Robin Kibby hasn’t forgotten the day last July when she walked into her first Berkeley planning meeting and spoke out against a proposed five-story apartment complex on University Avenue that would tower over the home she had recently bought.
It was a humbling experience for the green-haired graphic designer. “I didn’t know what I was talking about,” said Kibby. “I didn’t realize all the factors that let the city to go forward with these supersized buildings.”
Now more than six months and 500 hours of work later, Kibby, along with two neighbors and fellow planning novices, small business owner Kristin Leimkuhler and machinist Richard Graham, have launched a website that can make anyone an expert on Berkeley development.
Their site, planberkeley.org, details pending developments along University and San Pablo avenues and offers simple explanations of the forces at work that often result in developments that are larger and bulkier than called for under local plans.
“We wanted to paint a big picture of what’s going around University Avenue, so people can see the cumulative impact of the projects and get information about why it’s happening,” Kibby said. Before the website, she said, neighbors along University Avenue who were concerned about a development had to sort through complex language on the city’s website or go to the permit center and pour through development plans they didn’t fully understand.
The website comes at a time when the stakes are particularly high for future development along University. In February the City Council asked staff to zone the street so that future buildings reflected the goals of the University Avenue Strategic Plan, adopted in 1996. That document envisioned moderately sized developments with courtyards above sustainable retail stores that included sufficient parking.
But since the plan was adopted, the city has accepted a flurry of new mixed-use projects which include far more housing and less retail and parking than envisioned under the plan. Critics of the new buildings say developers have exploited city and state rules that reward the construction of high density, affordable housing projects to proceed with taller buildings that push towards property boundaries.
The website, its designers hope, will give neighbors the knowledge and organizational tools to understand the zoning rules and density calculations—which the council is considering changing—and help them to decide for themselves what kind of development is appropriate in their neighborhood.
“We want this to be an unbiased resource for the community,” said Leimkuhler. “Previously there was no information for residents to work with and act in an informed way.”
Gathering the information was a Herculean effort for the trio that met in July at a meeting about a new development planned for University. From September through the end of January, they worked up to 20 hours a week, doing research in law libraries, pouring through documents on line and meeting face-to-face with city staff.
“We hit it off right away. It was a labor of love and planning,” said Leimkuhler, who started by reading Dreamworks for Dummies and now volunteers 30 hours a week as the group’s webmaster. She had plenty of help from Kibby, who designed much of the webpage, as well as from Graham, who has followed development projects in the neighborhood for years.
Fellow Berkeley residents gave them some background information on planning issues and some important tips on getting their website up and running, Leimkuhler said.
The finished product is a clear and concise overview of Berkeley development. It lays out the pivotal issues facing development in the city, explains how state laws and regional agencies affect local development and gives updated information, including blueprints, on pending projects and development issues.
“I think it’s great,” said Berkeley Planning Director Dan Marks, director of the website. Marks has worked with Leimkuhler to quickly respond to her requests for updated information. On Wednesday, Leimkuhler posted the latest zoning blueprint for University Avenue, well before the document appeared on the city website.
Leimkuhler said all her work has not only given her a better understanding of city planning but a more balanced view of the planning staff. “We entered a climate of mutual suspicion,” she said. “Now I realize that the staff doesn’t speak with one voice. There are people there who are also frustrated with the current system.”
Leimkuhler said she hoped to one day expand the website to include information on developments planned for other neighborhoods, but that time constraints and the lack of available manpower makes that impossible.
Besides more volunteers, Leimkuhler’s only other hope is for more readers. So far only 67 people have visited the four-week-old site. “Considering all the work we’ve put in, that makes me feel terrible,” she said.