“We are trying to build an organization to counter the ‘dumb growth’ positions of what the defeat of Measure P told us is a distinct minority of Berkeley residents. The subtle propaganda of the revived Daily Planet is clearly fanning the flames—and adding an ugly note of personal defamation that should remind us demagoguery is not reserved just to the Bush administration.”
—From an e-mail fund-raising letter sent out by Hank Resnik on behalf of the recently re-constituted Livable Berkeley organization, forwarded to the Planet by a number of friends who are on his e-mail list.
Well, no. Defamation is a fancy word for libel, and an essential element of the legal definition of libel is that the supposedly libelous statement must be untrue. As far as we know, the Planet has never been accused of making an untrue statement about any person. We certainly say true things that people don’t like to hear, and will continue to do so. We also expect to make some mistakes, but if we find out about them, we will correct them promptly.
Truth is the most important product of a newspaper, and when someone accuses a newspaper of defamation, when no defamation has take place, that actually comes pretty close to something called “trade libel,” disparaging a business or its products untruthfully. Look it up. Ask your lawyer. But we’re not going to sue.
It is kind of heavy-handed, however, to compare the Planet to the Bush administration. Nice to know we’ve finally made the big time, but still ... isn’t that kind of over the top?
Land use discussions frequently take on this kind of acrimonious tone, here and elsewhere, and there are good reasons why this is so. Neighborhood participants often have no other assets but the equity in their home, so a perceived threat to its value is traumatic. Developers are usually skating on pretty thin ice, with millions of dollars in loans and small profit margins; some say the risk is what makes it fun, but it can also be stressful.
Then there are the true believers, some of whom, like Resnik, are now carrying water for the aforementioned Livable Berkeley. Environmental problems are real and scary, and it’s tempting to believe that the right mantra, like “smart growth,” is going to save us from ourselves. Many of us wish we believed that building a thousand high-rise apartments in Berkeley will prevent McMansions in Fairfield, but there’s just no evidence that it’s true. (Austin, Texas, in fact, one of the early adopters of the Smart Growth slogan, has already officially given it up.)
The current Livable Berkeley organization is a rump faction of the original Coalition for a Livable Berkeley, a campaign committee formed to oppose Measure P, the November 2002 ballot measure intended to restrict the height of buildings in Berkeley. The lion’s share of the No-on-P campaign funding came from the development crowd, including principals, investors, sub-contractors, employees, spouses and in-laws. They outspent the proponents many times over, winning a predictable 3 to 1 margin in the election. But it is a mistake to think, as the most avid Livable Berkeley spokesmen do, that the vote on Measure P meant that a big majority of Berkeleyans favor unrestricted development of pricey rental apartments. Some No-On-P supporters were persuaded that affordable housing required tall buildings. Many “No” voters simply thought that limiting height was one-dimensional planning, and that height was not the only thing that mattered.
After the election, an e-mail letter calling for a purge of city commissioners who supported Measure P was circulated under the name of Councilmember Linda Maio’s aide Brad Smith, although Resnik later admitted to being the author. Then, a couple of public meetings were called by Resnik and others, with the announced intention of carrying on the Coalition ideology in a successor organization. Much to the consternation of the true believers, a significant number of people who had opposed Measure P but also believed in careful planning turned out for these meetings. Attendees voted to establish committees for organization and goal-setting, and many signed up for them.
But then, in a coup worthy of the left sectarian wars of the thirties (or of the Bush administration), self-styled “core” participants simply started over again, with a brand-new steering committee chosen by unnamed individuals meeting at undisclosed locations, just as if the first meetings had never taken place.
Are you lost yet? It gets even more baroque. Now new members are being recruited (that’s the purpose of Resnik’s latest letter). They can join by paying 30 bucks, but this time they don’t get to vote. The unelected steering committee makes all the decisions. The members just send money. Don’t believe this? Go to livableberkeley.com.
This is a long tale, and perhaps not interesting to people who aren’t planning mavens. There is a point to it, or perhaps several points.
The opposite of “smart growth” is not “dumb growth.” It may be “no growth.” Some supporters of Measure P, as well as some who didn’t support it, think that any growth in Berkeley needs to be a lot smarter than what we’ve been getting lately. It’s not smart, to borrow a phrase from backers of the war against Vietnam, to destroy cities in order to save them. There’s nothing smart about simply granting every permit application for large buildings until all buildable sites are gone, destroying any vintage structures in the path. Berkeley is already crowded. If it becomes unpleasant for current residents, you can bet they’ll flee to the suburbs, as previous residents of carelessly urbanized areas did before them.
The San Francisco Chronicle and the S.F. Bay Guardian have recently done
excellent pieces on the effects of dumb “smart” growth on San Francisco. On Rincon Hill, according to Chronicle urban critic John King, San Francisco has been blithely ignoring an intelligent plan for increased development drawn up in the eighties, instead granting building permits to anyone who has enough juice, to build whatever they want, regardless of the consequences. The Bay Guardian had a cover story on the big empty holes which have been left South of Market after the bottom fell out of the dotcom boom. The building projects are off, but the small businesses and artists have already been driven out.
Berkeley has managed to avoid the worst of such excesses. So far. Our planning processes have been criticized for being too slow and cautious, with too much citizen input, but maybe we’ve got it about right. Or, if you believe some of those who supported Measure P, the Cassandras among us, perhaps we’ve gone too far in the wrong direction already.
It’s time to take stock of where we are, before we decide where we want to go next.
That’s why The Planet has asked former Planning Commission chair Rob Wrenn to report on exactly what has been built, and where. It’s remarkable that he’s had to compile this information himself, more or less from scratch, since there is no comprehensive and accessible database of cumulative development maintained by the city of Berkeley.
And now we are pleased to quote the closing sentence in Resnik’s fund-raising pitch: “Read the Daily Planet and you’ll know why this matter is urgent.” We couldn’t agree more. The next part of the Planet’s Special Report on Berkeley’s Housing Boom will appear next Friday.
Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Planet.