Election Section


Alan Tobey
Friday July 23, 2004

Editors, Daily Planet: 

Becky O’Malley’s editorial about Livable Berkeley basically concludes that the organization is mindlessly pro-development and takes extreme positions, to the city’s detriment. That’s an interesting judgment from someone who, as a s itting landmarks preservation commissioner, said at a public meeting in May that “I’d never vote to do any favors for developers no matter what,” even when doing so would divert development interest away from current or potential historic sites. Perhaps w e could characterize such an opinion as “mindlessly anti-development”? And perhaps best see her editorial in that light.  

I joined Livable Berkeley earlier this year as an ordinary citizen who belongs to no other ongoing civic group — and with no past or present ties to developers, architects, or city planners. I was pleased to meet multiple other citizen-members without such a professional background, including environmental and neighborhood activists, preservationists, and “just plain folks.” What memb ers most had in common was impatience with the narrow partisan positions on some ongoing issues that have left much of Berkeley politics “frozen in time” for decades.  

Instead of a narrow interest group, I found an organization consistently looking at th e bigger picture and working to establish new consensus for the city’s benefit, on more than just development projects. For example, I was one of two members of Livable Berkeley (not just one as Ms. O’Malley writes) who attended the many hours of meetings of the subcommittee crafting needed revisions to the Landmark Preservation Ordinance. Along with members of Berkeley Architectural Heritage who made major contributions, we collectively helped to move the ordinance toward greater clarity, efficiency and effectiveness. Once a contentious topic, historic preservation is now a settled issue in Berkeley; working from the broad perspective lets us now more clearly implement it for the benefit of the whole community. It’s just that “big tent” process that Livable Berkeley will, as it grows in capability, embody more and more.  

Even Ms. O’Malley’s own paper has covered past Livable Berkeley public activities that are not just about physical development. We have co-sponsored and/or attended community workshops on topics such as mitigating the effects of traffic, eco-tours of historic neighborhoods, and other events of little interest to “mindless developers.” You will see us doing more and more of that as we grow and learn.  

Seemingly unable to find anything a bout development to like, Ms. O’Malley gets the orientation of the group precisely backward. Livable Berkeley does not publicly favor “smart growth” in order to provide a cover story for any and all development proposals; rather, we favor selected project s when and only when they promise to provide the public benefits that smart growth can deliver. We believe Berkeley’s “big picture” should provide more livable commercial and residential neighborhoods, which are sometimes best served by intelligently addi ng more density of life to encourage better street-level services and amenities.  

I don’t mean to claim that Livable Berkeley is yet a perfect organization, or may ever be. Indeed founded by public-spirited planning and development professionals, it’s taking awhile to broaden their natural way of thinking. Some of us, indeed, have had to point out to our founders that we don’t just work to benefit desirable “projects” (a developer/planner’s breakdown of the world) but primarily the citizenry as a whole. Less than two years old, the group faces the usual challenges of finding financial support and gathering enough extra time from already-busy members; organizational development clearly needs more attention.  

Ms. O’Malley, however, still seems to be livin g in the regrettable bygone era of narrow partisan strife. She would do more good for the city by learning what the emerging big-picture consensus actually is these days, by not unfairly demonizing her well-meaning neighbors, and by refraining from inflammatory language like “megaplex” to describe any proposal too imaginative for her comprehension. And yes, maybe even by cutting civic-minded developers some slack once in awhile.  

Alan Tobey