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Fixing What’s Not Broke

Becky O’Malley
Friday July 18, 2003

The Feb. 20 press release just about said it all in the headline: “Mayor Tom Bates Launches Task Force to Fix Berkeley’s Broken Development Process.” But just to make sure we got the point, the subhead referred to “Berkeley’s dysfunctional process for approving building permits.” And then, in the body of the press release, “Developers, neighborhood preservationists, and city staff all agree that our permitting process is broken.” Anyone who still didn’t get it was invited to click over to a fact sheet, which told them that “it is generally agreed that the permitting process in the city of Berkeley is cumbersome, unclear, lengthy and often unfair to all those involved.” 

Yes indeed. It’s pretty clear that in February the mayor and his advisers thought that enough permits weren’t being granted and enough buildings weren’t being built in Berkeley. There’s only one problem with that analysis: it was data-free. Despite all the rhetoric, no real evidence was offered to support the conclusion that anything was broken. And obviously, the movers and shakers had never heard the old business saw “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” 

We have some facts now. The Planet commissioned Rob Wrenn to collect and analyze the city’s own data about how much development has been happening in Berkeley, and it is clear that a lot of development has been moving very quickly indeed through the pipeline. His study showed that developers usually get all or most of the special exceptions to the city’s standards which they demand. Close to 1,000 small apartments have been built recently or will be built soon. Only two big projects have been turned down, and one of the two is still in the works. 

Meanwhile, back at City Hall, the mayor’s Task Force on Permitting and Development has been slogging away at the task of fixing what’s not broken. The February press release said that “the task force has been directed to report back with specific recommendations … no later than four months from the date of its first meeting.” June 27 has come and gone, but the task force has barely started their discussion of large-scale development. The last meeting, on July 11, devoted just under an hour to the topic, but that’s about it. A great proportion of the nine previous sessions covered pressing matters like views, hot tubs and fences, which are more interesting to residents of single-family houses in the hills than to flatland neighbors immediately impacted by the buildings which some call BUBs, or Big Ugly Boxes. Citizens who have actually experienced the effects of BUBs on their blocks were not appointed to the task force, which is dominated by developers, builders, real estate agents, planners and politicians. 

One big problem jumps out of the statistics in the Wrenn report. The mix is all wrong. The BUBs contain too many expensive, tiny units appropriate only for well-off students and other young singles, and almost no housing for family groups. Only four units have more than two bedrooms. Even the “disabled” units in many cases are poorly designed, too cramped for someone who has both a large wheelchair and a sleep-over attendant. And we’re not building nearly enough affordable units of any size, if we want to maintain the diversity that has made Berkeley an interesting place to live. 

Meanwhile, demand for “market rate” apartments has been dropping. A study by RealFacts, a real estate market researcher, as reported in Thursday’s San Francisco Chronicle, says that rents in Alameda County have dropped by 4.8 percent. Some BUBs have big for-rent banners. It looks like we’ve built too much of the wrong thing too fast. 

Mayor Bates made a cameo appearance at the July 11 meeting. His contribution was that he thinks the city needs to develop a method for selling more units as condominiums. That’s the bailout for landlords when there’s a glut of over-built market rate rentals, for sure, but cracker-box condos don’t work for families. And condominiums are a notoriously poor investment for buyers. 

The Aug. 1 meeting is the last chance for the task force to try to grapple with the real problems of Berkeley’s development. People who care about the future of Berkeley should try to be there to tell the task force in person what’s really wrong, and how it should actually be fixed. (That’s Friday, Aug. 1, sixth floor of City Hall, 8:30 a.m.) 

During August the task force chair, Realtor Laurie Capitelli, will be drafting a report for review by the group in September. Citizens will still be able to comment in writing. The pages of the Planet are open for your letters and commentary. 


Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Planet.