Stephen Wollmer
Tuesday January 27, 2004


Editors, Daily Planet: 

I draw your attention to a disturbing trend in the development feeding frenzy the City of Berkeley is suffering under—the incredible shrinking retail/commercial component of everyone’s favorite development misnomer: mixed-use. This trend may have escaped the notice of our Planning Department and its boards, but it is clear that developers who pay close attention to their return on investment are no longer willing to devote more than a fig leaf of square footage to space that will remain vacant or need to be rented to a charity case nonprofit. No, they have recognized that the real value of the retail/commercial space in mixed-use development is its near miraculous ability to slide oversized developments through the planning process, rather than in any economic return to them or for some “public purpose” in return for the significant zoning concessions granted to mixed-use developments. 

A case in point is the latest mutation of Panoramic Interests’ 1950 MLK project—now re-titled and re-oriented as 1885 University Ave. Proposed originally as a 119,280-square-foot mixed-use development with 191 dwelling units and 5,000 square feet of retail/commercial space, it is has metastasized into a 158,860-square-foot project with 179 dwelling units and 4,500 square feet of retail/commercial space. This “right-sizing” (to bring back a hated term from the ‘90s) has the effect of reducing the residential/commercial ‘mix’ from a laughable 4.2 percent to a derisory 2.8 percent. To get a sense of what this project will look like and how it will dominate the neighborhood, the next time you are eastbound on University Avenue and need to wait at the MLK stoplight, envision the Golden Bear development up the street at Milvia and University transported to your immediate left—because Panoramic Interests’ new project has the same square footage and footprint as the Golden Bear, but regrettably will not have either its honesty nor its charm. 

If the residential component of the current litter of mixed-use developments were evaluated as purely residential developments, they would need to conform to R3 zoning, with real setbacks, reasonable building heights, and meaningful detriment impact standards and findings. Even with the state-mandated density bonus of 25 percent a R3 development would provide the neighborhood, the city, and the region the housing it needs—without the ugliness of yet one more hulking structure presenting a vacant storefront with a perpetual ‘For Lease’ or ‘Available’ sign in the window as its smirking nod to the concept of mixed-use. We probably need more housing, but we certainly have no need for additional retail or commercial space. Furthermore, whatever need for such space that does arise over the next few decades can easily be accommodated by renovating today’s distressed and vacant inventory. There is no requirement in city or state law to approve a mixed-use proposal when there is no need for additional retail or commercial space. Just because a developer makes a proposal for a mixed-use project under the zoning code does not require approval by ZAB or the city council—a permitted use is not a by right entitlement—demand that our city begin to show some discretionary oversight over the development process. 

Stephen Wollmer