Election Section

Commentary: Zoning Study Masks Destruction of Plan By JOHN CURL

Friday May 06, 2005

The City Council voted 5-4 to burn the West Berkeley Plan. It wasn’t worded like that, of course. On April 19, they approved funding to begin an “incremental” evaluation of the Plan by studying changing the zoning of Ashby and Gilman west of San Pablo from industrial to commercial, to bring in more sales tax revenue from regional retail.  

Think about that a minute. How is that an evaluation of the Plan? How do you evaluate a plan by studying how to turn it upside down? A plan has goals, policies, and implementation strategies. Ordinarily one would assume that the city would evaluate an area plan by looking at its goals and analyzing how well its policies and implementation strategies achieved them. The West Berkeley Plan’s central goal and land use policy are summed up in two sentences: “Maintaining a mix of uses within West Berkeley is the overriding goal of the West Berkeley Plan.” (P 34) “Preserving and supporting all of the elements of this vital mix of land uses is the central policy of the West Berkeley Plan.” (P. 17)  

But while they’re calling this pre-ordained zoning change an evaluation of the Plan, it’s really just a flimsy cover, a pretext, a disingenuous ploy to hide the truth that its proponents disagree with the goals of the West Berkeley Plan and are trying to overturn them. To them, West Berkeley is not a community to protect but a cash cow to milk. What the Council really funded was a move to dismantle the Plan piecemeal.  

The Plan recognizes that West Berkeley is a successful part of the city, not a blighted area. Because of this, “the Plan seeks to guide its evolution, rather than radically reshape it,” and “aims to guide and manage West Berkeley’s growth, so that growth does not overwhelm West Berkeley’s character.” Because developers were aggressively converting manufacturing buildings into other uses, and because industrial and arts and crafts spaces were deemed to be valuable but threatened community resources and essential parts of the mix, the Plan gave zoning protections to those uses.  

Converting lower Gilman and Ashby into regional shopping centers would be catastrophic. The strip malls would soon overwhelm the surrounding blocks, raising property values beyond current tenants’ reach, gentrifying the neighborhoods, and pushing out industries, arts and crafts, and small start-up businesses of every type that flourish today in the sanctuary of industrial zoning. The ensuing gentrification spiral would drive many creative people out of town, replace them with upscale consumerists, and quickly transform West Berkeley from the last funky affordable dynamic corner of town into just another facade of yuppieworld. 

That’s if their scheme is a success. But retail on Ashby and Gilman might not even be financially successful. What if they built their shopping malls and nobody came? What would attract that army of shoppers away from Emeryville, Albany, and El Cerrito? Where would they park? Parking structures would be required. What if two successful neighborhoods were sacrificed and there wasn’t even any payoff? Do the proponents of this proposal even care? Does the city really want to siphon off more shoppers away from Downtown, Solano, Telegraph, and College Ave. businesses? 

The pretext for this Mad Tea Party is that the West Berkeley Plan is supposed to be evaluated in 2005, and the planning director estimated that a full evaluation would probably cost two years of one full-time staff person’s time. He presented this “incremental” scheme as an on-the-cheap alternative. I’m not blaming the planning director, since this is really coming from Mayor Bates. 

If you can’t afford to do it right, wait until you can. This is much worse than doing nothing. 

But ignoring or undermining its own plans is standard procedure in Berkeley. They always pick and choose which parts to implement, and which parts are just window dressing. Over the years numerous Berkleyans have considered suing the city for not following its own plans. In other California cities, similar lawsuits have successfully blocked inappropriate development promoted by arrogant elected officials and planning staffs. However, Berkeley is a “charter” city, and the city attorney says that charter cities are exempt from lawsuits of this type. That’s right folks, the city solicits all this extensive community input into all of its plans, including the General Plan, but then doesn’t feel obliged to follow them.  

The West Berkeley Plan was truly a peoples’ plan. It was written by the West Berkeley community itself, in a process set up and guided by the planning commission. Every stakeholding sector participated and signed onto the final document. What a radical concept, a community actually making its own plan, with help from city government! Passed unanimously by Council. But the ink was barely dry when the Plan came under heavy attack by developers who wanted to convert industrial buildings into offices to exploit the dot-com boom. They railed against the West Berkeley Plan, and intensely lobbied elected officials and staff to ignore the industrial zoning. The foresight of the West Berkeley Plan was revealed during the dot-com bust when other cities which had jettisoned their industries and arts for uncontrolled office development had miles of empty office space while West Berkeley’s economy stayed strong and stable due to its maintaining a dynamic mix of uses. Then, after the office boom went bust, the developers shifted gear into the new development fad of converting industrial into retail and residential, which is where we’re at now. 

Contrary to what the mayor apparently thinks, the goals of the Plan remain valid and laudable today. Any evaluation should focus not on ways to undermine the goals, but on ways to improve implementation. 

My deepest thanks to Councilmembers Dona Spring, Linda Maio, Max Anderson, and Kriss Worthington for their votes against this sham evaluation and in support of the real West Berkeley Plan. 

Make no mistake about it: West Berkeley is under heavy siege, and the battle will intensify next fall, when the “incremental” evaluation begins popping up on the planning commission’s agenda. The saddest part of all is that the most right-wing clique in recent memory currently controls the commission, most of whom I expect to applaud this cynical ploy. Over a year ago commission chair Pollack distributed a memo claiming, “a key goal of the West Berkeley Plan is fostering the economic development of West Berkeley and maintaining West Berkeley as a primary source of tax revenues.” Pollack didn’t find that anywhere in the actual text of the Plan, but just made it up. He and other advocates of rapid gentrification make no bones about substituting their own goals for the people’s plan.  

If you care about maintaining diversity in Berkeley, get ready to come out and fight for it.