Livable Berkeley Assessed

Becky O’Malley
Friday July 16, 2004

We must be doing something right, since we’ve gotten a bunch of letters and phone calls complaining about our profile of Livable Berkeley. The majority of them, some of which we printed, complained that the piece was too soft on the organization, which seems to be a real thorn in the side of Berkeley residents who feel that they’re living in the target zone for Smart Growth zealots. We also got a couple of complaints on the other side, from Livable Berkeley members, both of whom live in Berkeley and are employed in offshoots of the development industry. 

Yes, there is an editorial position in this space on Livable Berkeley, and yes, we do our best to keep it out of the news columns. We were present at the creation of the organization, and while it had a difficult birth it seems to have matured into a normal lobbying group, quite fine as long as it adheres to truth in packaging when it pushes for its opinions to be adopted as public policy in the city of Berkeley.  

Livable Berkeley got its first public exposure at a meeting in the Main Library of people who had opposed Measure P, the attempt at enacting a height limit in Berkeley. Many of the anti-P people were sincere advocates of affordable housing development, and they were persuaded that height limits would be bad for affordable housing. Others were of the doing well by doing good flavor: people who make their living building new buildings, or working for those who do. In the usual style of new organizations in Berkeley, they elected committees of one kind and another, and got into mini-brawls over mission statements. Again in a familiar Berkeley pattern, the instigators then dropped the pretense of being member-run and re-grouped as a board-directed organization with non-voting members. All normal so far, but here’s where it gets cute. 

The current chair of the Livable Berkeley board, David Early, just happens to run a firm which happens to have done the much-criticized environmental impact work for UC’s latest long range development plan. And he just happens to be the boss, in his very small firm, of the spouse of the City of Berkeley’s current planning director. And the great majority of the current Livable Berkeley boardmembers just happen to have made their living from development activity one way and another. Still, it’s their right to form a lobbying group to promote their ideas—some of which, admittedly, seem goofy to us. 

For example: They’ve never met a big building they don’t like. They’re over the top for Seagate’s megaplex nine-story downtown project, which many in the arts community have criticized for using a very modest arts space contribution to leverage big concessions from the city of Berkeley. They pushed the Planning Department’s original big-box University Avenue zoning proposal which neighborhood groups and PlanBerkeley.org opposed.  

Also: They say they have about 100 members, some of whom live in Berkeley. It would look better if most or all lived in Berkeley, or if members were allowed to vote, or if we could find out who their members actually are. 

Then there’s their spokesman: In his interview with the Daily Planet, Chairman Early seemed to be supporting the idea of 10-story buildings for North Shattuck because it’s 100 feet wide. He also suggested that people who weren’t able-bodied enough to ride bicycles could use Segways (powered scooters) instead. But it’s hard to take this stuff seriously, or to worry about it too much. 

It’s the truth in packaging aspect, however, that bears continuing scrutiny. Mayor Bates appointed Chairman Early to his 10-member task force on development, though LB has fewer than 100 members, while appointing no representatives of organizations which have doubts about development, like the 1,500-member Berkeley Architectural Heritage Organization. Livable Berkeley sent a vocal representative to join the deliberations of the LPC subcommittee on revising the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, though he couldn’t vote, of course. Livable Berkeley activists have been trying to get council appointments to many commissions, and have persuaded at least one developer-funded councilmember to appoint their people. All of this is perfectly legal, or at least we think it is, but a faint aura of conflict of interest hangs over the whole picture. We would be unhappy if the city’s decision-makers allowed important decisions to be unduly influenced by the vocalizations of a well-funded, well-wired, but ultimately unrepresentative small association of interested parties like Livable Berkeley.  


—Becky O’Malley