Editorial: Questioning Development

Becky O'Malley
Tuesday January 06, 2004

Holiday gatherings offer a chance to meet new people and find out what’s going on outside of Berkeley. Christmas cards and phone calls from distant friends are another way to get a window on the rest of the world. What I’ve learned this year is that planning issues and answers (or lack of answers) are remarkably similar throughout the country. From a farm friend back east: “We are still enjoying central Pennsylvania although there has been a great spurt of building around here—condominiums and McMansions going up with great abandon on some of the best farmland in the East. Progress marches on! It can’t be any crazier than California, though.” A young friend brought her brother from a midwestern university town to a Christmas party. He’s chair of his local historic preservation organization, and he reports that privately developed high-rise apartments are rapidly displacing the charming turn-of-the-century frame houses that sheltered generations of students with low rents. His major complaint is that easily disproved “affordability” criteria have been used as political cover for buildings which soon turn into high-priced market rate rentals. As a devoted progressive Democratic party activist, he’s particularly unhappy that his recently elected Democratic mayor has turned out to be in the developers’ pocket. Closer to home, some residents of an older East Bay exurb, who call themselves “democratic socialists;” complain that in their town trees are being cut down and potential parkland converted to apartments in the name of “saving the wilderness.” They still believe in what now seems to be an old-fashioned slogan, “think globally, act locally,” and they don’t think that filling up their local open space will prevent tenants of the new developments from moving to condominiums and McMansions on formerly rural lands as soon as they can afford it. Any of this sound familiar? 

Any editorial on growth-related controversies will elicit several passionate letters from true believers in the wide variety of quasi-solutions that have been proposed for the problem of excessive development in all the wrong places. All of these writers, if asked, would undoubtedly describe themselves as “progressives.” One camp (Smart Growth) contends that infill in Berkeley (or maybe El Cerrito) will stop McMansions in Fairfield or Carmichael. Doesn’t do much for central Pennsylvania, of course. Another (New Urbanism) contends that if you must build in Fairfield or central Pennsylvania, subdivisions comprised of houses close together with front porches will win out over McMansions on large lots. Maybe. But that’s what they already have in small towns in the Midwest, in areas which are still experiencing rural flight, and there in-town builders have another rationale for why their products are needed.  

The real secret is that the only way the building industry makes money is by building new buildings, and it’s always been willing to pay for the privilege. The major national contributor to both political parties has historically been the construction industry (though they may now be outbid by prison guards, who are really only a sub-set of the building lobby anyhow). Often, as in Berkeley, both “opposing” candidates are heavily subsidized by developer contributions. A little-noticed revision to election law raising the individual campaign contribution limit would make that even easier here, though Berkeley developers have traditionally circumvented the law by attributing large sums to their subcontractors and their mothers-in-law.  

Existing housing stock statistically has lower rents than new buildings which replace it. Rehabbing existing housing provides more jobs for more diverse workers than new construction. What re-use of old buildings doesn’t offer is excessive profit margins for big builders. Planning policy should be guided by what’s best for the overall community, not by what’s most profitable for developers. All over the country, like-minded progressive activists are fighting the same kinds of battles as we are in Berkeley, and we should be talking to one another all the time, not just during the holidays.  

Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.