developments and, consequently, developers would continue to build. 

On charges that height limits would reduce the city’s supply of affordable housing, Muir said that most city efforts to provide housing come from converting current housing stock into affordable units, not building new ones. 

The two sides clashed on the initiative’s environmental impact as well. 

Smith said Berkeley should not be forced to accept dense, urban development under the pretense that it will preserve open space outside the city. “The idea that we can save open space in Contra Costa County, if we build more housing here is just ludicrous,” she said, adding that cities there will determine that question, not Berkeley. 

Raimi countered that the initiative would have serious ecological consequences for Berkeley residents and others in the Bay Area. By discouraging local development, 83,000 acres of open space would be overrun with sprawl, he said. 

On traffic, Raimi argued that denser development on transit corridors, which the height initiative would block, prompts fewer people to drive, resulting in less air pollution and fewer cases of asthma. 

Smith countered that streets labeled as transit corridors have historically had poor public transit and that most people who moved into new development would still need to use their cars. 

Both sides insist that their position best reflects the interests of Berkeley voters. 


Contact reporter at