Commentary: ‘Smart’ Duplicity

Friday November 12, 2004

I first heard of “Smart Growth” when Al Gore was campaigning in 2000. It was suggested then, that suburban cities should increase their share of density by reducing the size of building sites, (lots had become an acre and more in size), and by developing taller buildings in a more compact and concentrated town center. They claimed the goal was to preserve farm land and natural open space. That made sense didn’t it?!  

Since then a different version of Smart Growth has crept into Berkeley without so much as a single public hearing. As promoted by our Planning Department, the new goal appears to require bulky buildings to stack the population in cramped units, so that mass transit can reverse its declining ridership. The mantras of the smart growth development in Berkeley became project density and intensity, reduced parking, reduced open space and yards, and the reuse of polluted former gas station sites.  

To accomplish their goal a recently published Smart handbook (Smart Growth in the San Francisco Bay Area: Effective Local Approaches, published by the Urban Land Institute, June 2003) says it is particularly important to have “a positive political climate sufficient to overcome community opposition to compact, multi-use forms of development.” Unfortunately, we’ve had that political climate for several years, and it has not reduced the community’s opposition.  

There are several census tracts in West Berkeley that have been designated as “most impoverished.” Any census tract in which at least 20 percent of the population is at or below the poverty level, or the area median income score is not more that 80 percent of the metropolitan area median income, makes the tract a “targeted growth accommodation area.” The current diversification of uses in the West Berkeley area includes modest housing, craft workshops, bakeries, caterers, artists, potters, etc. It has been noted that West Berkeley has contributed to a more stable Berkeley economy than areas devoted to mostly high-tech industries. A massive project has just been announced for University Avenue and Sixth Street that will increase real estate values, forcing small industries and low income residents out, while increasing the city tax base.  

Additionally, the Smarts want “TODs” ( i.e. “transit oriented developments”), as we have seen erupting along University, Telegraph and San Pablo avenues. Waiting in the wings are “transit village” TODs, located around BART Stations and bus hubs. The Smart handbook recognizes that “due to fragmented land ownership around most stations, and the inherent risks for potential developers in taking on such sites, it is often necessary for local redevelopment agencies to assist in the acquisition and assembling of land through eminent domain.” 

In the requirements for a TOD, private open space for example, the handbook suggests that noise standards as they relate to exterior open space can be modified to accommodate the presence of train noise. They say it’s very simple, just boost the decibel levels that human beings will need to tolerate. (In recently visiting the TOD at the Fruitvale BART station, the tour guide had to shout to be heard over the passing trains.) 

The Smarts recommend TDRs (transfer of development rights) separating “development rights” from a physical property allowing sale and transfer of its square foot units to another property some distance away. The receiving lot is then allowed to build beyond the maximum standards set by its original zoning ordinance limits 

Finally on a more hopeful note, in Appendix E near the end of the Smart handbook there is a plan for a walkable neighborhood.” It says buildings in such neighborhoods “need not exceed three stories to accommodate compact development. Primary buildings shall not exceed 35 feet, accessory buildings shall not exceed 25 feet.” Minimum density in residential neighborhoods, would produce projects having an overall density of at least five units per gross acre. “Each multi-family unit shall have a patio, deck or balcony of at least 50 square feet, with a minimum clear dimension of six feet. For each unit, an additional l00 square feet of open space shall be provided either as private open space in association with the unit or as semi private open space to be shared among residents.” This is a hopeful sign that not all planners are in cahoots with the developers. For numerous aesthetic planning considerations directed at quality growth, visit www.envisionutah.org  

Who is behind this how-to-do-it “Smart Growth” publication? Developers of course, followed by planning department students at UC Berkeley, urban studies students at San Francisco State University, the American Design Association, architects, a former ABAG planner, and the Urban Land Institute, with publication funding by the Bank of America. 


Martha Nicoloff is one of the authors of the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance.›