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The Best Laid Plans

Becky O’Malley
Friday August 01, 2003

Sometimes a picture really is worth 1,000 words. The picture below confirms the worst fears of Berkeley’s small but vigorous group of urban design watchers, who think that the recent spate of Big Ugly Buildings is the product of a sinister cabal composed of the City of Berkeley’s Planning Department staff, private developers, and UC’s planning staff. And here they all are, in a photo taken in May at UC’s Faculty Club, at the banquet of the Northern California chapter of the American Planning Association, celebrating an award to the city of Berkeley for its infill housing program. 

Barrett’s April cover letter applying for the award said that: 

“The mixed-use projects included in this submittal, both designed and built, are all located on transit corridors or in the downtown. They incorporate appropriate densities, open space, reduced parking and affordable units among other sustainability principles. These projects are excellent models for, and examples of, smart growth principles." 

She further claimed that,  

“The City has successfully developed these plans and projects with a high degree of citizen involvement and engagement by appointed and elected officials, an enlightened development community, financial tools that help facilitate affordable housing, and a performance-based zoning ordinance. All of these ingredients provide a successful recipe for high density, infill housing projects which embody many of the best practices for sustainable development.” 

The Gaia Building (all electric heat) is one of the 22 allegedly exemplary projects celebrated in this submission.  

Another choice bit of self-congratulation from Barrett: “There has always been generous public dialogue and input from citizens in developing plans and ordinances, and in response to development proposals. Developers have worked with neighbors and staff to design projects that are appropriate for their location.” 

Perhaps the neighbors of Kennedy’s latest project would like to comment on this statement.  

Mark Rhoades, the city’s Current Planning Manager, said in a letter to city staff announcing the award: “Many people in Berkeley don't believe that the city's progressive attitude toward housing and social equity will ever equate to slowing down development in our greenbelts, suburban, and exurban fringe. This kind of recognition is proof otherwise.” 

Maybe we’ve missed something, but we’re still not clear how this award proves that 22 Big Ugly Buildings in Berkeley, mostly containing small expensive apartments for well-heeled singles, will slow down development on the exurban fringe, which is still, as it has always been, mostly single family homes. What it does prove is that planners, as always, are their own biggest fans, and that they have little interest in annoying citizen opinions to the contrary. 


Becky O’Malley is Executive Editor of the Daily Planet.