As important as the national elections are, we need to remember that our local democracy is also at risk. While I am not suggesting that we have local equivalents of Dick Cheney or John Ashcroft in our city government, I am suggesting that there is a connection between development and the democratic process which demands our attention. At a time when malign neglect of the economy at the national level and irresponsible grandstanding by our own governor have left cities such as Berkeley in severe economic distress, it is tempting to let the richest and most powerful segments of our community “solve” our problems for us.
This is a temptation we must resist. Bigger is not better—we need to carefully evaluate all large-scale developments, even though they may bring in more tax dollars than smaller-scale developments. Clearly Berkeley needs new housing and business development to remain an economically vital city. However, we need to make sure that development is sustainable and desirable, and that developers are accountable. In the long run, unfettered development will cost Berkeley dearly in terms of the democratic process and quality of life.
Development is a partnership between the community and the developer, and it must be a two-way street. If the city reneged on providing infrastructure needed for a project like water or sewer lines, the developer would rightfully cry foul. However, what happens when the developer reneges on promises made to the city? Nothing.
The Gaia Building developer promised space to the non-profit Gaia Books, yet after Gaia went out of business the space is now available to for-profit businesses. The Fine Arts developer promised space for the Fine Arts Cinema, and subsequently priced the cinema out of its eponymous building. Since the city allowed extra profit-making stories and other bonuses to the developers based on these promises, why aren’t the developers being held accountable for breaking these promises in ways that benefit our city? How about municipal equity, repossession (if it’s formerly city property), or 50 percent “very low income” apartments for 20 years?
We can also strengthen our economy by encouraging local businesses, which reinvest in the local community instead of shipping profits out of town. We have a long, proud local history of cooperatives, as well as a city full of entrepreneurs, and we should encourage locally-owned businesses and worker-owned businesses over yet another chain. What would downtown look like today if a home-grown cooperative like the Cheese Board or the Juice Bar had moved into the Edy’s building instead of the now-departed national chain Eddie Bauer?
We need development that serves the entire community. Too often developments are presented as a done deal, with just minor mitigations possible. Developers will always be able to make their profits for their out-of-town investors and move on, while the rest of us have to live here. Shouldn’t we—the person-on-the-street, the neighborhood associations, the community at large—have a real seat at the table from day one instead of just lip service?
If the larger community has a say in how a development evolves, then we’ll have real community perks like more parks, opened creeks paid for by developers, and appropriately-sized buildings. Developers will face fewer appeals and less litigation, and projects will progress faster since there will be less community resistance.
We need to make sure decisions about development are made democratically. Otherwise—as a recent Daily Planet article about the financing of development in Berkeley showed—we risk placing our economic future in the hands of global financiers who will make decisions for us from places like Australia and Bahrain.
As a matter of fact, such financiers have too much influence already. In the last municipal election three percent of registered voters gave money to our mayoral candidates. It’s a safe bet that 100 percent of the developers donated to the candidates. It’s also a safe bet that the lack of democracy in development decisions is related to that disparity in campaign financing.
Passing Measure H, which provides public financing for candidates with broad-based local support, is the simplest and smartest way to level the playing field and make sure that elected officials make the interests of their constituents their first priority. Monied interests—from developers to realtors to polluters to financiers—will no longer be at the front of the line.
Berkeley’s economy is supposed to serve the community and not the other way around. It’s time for us to stop allowing our physical space—OUR city—and our local democracy to be used to line private pockets while leaving the public poorer.
District 5 City Council candidate