Write on behalf of some landmark preservation dispute and people roll their eyes over how the preservationists have just gone too far, pushed too hard, and need a more balanced perspective.
Developers, after all, they’ll point out, have created important community benefits with their new construction. Respond by saying that the new buildings are almost uniformly ugly, poorly built, overpriced as both housing and retail, and absent both open space and cultural amenities, and they’ll usually reply that housing is in such crisis that such buildings are worth building even if they only help a few.
What’s never calculated is the net loss of the amenities that could have been there, that the community can now never have until the building comes down decades from today and more sensible planning prevails.
Blaming developers is short-sighted. One of the largest local developers once stated that he’d be a fool not to take whatever profitable opportunity the City Council and the Planning Department was willing to let him get away with. Blaming preservationists who try to protect remnants of the past is even worse, as the ranks of poorly paid or unpaid historians willing to spend time and money working to protect history from short-sighted development grow more and more thin.
As another election rolls near, remember to put the blame for the monstrous new edifice in your neighborhood, which brought only overpriced housing and displaced decades-old and respected businesses with useless, short-lived, non-neighborhood-serving retail, squarely on the shoulders of the Berkeley City Council.
This group of elected politicians could, if they chose, take a stand against inappropriate development, re-direct their Planning Department to reprioritize neighborhood concerns, honestly address transportation and parking problems, and populate commissions with appointees dedicated to making sure new developments address an honest balance of concerns.
If the Planning Department and the City Council are ready to sell out the public, you can hardly blame the developers who profit after the fact or the preservationists whose dedication to history sometimes affords uneasy protection for qualified buildings. The real protection against the new breed of ticky-tacky developments should be elected representatives with the courage to demand the realistic planning that neighborhoods, both residential and commercial, deserve.
When the next election rolls around, grill the incumbents on the building that gutted your neighborhood. Get the facts as to why the so-called retail stood empty for so long, and why the toxics over which the building was built remain in place. Demand, in writing, promises from challengers, so that voters have some honest options. And above all, pay attention. If we sleep through the destruction of the city we love, we have only ourselves to blame.
Carol Denney is a Berkeley musician and activist.›