Angry at Planning Staff? Don’t Waste Your Energy

Tuesday June 01, 2004

In recent contributions to an e-mail discussion of University Avenue zoning reforms among city officials, staff, and interested citizens, Planning Commissioner Tim Perry (Councilmember Margaret Breland’s appointee) blamed Berkeley’s “public culture” for the anger and intemperate remarks directed at staff during last week’s Planning Commission hearing. Saying that he’s “convinced staff does their best to treat the community and housing producers (a.k.a. ‘developers’) equally,” Perry called for neighbors to treat staff with more respect. 

Perry’s right to lament these lapses of civility, but by blaming “public culture” for its own character (a circular argument) he’s begging the question. Why are people angry? Because a handful of pushy developers keep circumventing popular local development controls intended to preserve Berkeley’s unique character and throwing up inappropriate, out-of-scale buildings. Planning staff are a handy target for this anger, since it’s their job to enforce the zoning code—but they’re not the root of the problem. 

Staff not only don’t treat developers and neighbors equally, they can’t. A special relationship between staff and developers necessarily arises because, especially on large and potentially controversial projects, they meet many times over many months, sometimes years. There’s no way to avoid that, so the law provides a balancing role for the public. 

In Berkeley, that public role is currently inadequate. This results in a constant stream of controversial projects, angry neighbors, and contentious hearings. 

This stream does not run through a political vacuum. Some people in town, including some staff and appointed and elected officials, benefit from the status quo through increased departmental or tax revenue, campaign contributions, or jobs, or favor construction of large buildings for ideological reasons such as a belief that they help the homeless or reduce development of open space and farmland in places like Brentwood. 

How does this political tendency play out? Staff, through inaction, selective enforcement, and creative interpretation of the zoning code, city plans, and state law, and under constant pressure from developers, frequently promote projects that flout the regulations intended to preserve neighborhood character and prohibit out-of-scale buildings. Appointed and elected officials—despite protestations of reluctance, expressions of sympathy for neighbors’ objections, and minority votes to the contrary—more often than not approve such projects. And at all levels, any attempt to reform the zoning code to plug loopholes are thwarted by inaction, obstructionism, and vague, ambiguous legislation that provides new loopholes. 

For example, the University Avenue Strategic Plan approved in 1996 contains a detailed description of how large buildings were to be restricted to certain major intersections, with the rest of the street limited to three-story buildings with ample setbacks and stepbacks. But, by failing to draft the zoning code revisions necessary to implement that plan, staff effectively vetoed the measure. 

Whether this was a conscious or deliberate decision is debatable. There’s a virtually endless backlog of such work, and neither the Planning Commission or City Council put pressure on staff to make this particular task a priority until a few months ago, when the Tune-Up Masters proposal highlighted the gap between the official plans and development reality. 

On the other hand, now that it is a priority, staff have produced one draft after another that effectively perpetuate the current loopholes but fail to implement the explicit and detailed provisions of the UASP. Can even the most reasonable and disinterested observer see that as anything but a deliberate attempt to dump the democratically developed and approved plan with one that allows the continued construction of sore-thumb buildings? Neighbors have a right to be angry. 

Nevertheless, it’s not only uncivil but a waste of political capital to direct anger at staff. No proposal by planning staff can take effect without the support of a majority of the members of the Planning Commission. Since each City Council member appoints one commissioner, they’re the ones who are ultimately responsible. 

Angry? The upcoming City Council election provides the proper forum to express it. Get out and work to elect people whose Planning Commission appointees won’t vote to make Berkeley look like Walnut Creek. 


Pro-democracy activist Robert Lauriston lives in South Berkeley.