Editorial: Privatizing the Commons With Condos By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday December 16, 2005

“The tragedy of the commons” is a metaphor made famous by a 1968 essay on overpopulation. It refers to the practice in many past and some current societies to maintain a tract of land in common where everyone in town could allow their animals to graze. The moral of the story, which has many variants, is usually taken to be that eventually the grass will be exhausted by too much grazing, and everyone will starve. 

Land use in the fully built-out cities of the Bay Area is beginning to demonstrate characteristics of this classic dilemma. In the densely settled cities around the bay there are relatively few flat open spaces left, and the competition among those who want to monopolize them for their preferred use is getting fierce. On an aerial map, classic movie theaters look like big flat building sites. Flea markets look like the parking lots they become when the market’s closed. In fact, anywhere that a number of people can now freely gather for a shared activity seems like fair game for privatization. 

We see this all over the East Bay, where would-be builders of casinos and shopping malls lust after our expanses of shoreline. Berkeley is especially squeezed, because it’s one of the oldest cities and therefore is one of the densest. For reasons getting harder to understand, promoters of all kinds think that this density makes our city a candidate for even more density. Yes, yes, we’ve all heard about “smart growth,” a mantra which was originally invented by PR types to push Al Gore’s presidential campaign, but which has taken on a malevolent life of its own. What’s smart about making our built-out cities increasingly uninhabitable by stuffing in ever more inhabitants? Did the availability of a two-bedroom fourth-floor condo in Berkeley ever prevent someone from buying a four-bedroom home on a big lot in Tracy? 

The recently revealed scheme to turn the Ashby BART parking lot into a 300-unit condominium behemoth is the worst example yet of thoughtless privatization of common space. The Berkeley Flea Market provides a cheerful site for small, mostly minority entrepreneurs to serve the needs of low-budget buyers, with everyone getting some fresh air and exercise in the transaction. And the consequences of losing the parking there in the rest of the week will be serious. Does anyone really believe that the drivers who now park there to take BART into the city won’t be tempted just to get on the bridge if there’s nowhere to park? Or that they won’t be adding to the already impossible on-street parking problems of the neighborhood residents, who now enjoy the kind of pleasant single-family bungalows with small yards which do keep people from moving to Tracy?  

Getting a substantial a-mount of low-cost housing for families might seem like an acceptable trade-off, but this project isn’t that. It’s also been hyped as “workforce housing” for “Berkeley’s teachers and police officers,” but if they have families, do they want to live above a BART station? Many of Berkeley’s police and firefighters live far away on the urban fringes out toward the Gold Country, just because they like the wide open spaces. What the 240 market-rate condos and the 60 so-called “affordable” but still expensive ones will turn out to be, yet again, is crash pads for yuppies with jobs in the city and luxury students. Those are already overbuilt in Central Berkeley—notice the number of for-rent signs there, and the declining sales tax revenues. (On the other hand, pizza sales are up.) 

And “ground floor retail”? If you don’t think more ground floor retail is a joke, call the brokers whose names and phone numbers are prominent on vacant shop windows all over town. The Fruitvale “transit village” is much more attractively designed than this monster, but many of its new storefronts are still empty.  

The area between Martin Luther King and Milvia at Derby is another case in point. This common space has been amicably shared until now by the kids at the Berkeley High alternative school, the Tuesday Farmers’ Market, and people who used the open field for all kinds of exercise at all times of day. Now there’s a push, primarily by aging jocks, to take over the largest portion of the common space, plus a now-public right of way, for a single use, a regulation baseball diamond for a limited number of high school students. Regulation baseball fields by definition are not suited for multiple uses. The farmers with their pickup trucks and canopies are not going to set up in the outfield on Tuesdays. Pickup soccer, the favored sport of most of the rest of the world, won’t be allowed on the diamond. It will be fenced and locked, and the old folks’ tai chi group won’t have a key. (And let’s not even get into the discussion of cost. No one is fooled.) 

How about the Berkeley Unified School District’s West Campus? Will most of what is now open space be consumed for offices, shops and condos? Stay tuned for this one.  

What’s needed, and soon, is for some public interest organization to do a complete inventory of the remaining common open space, both in Berkeley and in the rest of the East Bay, and then to devise a plan for conserving it. Our urban living areas will continue to decay, and residents will continue to move to the fringes, unless the small remaining amount of common ground in older cities is preserved for the common good.