Election Section

Commentary: Housing Dilemmas and the Greater Good By PETER LEVITT

Friday September 09, 2005

It is interesting that it is often anti-development proponents who complain of insufficient low- and middle-income housing being built in Berkeley. It is 

also true that the demand for this same housing comes without demonstrating a way to provide that housing. 

It seems that Zelda Bronstein, in her Aug. 30 column, without saying it, wants absolutely nothing built. If one only wants low-income units then we are likely to get nothing. We could build Soviet-style low-income projects but as a model these have proven to be flawed and deeply depressing to inhabitant and town alike. Better we increase the minimum number of low-income and middle-income units in new mixed-income buildings. This might make better politics/communities all around. There is also the benefit of integration instead of segregation amongst the income levels of citizens. 

Mixing low-income housing into private development might make better buildings more economically feasible too. Making it more difficult or impossible to profit by building in Berkeley is not the same thing as city planning. Where Zelda sees “flagrant rogue builder” building “outsized projects” creating “municipal crises” and “exacerbating gentrification,” one could see happy vertical perhaps even more communal or ecological sound communities. It is possible to imagine more sharing of cars, more riding bicycles and BART. More mixed-use buildings could inspire going out of your home late at night for a little live jazz music or a cup of coffee. Municipal crisis indeed. This is called urban living. 

As for the worry that up on the hill looking down all you see is concrete, with the right incentives the rooftops could be basketball courts, swimming pools, running tracks or public parks, benefiting these dwellers and the community at large. 

How to get more low- and middle- income units built? Supply and demand and economics rule at the end of the day. Yes we will have to allow more density and more height in appropriate places. At the same time we do need to demand more esthetically pleasing and more function/service from each building like minimum percentages of low- and middle-income units. We will also have to build along our corridors, University Avenue and San Pablo Avenue, with perhaps taller buildings. What about those neighbors? We could re-zone the blocks along the backsides of these corridors to allow smaller but multiple housing units instead of single family dwellings. Wonderful new communities will congregate, adding to our middle class ranks. Single dwelling landowners could sell for handsome profits and move up the hill or off the major corridors. The greater good will be served. 

Developers are a part of the solution. There are those who lambaste developers like Patrick Kennedy because he makes a profit or because his developments did not start out as beautiful as they have become. However, I feel with the lights on at Gaia and the jazz and theater downstairs, that part of Shattuck has come alive. Driving to the end of Shattuck the Backenheimer Building stands proudly for all and a new community looks east to the hills where once graffiti-riddled billboards used to stand. 

Smart urban development has never been more important. The coming years will only bring more people back to the cities as fuel becomes more scarce and expensive. Failure to plan and build will only exacerbate concern for low- and middle-income housing. Let us have a plan that allows for housing that provides incentives for the developers to stay within that plan and make a profit and make beautiful buildings.  


Peter Levitt is the the proprietor of Saul’s Delicatessen.