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Well-Connected Livable Berkeley Pushes Smart Growth

Tuesday July 06, 2004

In a community marked by strongly conflicting visions of the city’s future, a young but powerfully connected organization named Livable Berkeley is striving to make its own stamp on the city of tomorrow. 

“Livable Berkeley believes that Berkeley is a lovely city with a very strong potential, and we’re working to help the city fulfill that potential and become as wonderful a city as possible,” said David Early, an urban planner in private practice who has lived in Berkeley for two decades. 

Early and his confederates glimpse some of that potential in the nine-story Seagate Building project, planned for Center Street just west of the Wells Fargo Building on Shattuck. 

“This is a very important project because it provides a new model and a type of housing not previously available in downtown,” Early said. “By offering for-sale units in an apartment configuration, they’re appealing to stable households with higher incomes—a new demographic.” 

By drawing in a more affluent group of residents, he said, the project will also contribute to the ailing downtown merchant community. “The project’s also attractive, bringing an architectural flair not seen in many projects.” 

Holding dual UCB master’s’ degrees in architecture and planning, Early runs Design, Community & Environment (DC&E), a planning and design consultancy that works mainly for governments and official agencies. Local clients have included the cities of Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, and Benicia.  

A recent major DC&E project of particular local concern was the environmental element of the UC Berkeley Long Range Development Plan. 

One of his senior DC&E staff members—and a member of the Livable Berkeley Board of Directors—is Erin Banks, a former Berkeley city planner and the spouse of city Planning Manager Mark Rhoades. 

Jennifer Kaufer, another Livable Berkeley board member, is the spouse of Aran Kaufer, a member of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission and employee of Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy. 

Other well-connected members of the Livable Berkeley board include:  

• Ali Kashani, a former nonprofit developer who has now entered the commercial sector; 

• Todd Harvey, who works for Jubilee Housing, a non-profit developer; and 

• Dorothy Walker, who served until her retirement in 1995 as Assistant Vice Chancellor for Property Development for UC Berkeley and was the founding president of the American Planning Association. 

The organization coalesced from the Coalition for a Livable Berkeley, formed to oppose the November, 2002, ballot Measure P—which called for limiting new building heights to two and three stories along some of the city’s major thoroughfares. After the measure was rejected by 80 percent of Berkeley voters, some of the victorious foes united to form Livable Berkeley to keep the momentum going, said member Alan Tobey. 

“I was looking for a way to get back into Berkeley politics from a big picture, smart growth orientation,” Tobey said. 

Tobey, who’d recently retired as a tech manager specializing in small companies and start-up operations, said he had been active in Berkeley politics in the 1970’s, working for passage of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance and for the mayoral campaign of Loni Hancock. 

“Certain developers are members, even board members, but the group’s focus is much broader,” Tobey said. “I would hope it can be one of the few organizations in town that can have an integrating perspective, not just a narrow focus.” 

Initially, the group retained Allan Freeman to handle organizational matters. A UC graduate student from Southern California, Freeman had organized Livable Santa Monica to foster similar goals in Berkeley’s unofficial sister city. 

With Freeman recently graduated and gone, Jennifer Phelps, one of Early’s staffers, has picked up the organizational reins on a one-day-a-week basis. 

The organization’s membership currently tops 100, Early said, “and we’re growing. They include a broad range of backgrounds and almost all of them are Berkeley residents.” 

Livable Berkeley has already found itself at odds with at least one grassroots organization—PlanBerkeley—which seeks strict limits on developments in the University Avenue area. In an e-mail alert to Livable Berkeley members sent May 14, Freeman blasted PlanBerkeley members as “angry NIMBYs” and characterized their efforts as an attempt to resurrect Measure P “through the back door.” 

And while Early says his group strongly favors historical preservation, “there are people who have tried to manipulate the Landmarks Preservation Commission process solely to prevent development.” 

Early said he also doesn’t favor unrestricted development of five-story structures, “but there’s a small, vocal minority that feels two or three stories should be the maximum. Four or five stories is good for most of Berkeley.” 

Sitting at a table at a Shattuck Avenue coffee shop, Early said numerous studies show that the most comfortable streets are those with a one-to-one ratio between building-to-building street width and building height. 

“Here on Shattuck, the width is about 100 feet, but most of us would never say all of downtown should be 10 stories tall,” he said. 

Livable Berkeley sees affordable housing as perhaps the biggest challenge confronting the city. “Housing prices are out of control, and the city has to provide more housing opportunities,” Early said. 

New developments along the city’s’ major thoroughfares “offer an astounding opportunity to create more housing” said Early, an opportunity he said would also provided a much-needed economic stimulus to the city’s ailing retail sector. 

The group also wants to see a “world class transportation system” that will eliminate the need for single occupancy vehicles. 

“Livable Berkeley believes it’s not necessary for all of us to ride around in single occupancy vehicles. Right now I can get anywhere in Berkeley faster on a bike than you can in a car,” he told a reporter. 

For those who can’t peddle a two-wheeler, he points to Segways and jitneys as two alternatives. 

Another goal of the organization is the reorganization of the structures of city government to provide more transparency for developers seeking to build in the city. 

“The way it is now, Berkeley scares away a lot of developers,” he said. “It doesn’t serve the city to have all development in the hands of a small, self-selected group.” 

Other issues of concern to the group include open space—they want more—creek restoration—they like it—and the needed for more trees, plantings and plazas along major streetscapes. 

“We’re also tracking individual building projects, and we’re going to be more pro-active in city policy issues and in building community-wide discussion on subjects like design.” 

Livable Berkeley members are also tracking projects and issues as they come before the City Council, Planning Commission and Zoning Adjustments Board and making their opinions heard. A candidate forum is in the works for this fall, as well as a symposium and community meeting on downtown transportation issues. The group also publishes the quarterly Livable Berkeley Newsletter, available for downloading on their website, 

“Growth and change are inevitable,” Early says, “and they provide the opportunities for making a very positive impact on the community.”