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Filling in the Details of Berkeley’s Infill Planning Award

Friday August 08, 2003

As noted recently in the Planet, the Berkeley Planning Department has received an infill development award from the American Planning Association (APA). How can this be? you ask. After all, Berkeley has recently been engulfed in a storm of land use controversy, a stack of lawsuits and appeals, and new Big Ugly Buildings strikingly similar to those that initiated the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance in 1973. Even the State wants Berkeley to straighten out its disrupted planning process! So just for fun, let’s examine the application’s own words—courtesy of the planning staff—and how they relate to reality. 


Application: “Beginning with its visionary 1977 Master Plan, Berkeley continues to demonstrate this commitment [to sustainability] through adoption of seven Area Plans and a new General Plan.” 

Reality: The Planning Department routinely runs roughshod over both the General Plan and our Area Plans, all of which attempt a delicate balance of our cultural, institutional, business, and residential components. Yet one of the award recipients, former Planning Director Carol Barrett, alienated Berkeley residents by advocating a “market-driven” cityscape in Berkeley (apparently the oxymoronic “market planning” idea), and then by attempting to stall the Southside Plan. Meanwhile, City legal and planning staff and certain Berkeley developers are openly delighted that a court has recently ruled that charter cities like Berkeley are not legally required to obey their general plans.  


Application: “With broad community support for these new [sustainable] policies, the implementation program could then disengage from ‘business as usual’ and engage in creative problem solving consistent with sustainability.” 

Reality: This sentence explains the Planning Department’s real approach to Berkeley’s carefully crafted plans: that is, to “disengage” from the plans and engage in highly “creative” interpretations designed to impose unnecessary and damaging forms of “smart growth” on Berkeley. 


Application: “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[s].” 

Reality: Citizen input into long-range planning is excellent—which is why citizens are so astonished when their plans are entirely ignored by the current Planning Division. Developers sometimes work successfully with neighbors to create good and popular developments, but a long list of appeals, lawsuits, and despised large developments indicates a major problem. Staff routinely stonewalls, obfuscates, refuses to respond, and ignores neighborhood concerns. In contradiction to our own ordinances, staff makes no genuine attempt to facilitate cooperation between applicants and neighbors. Instead, propelled by their simplistic “smart growth” philosophy, staff encourages developers to build the largest possible projects over neighborhood objections. If a project is not big enough to suit their idea of “smart growth,” the staff also makes things hard for the developer, driving those who want to build modest, neighborhood-friendly projects out of Berkeley. Some developers have even had to band together with neighbors to resist the Planning Department’s lust for overbuilding. 


Application: “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, mixed-use infill projects…” 

Reality: Wow! This is a mouthful! “Citizen involvement” means stunned citizens trying to defend themselves against atrocious developments, followed by appeals and lawsuits. “Engagement by appointed and elected officials” is impossible on developments, precluded by Berkeley’s unique interpretation of “ex parte” communication, which means that these officials can have no meaningful dialogue about current projects. The “enlightened development community” must refer to the planning staff themselves, unless it refers to a public quickly being “enlightened” of its parking, open space, greenery, views, landmarks, and quality of life. The “financial tools that help facilitate affordable housing” means that Berkeley refrains from checking developers’ claims of financial hardship to justify zoning concessions, and that the City finances affordable housing through state and federal programs, and then exercises poor oversight over the spending of this “free” money. The “performance-based zoning ordinance” means that instead of following any definitive rules, staff must merely convince five decision-makers, who are completely dependent on staff advice because they are too busy to read very much and are prohibited from talking with their constituents, that a development will not be “unreasonably detrimental”—whatever that means. Our flexible, discretionary zoning code, originally written to foster reasonable development, has been subverted by lack of discretion. 


Application: “The City of Berkeley may be one of the only cities on track to meet ABAG’s housing projections, including affordable units.…The City does not anticipate any problem reaching the goal of 1269 housing units by 2006.” 

