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NIMBYs Shout ‘It’s Too Big!’ But Project Offers Benefits

Friday May 23, 2003

As an environmentalist and a neighborhood resident for over 20 years, I support the smart-growth project proposed to replace the strip mall at Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and University Ave.  

By now, most people understand the environmental benefits of this sort of infill development. It reduces urban sprawl, and it reduces traffic and auto-dependency by letting residents walk to jobs or school in central Berkeley rather than drive. This is the only way to produce needed housing without damaging the environment.  

Apart from environmental concerns, I feel particularly strongly about this development because I lived on Berkeley Way, just three houses down from this site, for several years after my son was born. I used to push the baby stroller up Berkeley Way every day, and I was cut off innumerable times by drivers speeding into the strip mall’s parking lot — and never thinking to stop for a pedestrian using the sidewalk.  

If you try to cross MLK Way, you will see that drivers become more aggressive here. It is a truism among city planners that strip-mall design encourages drivers to speed and ignore pedestrians, and that urban design, with housing and shops facing the sidewalk, encourages drivers to travel more slowly and to watch for pedestrians.  

When I lived there, I could hear the noise — and sometimes smell the fumes — of auto repairs from my backyard. I noticed that many people on the block never walked, even though they lived a block from downtown; one neighbor used to drive two blocks to buy the newspaper. Strip malls and parking lots facing the sidewalk obviously do not encourage walking.  

I now live two blocks from this site and pass it nearly every day. I look forward to the new development here because it will make my neighborhood more pleasant, more interesting and more livable.  

John Kenyon’s objections to this project (Daily Planet, May 16-18 edition) just reflect his own personal preference for suburban-style design — which he apparently wants to impose on everyone. He is obviously an Old Suburbanist (just the opposite of a New Urbanist). 

He objects to the project because it will “replace an innocuous one-story frontage with a five-floor cliff of stores and apartments sited right up against the ... sidewalk.” 

The one-story strip mall on this site is the ugliest and most pedestrian-hostile building in central Berkeley. If Kenyon considers this building innocuous, that alone should convince us not to take his ideas about urbanism seriously. It also convinces me that he has never walked around this neighborhood.  

By contrast, the building proposed for this site is the typical scale of European cities, where the most attractive and interesting streets are made up of four- to six-story buildings, with housing above and with shops facing right on sidewalk. This building will give real character and interest to the corner of MLK and University.  

Five stories is the right scale for the part of this development on University Avenue. It is the same height as some of the oldest buildings in downtown (such as the old Mason-McDuffy building on Addison and Shattuck). Four stories is an appropriate transition to the adjoining neighborhood.  

Kenyon gives himself away when he says this building “would drive any middle-class hill dweller into claustrophobic despair.” He is admitting that he thinks like a suburbanite.  

But suburbanites who understand how cities work should back smart growth. People will do much less damage to their suburban quality of life by living in denser neighborhoods where they walk rather than living in low-density sprawl where they drive everywhere.  

Many people like living in cities, and the boredom of living in middle-class suburbs would drive them to despair. Why does Kenyon want to force his suburban taste on these people? 

I am amused by Kenyon’s statement that this building should be designed “like the wood-shingled low-key building immediately north of Long’s Drug’s parking lot.”  

I was the activist who did the most to get the city to approve this building — there is a plaque with my name on the building — and I can testify that the local NIMBYs were furious at the hearing where the City Council approved it. They said, “It’s too big” so many times that, after the hearing, I told friends that my parrot could be a member of that neighborhood group, if I only trained it to say “It's too big.” 

But now that it is built, that building obviously fits right into the neighborhood and is a huge improvement over the gas station that used to be there — just as the proposed building at MLK and University will be a huge improvement over the strip mall that is now there.  

Whenever a new building is proposed, NIMBYs yell “It’s too big.” They claim to represent neighborhood residents, but nobody should believe them.  

Measure P lost, with 80 percent of the voters against it — the most decisive defeat of a ballot measure in memory. The “It’s too big” crowd is very noisy, but it obviously represents only a tiny minority of Berkeley residents.  

Charles Siegel is a Berkeley resident who has been active in many environmental groups.