Berkeley’s Building Boomers Move In: By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday August 27, 2004

Readers of metro dailies this week are learning what Daily Planet readers have known for more than a year. Berkeley has dramatically overbuilt its supply of luxury student housing. Chirpily cheery stories report what is, of course, good news for luxury students: prices have dropped for units boasting T1 Internet connections and free satellite TV, for students who like the in-your-face togetherness and the slick synthetic surfaces of the new units downtown, which are a lot like dormitories, but much fancier. The UC housing office reports that two-bedroom apartments now can be found for about $1,500 a month, which undoubtedly seems like a bargain to students from L.A, though the luxury buildings are asking more like $2,000. 

But there continue to be a few problems with Berkeley’s overall housing picture. The “smart growth” advocates have been telling us that such buildings would prevent urban sprawl. Cynics like former planning commissioner Clifford Fred have been heard to say that no one ever abandoned their search for a house with a yard in Fairfield in favor of a condo in Berkeley. The occupants of the new buildings in Berkeley—let’s call them our building boomers—have simply traded crowded UC dorm rooms for more spacious privately-owned dorms, and who could blame them?  

UC, never deterred from mechanistic completion of badly conceived plans, is moving forward with cramming still more grim high-rises onto their site at Dwight and College, which now resembles nothing so much as the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis which was finally dynamited because it was so unpleasant to live in. A number of double rooms have been converted to triples, but the unlucky renters are still asked to pay the same price per bed. At some point, even the students with the lowest budgets are going to find other options.  

Many UC students, faculty and staff are already looking for suitable options and not finding them. The Berkeley area continues to lack housing for families with low incomes—most graduate students, a high percentage of university employees, and some junior faculty members. UC, in its infinite wisdom, is relentlessly marching forward with its plan to demolish seedy but large and inexpensive family units in Albany Village, to be replaced by fewer, smaller and more expensive apartments, plus an unneeded UC-developed shopping mall which threatens established locally-owned Albany businesses.  

And no, the new downtown buildings won’t do for families. Even if the prices and the designs were family-friendly, which they’re not, downtown Berkeley lacks most of the practical amenities which real cities have in areas where families live in apartments, notably non-boutique clothing stores and even food markets. Another cherished smart-growth theory is that if there’s a bus line the occupants won’t need to use cars. People who believe this should try a month of buying groceries for a family on the bus, a family being defined as one or two able-bodied working adults plus one or more members who are too young, old or infirm to haul their own groceries. 

And much is lost in this lemming-like rush to build big ugly boxes. UC’s Albany site will displace the Gill Tract, long-term home of outstanding research projects for sustainable agriculture. The Teece-Kennedy construction machine, dba Panoramic Interests, which gets the credit (or the blame) for much of the recent building boom, leveled the University Avenue home of one of Berkeley’s founding fathers in order to build the tenement-like structure now looming on the corner of Milvia behind Au Coquelet, as yet unrentable. 

Panoramic also demolished a historic livery stable, accompanied by legal flim-flam which convinced gullible city mothers that it wasn’t historic, to build the Gaia Building. The Gaia still bears the name of the defunct new age bookstore which the canny builder used to leverage an extra floor out of the city’s “cultural use bonus” zoning. It promptly went belly-up before moving in, and no cultural use has yet replaced it.  

A favorite trick of suburban developers is to name the project for what was destroyed to build it: “Maple Village,” where the maples were all cut down for home sites. Berkeley builders have adapted that trick to the urban setting. Panoramic’s Fine Arts building on Shattuck, featured in Thursday’s cheery Chronicle story, memorializes the now-vanished Fine Arts Theater which was eliminated to erect it. 

And what we’ve gotten in return are tomorrow’s slums. The Gaia building, already coming apart at the seams, is the subject of extensive finger-pointing litigation between the developer and his contractors, but the real loser will be the City of Berkeley, with a decaying eyesore in a prominent location. Others are similarly shoddy. 

Politicians and planners don’t seem to have learned much from the experience of the last five years. Many more Big Ugly Boxes are in the civic pipeline. The Planning Commission, the Zoning Adjustment Board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission have recently been packed with unashamed partisans of the building boom, and the bad appointments have been made by self-styled moderates and progressives alike. The upcoming City Council elections offer an opportunity for new candidates to distance themselves from past mistakes, if they choose to do so. We’ll see if they will.