Reality: But this acknowledgement does not keep the staff from simultaneously claiming that projects cannot legally be denied because Berkeley is behind in its affordable housing goals. The Planning Department and City Attorney regularly browbeat the public, the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB), and City Council with the “we’re behind on housing” justification for terrible projects.  


Application: “The City allows deep parking reductions for projects located in the Downtown core and along major transit corridors. Most projects have been built with less than one parking space per dwelling unit. Some have been approved with no parking for the residential component.”  

Reality: This boast is not limited to the residential component, the Downtown, or transit corridors. But there is nothing in the Zoning Ordinance that allows or encourages an applicant to build without adequate parking; in fact, parking protection is written into the code. Reductions in parking are discretionary, based on a finding of “no detriment.” Unfortunately, the “City”—meaning staff and a majority of the ZAB and/or the City Council—finds that inadequate parking is good for Berkeleyans in almost all non-single-family areas.  

The Planning Department is well on its way to building a high-density downtown Berkeley that has almost no parking. Car-free residential buildings have their place, but as currently executed they exacerbate parking problems and may create cumulative demographic problems. The lack of off-street public parking could rapidly become a problem for our business community, especially since the mayor’s task force is looking to further lower some commercial parking requirements to make development easier, without any examination of the consequences.  


Application: “Berkeley allows the open space requirement for infill buildings to be designed and located on rooftops. … The spaces are well used by building occupants.” 

Reality: Although it sounds great, rooftop open space is no substitute for ground-level open space that is an amenity for the public as well as the building residents—even in commercial areas. Rooftops are often windy, shadeless, and inconvenient to access, and they require unsightly elevator towers. Developers themselves admit that tenants do not use them, and evidence supports this. 


Application: “Berkeley allows a one or two floor bonus for projects that incorporate certain square footage of cultural space on their ground floors.” 

Reality: This incentive applies only to Downtown, and we all hope it will be constructive. But so far, the only time it’s been tried, developer shenanigans drove the intended cultural facility out of business and the space now sits empty. But oddly, the two extra floors did not also disappear.  


Application: “To provide increased development potential and greater design flexibility, the City actively pursues the provisions of the State Density Bonus law that allows for modifications in development standards to increase the number of dwelling units [in projects with affordable housing].” And later, “The City uses the density bonus law as a tool to move project massing around to be responsive to neighborhood needs and impacts.” 

Reality: Yes, the planning staff loves the State Density Bonus law, even though in public they pretend to be its helpless victim. Berkeley has had its own generous affordable housing provision since 1973, and local developers and the City were able to work out the financing on these projects without massive zoning give-aways. But when the state law was passed recently, these same developers were suddenly unable to finance their projects without trampling all over Berkeley’s zoning code. And the density bonus as a neighborhood-friendly “tool”?—downright Kafkaesque!  


Application: “Berkeley has now used the State’s infill exemption [from environmental review] on three mixed-use projects that included a total of approximately 40 units each.”  

Reality: Another revealing brag. The City avoids environmental review by any available mechanism, flying in the face of the sincere environmentalism of both Berkeleyans and real smart growth. What is so smart about building project after project, adding ever more to our urban environmental overload, without any assessment of their individual and cumulative environmental impacts?  


So what are Berkeleyans to make of this award, based on such a false picture of reality? Is the APA just a mutual admiration society? Are these awards intended merely to enhance résumés? As of this writing, we do not have the APA jury’s comments or the basis on which they made their judgments. But let’s not mistake this for an award for successful infill development, because some of the twelve projects submitted for the award may never be built, and there has been no study of the physical consequences of any of these projects, or user or public satisfaction. But, with a complete change of attitude and behavior, the planning staff may someday receive a meaningful reward: the appreciation of the citizens of Berkeley for effectively implementing Berkeley’s laws, plans, and progressive land use vision. This will lead to plenty of desirable infill. 


Sharon Hudson lives in an area with five times Berkeley’s average density, does not own real estate, did not own a car until she was 32, has never regularly commuted to a job by car, and donates most of her charitable dollars to the Nature Conservancy.