Commentary: Planning for Downtown Berkeley’s Future By JIM SHARP

Friday December 02, 2005

Down by the station 

Early in the morning 

See the little pufferbellies 

All in a row  


See the station master 

Turn the little handle 

Puff, puff, toot, toot 

Off we go!  


—Lee Ricks and Slim Gaillard © 1948 

Let’s face it: Berkeley is a railroad town.   

Though the inaugural meeting of the 21-member Downtown Area Plan (DAP) Advisory Committee took place at the North Berkeley Senior Center (not at the “station”) and in the evening (not “early in the morning”) it was apparent to some of us in the audience that we were witnessing the gestation of Berkeley’s newest railroad. 

DAPAC Secretary Matt Taecker and City Planning Director Dan Marks both announced that they were “very excited” about the process. City Manager Phil Kamlarz seconded the notion, affirming that this was going to be an “exciting, ambitious process” but it was going to be “a real push.” 

A real push for what? To keep the pufferbellies running on time, we can assume. 

Under its 2020 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) Settlement Agreement with UC Berkeley, the City must finish the DAP within four years, or pay a penalty of $15,000 per month to the university.   

Absurd, you say? Indeed. And the DAP clock is already ticking. The Settlement Agreement was inked, in secret, over six months ago. You need to read it to believe it: www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/mayor/PR/UCAgreement.pdf.  


Station master’s fog machine 

The station master is hard at work turning that little handle. Here is some of the public-relations fog which spewed forth from the mayor’s office on May 26, hours after the settlement agreement was signed: “Without question, the settlement creates the single best agreement between any city and public university within this state. Most importantly, it guarantees that the city and this community will have a real voice in the university’s future development.” 

“[T]his pact takes a giant step forward towards a lasting and equal partnership between one of the world’s great universities and one of its most livable and progressive cities.” 

The agreement calls for the city and university to work together to develop a Downtown Area Plan that will guide all new development projects. “[T]his new plan will guide the revitalization of the city’s core, protect historic resources, and encourage transit-friendly development.” 

With the DAP at its core, the mayor promises you “a framework for a collaborative relationship that will benefit this community for years.” 


Railroads beget railroads 

Released in early January, UCB’s 2020 LRDP Final EIR focused on many things, but re-engineering Berkeley’s downtown plan wasn’t one of them. Cynics labeled it the Fiat Lux Express. UC’s Regents swiftly rubber-stamped the document despite howls of protest from Berkeley citizens and, for a while, from their municipal stewards.   

Even Mayor Bates sounded tough. “The city is being asked to sign a blank check. But we are not signing anything until we know what we are buying,” he growled in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed. 

Soon after, the city launched the first of three lawsuits against UC. Then the litigation train disappeared from public view into a tunnel of confidentiality. 

What emerged in late May was the UniverCity Express and three dismissed lawsuits. Heading the locomotive were Chancellor Birgeneau and Mayor Bates. The settlement agreement fog machine was blasting full steam.     

The scene was déjà vu all over again for many Berkeley citizens who had endured the LRDP process 15 years before and survived countless city-to-university capitulations since. Once more, they had been abandoned at the station and totally cut out of the negotiation process.  


Will the real DAP please stand up? 

If you take the trouble to plow through the 1,300-page 2020 LRDP Final EIR, you’ll find that the DAP process emerges from it as a total non sequitur.  

By transforming a gown-swallows-town “blank check” into a potential downtown bonanza for UC and developers, the mayor, city manager, and city attorney illustrate how much they have absorbed from the Bush administration’s crisis-opportunism management style: eg, 9-11 attacks morph into Iraqistan wars and Katrina’s devastation boosts refinery subsidies, nuclear power, and slum clearance. 

Will enough Berkeley citizens see this ersatz public process for what it is? Whether derailed or not, we can hope that the DAP RR draws attention to the Janet Jackson-style municipal costume failure represented by its deeply flawed parent document, the settlement agreement.  

But think of the DAP as just the little toe of a much larger footprint--one which encompasses the whole of Berkeley (minus UC’s tax-exempt lands).   

Think of “Big DAP” as a nine-square-mile Doormat Area Plan.   

Unlike its exciting little sibling, this monster has no facilitator, no 21-member advisory committee, and no timetable for completion.  

Increasingly, Doormat Berkeley absorbs the physical and financial abuse associated with the relentlessly expanding state institution in its midst.  Increasingly, all Berkeley citizens are forced to pay for the failure of Berkeley’s leadership to address this reality.   

The buck, as Councilmember Gordon Wozniak recently observed, stops with the City Council. But it starts with Berkeley’s taxpayers. 


Puff, puff, toot, toot 

Off we go!  


Jim Sharp is a member of Berkeleyans for a Livable University Environment (BLUE) and a plaintiff in a citizens‚ lawsuit to reverse the city’s secret settlement with UC.