Although I had heard some rumors about a building going up on the Oxford Street Parking Lot in downtown Berkeley, it was not until I read the article by Rob Wrenn that I knew what was being planned. Mr. Wrenn wrote: “Resources for Community Development (RCD) together with Equity Community Builders, has been selected as the developer for the City of Berkeley’s Oxford Street surface parking lot. The planned mixed-use project will include approximately 90 apartments, a majority of them below-market units. The plan includes 28 three-bedroom units and one four-bedroom. If built as planned this would be the largest amount of affordable family-oriented housing built in Berkeley for many years.”
With 29 out of 90 apartments being 3 or 4 bedrooms, this means that the majority of the units (68%) will be smaller (studio, 1 & 2 bedrooms) and probably not for families. The building being planned for Oxford Street, no matter how nice, will not be in a location that will naturally attract families. The proposed building will be in the center of downtown Berkeley, across the street from the UC Campus and surrounded by restaurants, retail, movie theaters, and other apartments. Low-income families might find the neighborhood of this building to be a stressful place, with heavy pedestrian and vehicular traffic and the majority of nearby services dependent on “disposable income” which they don’t possess. Building more affordable housing close to public transportation is a laudable goal. However, families with two or more children often find that having a car is more cost-effective than public transportation, and if they can’t afford a car (even one that doesn’t run well), they don’t usually venture far from their homes.
As a parent, I know that most parents want to live in a neighborhood where other families live, where traffic is minimal, and where there are places nearby for children to play. Venturing outside the proposed building with young children will mean being confronted daily with their questions about “why can’t we eat here?” and “will you buy me that?” This puts additional burdens on the low-income parent. Although Berkeley High School is nearby and the main library is two blocks away, there is no playground, ball field or park within easy walking distance. Kids could cross Oxford Street and play on the UC campus, although it is not really a park. Washington School is about four blocks away but requires crossing both busy Shattuck Avenue and MLK Jr. Way, and a low-income family might be tempted to use the dismal and unsafe playground at Civic Center Park.
Perhaps the building’s plans include a courtyard with swings or a climbing structure, but the liability issues for the developers and/or building owners might prevent this. My guess is that young single adults will be the majority of tenants in this new building, and UC students wanting a shared housing arrangement will probably be those most interested in the larger units. If the City of Berkeley and its non-profit developers want to build more housing for low-income families, they need to think about the location of such a development and how that location can enhance the quality of life for those families. UC Berkeley has been offering affordable housing for students with children for many years, and those housing complexes include open space, parking and traffic controls, and play areas for children. The construction of a high-rise housing development for low-income families in the city center sounds vaguely like the disastrous urban development projects in Chicago and Detroit that were built in the 1960’s. I hope that our city planners and local government officials will carefully think through the long-term effects of such a project before proceeding with it.
Sue Fischer is a Berkeley resident.