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Developers Have Hijacked Berkeley Planning Process

Friday July 25, 2003

I applaud Rob Wrenn’s series on Berkeley housing. I would like to add a few comments that may make the recent changes in Berkeley housing patterns more understandable. Berkelely’s preferred mode of new housing production is mixed-use developments that combine ground floor retail/commercial with upper stories of housing, thus furthering two important development goals, revitalizing our commercial/retail base and providing needed housing. To achieve these goals the city zoning ordinance permits significant increases in density, lessened project resident amenities (in particular open space and housing) and significantly weakened protections for neighboring residential zones. The laudable goals of mixed-use projects have been hijacked by clever developers and winked at by a complacent zoning administration that apparently has never met a project they didn’t like.  

In today’s market the mixed-use distortion of the zoning ordinance takes the form of having a retail fig leaf covering an incredibly dense residential development. The most egregious examples of the mixed-use shell game are Mr. Patrick Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests’ projects. For example, their 1950 MLK project totals 120,000 square feet, of which only 5,000 (4 percent) is slated to be commercial or retail. The residential density that results is truly mind-boggling; in standard land use terms it amounts to 190 dwelling units per acre.  

To make clear how dense this project is, let us consider what could be built if it was proposed as a R3 project instead of mixed-use. The zoning code gives examples of the residential density permitted for this district—for example, if Mr. Kennedy was building a Group Living Accommodation (e.g. a dormitory or a jail) the project could have no more than 125 residents. But after waving the wand of mixed-use over the project, he is requesting use permits to build 191 units, with more than 300 bedrooms and, given the projects proximity to UC Berkeley, in all likelihood, a truly startling number of residents. Compare this result with the goals for the R3 district described in the zoning ordinance as “relatively high density residential areas; ... for persons who desire both convenience of location and a reasonable amount of Usable Open Space.” While we can all wonder what life will be like for the residents of these new developments given their density, the other main zoning concessions to mixed-use projects, the reduction in open space and parking will affect all who live, work or visit Berkeley.  

The 1950 MLK project provides only one-third of the required open space (12,570 feet squared of open space vs. 38,500 feet squared). For comparison, the ever popular Ohlone dog park a block north of the project on Hearst Street provides our canine friends more than 30,0000 square feet, and I am reasonably sure there are never anywhere near 190 dogs running around the park at one time. This type of zero-setback, open space on the roof type of development will have detrimental effects on the surrounding residential neighborhood and on the city in general through even greater demand on the existing public open spaces. To my knowledge the city has never required a developer to contribute to public open space enhancements to mitigate for their lack of project-provided open space.  

The reduction in parking below already low requirements will be noticeable to anyone who attempts to drive downtown once this and other projects similar to it are completed. For the residential portion of its project, 1950 MLK will provide only 100 out of the required 140 spaces. As we all know that Berkeley apartments are more likely to host two cars than none, expect a minimum of 100 cars circling in ever wider radiuses, looking for the elusive free parking space—they may even be parking in front of your house before long. The city is silent when asked where the residents will park, and if they will be eligible to participate in the residential parking permit program, but you, the reader will surely notice the radical diminishment of street parking the next time you attempt to park anywhere close to downtown in the evenings or the weekend.  

To my knowledge the city has never required a developer to contribute to public transportation, CarShare cars or improvements to public parking in the neighborhood to mitigate for their lack of project-provided parking.  

It is quite clear that control of development can only come through political leadership. Whether it will come from our city councilmembers or through yet another initiative the next few months will tell. There have been recent moves on the part of the Planning Department to resurrect the University Avenue plan from its unenforceable status as part of the general plan. We all need to ask, is this the type of housing the city needs or are we building the slums of the future? What is the effect on the livability of our city when we allow residential developments to be built with almost no useable open space. What will happen when the city finally reaches parking gridlock from its refusal to require projects to provide sufficient parking for their residents? Above all, remember your Psych 101 lab rat experiments and what happens when living space is reduced below even a rat’s minimal standards.  


Stephen Wollmer is a cartographer who lives on Berkeley Way. He has lived in the University/MLK neighborhood off and on for the last 30 years.