Column: The Public Eye: Is Berkeley on the Verge of a Civic Identity Crisis? By Zelda Bronstein

Tuesday February 07, 2006

Last week I went out to the Legion of Honor to see the show “After the Ruins, 1906 and 2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.” The exhibit pairs archival pictures of a devastated San Francisco with shots of today’s city taken from the same viewpoints. As I contemplated the stunning contrasts between the ruined townscape and the reconstructed one, I began to think about the different ways we perceive radical urban change.  

When transformation is catastrophic, as it was in San Francisco in 1906, it’s hard to deny, even when you’d like nothing better than to deny it. In one of the most moving photographs at the Legion of Honor, a crowd stands on a hill, backs to the camera, and watches the huge clouds of smoke rising from the burning city in the distance. Anyone who lived though the Oakland firestorm or who just followed Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath on TV can imagine what those men and women were thinking and feeling: shock and fear in the face of sudden, sweeping destruction.  

Not all ruin, however, is the result of calamity. Civic character can also be transfigured by change that’s incremental, and hence much harder to detect. There are increasing signs that Berkeley is on the verge of just such an insidious identity crisis, one brought about by construction as well as destruction.  

I’m not only thinking of the rampant development of recent years, though certainly that’s part of the story. The face of central Berkeley—Downtown and its environs—has already been altered by big, new mixed-use projects that one by one, have gone up in recent years. The Gaia Building, known to some as the tallest seven-story building in the world, led the way. The glassy, six-story façade of the new Berkeley City College (formerly Vista) facility now looms over Center Street. On Kittredge, west of the Berkeley Public Library, construction of the five-story, 176-unit Library Gardens apartment complex is well under way. This is but a partial inventory of what’s already built or being built.  

There’s much more to come. The nine-story, 149,000 square-foot Arpeggio (né Seagate) luxury condominium building on Center, across the street from Berkeley Community College. The 168,00 square-foot (not counting the underground parking) Oxford Plaza/Brower Center complex on Oxford between Allston and Kittredge. A five-story, 148,249-square-foot, 186-unit apartment building on the Kragen Auto site at MLK between University and Berkeley Way.  

And that’s only the scene at city center. Consider a few of the projects that are planned for other parts of town. In south Berkeley, the 86,000-square-foot Ed Roberts Campus is going to be built at the Ashby BART station’s east parking lot. In October the City of Berkeley submitted a grant to Caltrans for planning a development with at least 300 residential units over the west parking lot at Ashby BART. On Solano Avenue, Safeway wants to tear down its existing store and erect a bigger grocery with 40 to 50 apartments on top. The site’s in Albany, but the development will significantly affect the nearby Berkeley residents living just over the city line. In West Berkeley, a 91,000-square-foot West Berkeley Bowl store (two to three times the size of any other Berkeley grocery store) is planned to go at 916 Heinz, off Ashby and Seventh—more to the point, just off the freeway, where regional superstores like to be.  

Add to the above the University of California’s projected growth, on and off campus. The UC administration intends to build 1 million square feet of new development and 1,000 new parking spaces downtown, exactly where they have yet to tell us. On College Avenue there’s the Underhill Parking Structure, expanded to 1,000 spaces. Further up the hill, university planners are moving forward with the massive, Southeast Campus Integrated Projects (SCIP), which includes a 135,000 square-foot expansion of Memorial Stadium (which sits directly over the Hayward Fault), a new parking structure that will increase the university parking supply by 300 spaces, a 132,500 square-foot Student High Performance Center dedicated to intercollegiate athletics, and 180,000 square feet of new facilities for the Law and Business Schools.  

Some of these projects are extremely worthy. But that’s beside the point here, which is that taken together, they add up to a staggering amount of growth for our medium-sized city. As a community, we have yet to ask how that growth’s cumulative impact is affecting Berkeley’s character and quality of life, and whether that change is desirable.  

The good news is that those questions are now being raised in neighborhoods all over the city, including some districts that are ordinarily thought to be insulated from major development. The neighborhoods most threatened by the colossal amount of traffic to be generated by the Southeast Campus Integated Projects are the Elmwood and Claremont districts. Watching Janice Thomas’s eye-opening slideshow presentation on SCIP at last week’s Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association meeting, I realized that growth has become an issue for all of Berkeley.  

So far I’ve discussed only the built environment. But a city is more than its structures and spaces; it’s also what goes on inside of them. I’m talking about culture and class. I used to think that Berkeley was in danger of being Emeryvilleized (I refer of course to the “new” Emeryville.) That may still be the case. Now I wonder if our civic future isn’t symbolized by another place—Blackhawk.  

The February newsletter of Berkeley Design Advocates describes the Read Brothers Building being proposed for the corner of Fourth and Addison, the site of the old Sierra Design Building, across the street from Celia’s. One half of the first floor will house five small retail spaces. The other half will be a private museum for the Reads’ collection of Aston Martins and Ferraris. The second floor will be devoted to offices. According to BDA, “On the third floor, which measures 3,000 square feet plus a roof deck of 2,400 square feet, [the architect] will create a large Manhattan penthouse surrounded by roof gardens [which] will be used by Read Investments for parties, guests, board meetings, and other corporate and charitable functions. The finishings and woodwork are all of outstanding quality, with lime stucco being imported from France to create first class Continental look and feel . . . Construction cost is expected to exceed $300 per square foot.”  

Sure, it’s only one building. But it’s the “it’s only one building” mentality that’s the problem. The Read Brothers program needs to be viewed in the context of the accelerating gentrification of West Berkeley. The project’s five retail spaces will extend upscale consumerism south on Fourth Street. I’m all for a high end, tax revenue-generating commercial zone, but not if it means the continuing erosion of our manufacturing and artisanal sectors. What’s made Berkeley more than another pretty college town is its mix of blue collars and white, high culture and low. That mix is now at risk, and not only in the flats. Like growth, high-rent gentrification has become a citywide issue. The price of single-family homes in this city has soared far beyond the reach of most middle-class people, especially young, would-be first-time homeowners. Only a fraction of the thousands of rental apartments that have been or are about to be built in Berkeley over the past few years are officially affordable. And as Robert Lauriston keeps pointing out in his precise commentaries in the Daily Planet, many units on craigslist are cheaper than what’s officially affordable.  

The first goal of Berkeley’s 2002 General Plan is, “Preserve Berkeley’s unique character and quality of life.” Carrying out that goal doesn’t mean recreating a local version of Colonial Williamsburg. It does mean recognizing that we live in a special place, and that its specialness can withstand only a certain amount and kind of change without being degraded or even destroyed. Unlike the citizens of San Francisco in 1906 or New Orleans in 2005, we still have time to make that recognition and to act on it.