Commentary: Planning for Downtown Berkeley’s Future By ALAN TOBEY

Friday December 02, 2005

Rob Wrenn’s Nov. 29 article on the context for downtown planning created by previous documents and city commitments was very helpful in reminding us where we have come from. But we will continually face two related challenges: making sure that we remember the past as completely as possible, and making sure we don’t give in to the temptation to selective retrieve only those parts of the past that support favored positions. 

Mr. Wrenn, for example, quotes two “actions” committed to by the city via the recent UN Urban Environmental Accords. As an attendee of the conference that produced the Accords, I was pleased by the completeness and wisdom of all 21 of the adopted actions taken as a whole—including some Mr. Wrenn may not be as comfortable in reporting. As examples, let me quote two more now-committed city policies that are relevant for the downtown plan: 

Action 8: Adopt urban planning principles and practices that advance higher density, mixed use, walkable, bikeable, and disabled-accessible neighborhoods which coordinate land use and transportation with open space systems for recreation and ecological restoration.  

Action 11: Conduct an inventory of existing [tree] canopy coverage in the city and then establish a goal based on ecological and community considerations to plant or maintain canopy coverage in not less than 50 per cent of all available sidewalk planting sites. 

I don’t recall seeing either “advancing urban density” or increasing canopy cover among the desirable virtues Mr. Wrenn calls for. Certainly there’s time for those issues to be part of the debate; but at this early stage it’s important to put on the table all of the relevant commitments the city has made, not just those favoring any single narrow agenda. 

Let’s keep expanding the picture and putting more issues on the table until we see as much of the whole downtown picture as possible.  

For example, to pick up on Mr. Wrenn’s concern for “affordability” in the downtown, let’s not by seeing only that virtue throw away the equally desirable virtue of economic diversity downtown—specifically including the interests of our wealthier citizens. One of the factors that makes both Charlottesville and Boulder so vibrant, to say it plainly, is that their downtowns include many ways for wealthy residents and visitors to drop their money. Berkeley, in contrast, is blessed with a hill-dwelling citizenry of above-average economic means that is generally happier driving down Marin in search of a suburban mall than seeking shopping opportunities downtown. And should they choose to bless Shattuck with their shopping presence (other than via dinners at Chez Panisse and season tickets at the Berkeley Rep), how are they to get there except by car when biking is physically impossible and public transit nearly nonexistent? 

I don’t mean to pick on the rich or to patronize those citizens (I’m one) who enjoy modest flatlands abodes and lifestyles. But take this as a challenge: We will need to make decisions that resolve conflicting opportunities to optimize outcomes. To continue my example in the form of a question, is it only appropriate to optimize non-auto access to downtown (for the convenience of those flatlanders who have practical alternatives but require affordability), or is it equally appropriate to favor downtown prosperity in part by encouraging hills dwellers to drive downtown and park? 

It’s too soon to resolve such apparently conflicting priorities. But it’s also premature to decide that only some alternatives are worth discussing, or that only some more-politically-correct current virtues should automatically dominate the debate. 

So—as Mr. Wrenn has helpfully tried to do—let’s keep opening up the discussion until we can see it all in the biggest picture possible. Only then can we begin to work toward the difficult decisions that lie ahead. 


Alan Tobey is a Berkeley resident.