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City Report Fails to Cite Pro-Developer Staff

Friday December 19, 2003

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two articles on the Mayor’s Task Force on Permitting and Development. This article addresses the final Task Force report. 


The citizens of Berkeley should be delighted with the final report just issued by the Mayor’s Task Force on Permitting and Development. Why? Because it is packed with hard-hitting recommendations that strike to the heart of Berkeley’s development problems? No, far from it—a deep structural analysis or neighbors’ wish list of development “fixes” it is not. Nor should we celebrate just because the recommendations are “not as bad as we expected.” We should be happy because the report reflects a changing mood in Berkeley, encouraging the city and staff to facilitate rather than suffocate democracy and public participation. It addresses some of the fundamental problems for neighbors: Inadequate public noticing, the problematic roles of some commissions, lack of early discussion between applicants and neighbors, density, and Berkeley’s restrictive ex parte rule.  

The report’s overwhelming flaw, however, is that it fails to address the major problem: Berkeley’s pro-developer, anti-neighborhood, extremist “smart-growth” planning staff culture. The prior draft had included this already overly hedged statement: “There is a perception among some members of the community that the Planning Department staff is too closely allied with applicants. In particular, some are concerned that staff appear to act as advocates for a project rather than as impartial analysts.” Thanks to member Polly Armstrong, and over the heated objections of even the most mild-mannered task force members, that statement was watered down to this spineless drivel: “There is a concern that staff members appear to act as advocates for or against an application.” The fact is, Berkeley’s current zoning code and planning process would work pretty well if staff enacted them properly and in good faith. This report encourages that, albeit indirectly, and City Council should demand it. 

One of the report’s best recommendations, which could be implemented immediately, is that a huge sign be placed on the site of a development when an application is first submitted. The sign would include graphic representations and information about the proposed project. This guarantees that everyone in the area will know about the project, but even more importantly, they will know about it several months earlier than they do now. Currently, citizens receive minimal noticing shortly before public hearing dates; this noticing occurs only after a project application is “complete,” which can be months after submittal. Since lack of time early in the process greatly disadvantages the defense against an undesirable project, this recommendation will help level the playing field in what is still, unfortunately, an adversarial process. 

The report also recommends that meetings of the Design Review Commission (DRC) and Housing Advisory Commission (HAC) be noticed in the same way as Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB) hearings—which presumably means mailed notices as opposed to mere postings. Presently there is no noticing requirement for DRC meetings, where contentious design issues are decided long before the public hears about the project through mailed notices. In addition, at the HAC and City Council, funding decisions that lead to project “buy in” by the city are decided without any public awareness—sometimes years before the public knows about the project. The task force was rightfully disturbed by this, although because the topic of housing funding is so complex, the report contains only a “review and clarify” recommendation. 

To make the development process less adversarial, several recommendations “strongly encourage” applicants to talk to neighbors early in the process: for larger developments, through a “formal pre-application process,” and for small projects, through mediation. Although the language is weak, the intent and hopefully the implementation will be good, if we have the material and philosophical support of the planning Staff and the ZAB. 

Other recommendations that help neighborhoods include: expanding the noticing radius for large projects, incentivizing larger units, addressing the transition zone between large developments and nearby neighborhoods, and instituting an educational program to inform citizens about the development process. An acknowledged problem that yielded no recommendation (probably an oversight) was lack of enforcement of use permits. Not only does this result in tangible damage to neighbors, but knowing that the conditions attached to a use permit will ultimately be ignored understandably makes neighbors leery of supporting any development at all. 

The task force discussed at length the highly contentious and political issue of density—but this is an issue that must be decided by the people, not the task force. Accordingly the substance of the density controversy was passed on to the Planning Commission—where the citizens should be sure to make their voices heard. But the report acknowledges that the state density bonus law is having a disastrous impact on Berkeley, and recommends that the city work with the state to allow Berkeley to continue its own existing methods of encouraging affordable housing “without the need to exceed the development standards.” I’m delighted to see this in print, but when will this negotiation start and how long would it would take an agreeable Legislature to do act? Meanwhile, the task force asked staff to clarify its current mysterious methods of determining allowable density. And City Council should immediately insist that our staff apply the state law as parsimoniously as legally possible, to protect our own planning vision.  

Finally, although most members of the task force favored modifying or eliminating the ex parte rule that prohibits unofficial discussion of developments with decision makers, not having full consensus they recommended only that City Council consider the matter. I hope that with the support of the mayor and most of the community, Council will soon change this rule so decision makers can start to play a constructive role in the development process. 


Sharon Hudson is a member of Benvenue Neighbors.