I do not share the Daily Planet’s great hope that Phil Kamlarz will turn the Planning Department around. As budget director and deputy city manager, Kamlarz has been one of the most powerful people in Berkeley city government over the past 20 years. As such, he has had a major say not only in hiring Carol Barrett, but also in the hiring of her last four of five predecessors. The major reason planning directors do not get along with Berkeley residents and commissioners is that they come here with an agenda. In the recent past, that agenda has been to build as much and as high as possible—the neighborhoods be damned.
It is naive to think that planning directors are hired without top city officials knowing their views on development, nor would they be as arrogant if the full weight of the city manager’s office and the City Council was not behind them. The chief planners are chosen precisely because their ideas on overbuilding and density coincide with those of the administration and City Council.
Phil Kamlarz has known about the dismal state of the Planning Department for years. When I was on the Budget Review Commission in the mid-nineties, we’d ask Phil at every meeting when the new General Plan was coming out. It was only 12 years overdue. The answer was always “soon.” The reason the planners never produced a plan is that they were under orders to have it allow for greater densities and higher buildings than people already living here wanted. At every General Plan meeting I attended the staff repeatedly pushed for greater densities and higher buildings and the public always rejected them.
Phil was also present when the Budget Commission attempted to reduce the size of the Planning Department and to reorganize it so the public would know what was happening before projects were presented as “done deals.” I’m not certain, but I strongly suspect Phil played a key role in persuading City Council not to make any of the recommended changes.
So while I like Phil, and think he is very able, I strongly disagree with his approach to development. To continue to build high-rise, high density structures along so-called “transit corridors” that have no transit (AC Transit does not qualify as a modern urban transit system) the results will be disastrous. Streets will become clogged, parking will be a nightmare and police and fire services will be strained.
If Kamlarz, City Manager Weldon Rucker, Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Linda Maio pick another development-crazed planning director happy to line the pockets of slippery developers like Patrick Kennedy, the Planning Department door will keep revolving. And if he doesn’t replace Mark Rhodes, the duplicitous insect who runs the Zoning Department (a subdivision of planning) and who specializes in keeping neighbors in the dark, then the community will continue to rise up in protest.
What is desperately needed is a planning director who knows Berkeley, has lived here for a while, and is in touch with neighborhood and community groups. With a major city planning department at UC Berkeley, that type of person should not be too difficult to find.