Public Comment

Commentary: ZAB Holds Trader Joe’s Pep Rally

By Regan Richardson
Tuesday May 02, 2006

After attending the April 28 Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) meeting and witnessing the sickening and suspiciously euphoric response to the behemoth project proposed at 1950 MLK Way, and after reading the post-meeting “Livable Berkeley” (they may soon want to consider a name-change) blog page, I am compelled to respond. In theory this was supposed to be a substantive ZAB meeting to discuss the mass and height of this project. Thanks to the developer, Hudson McDonald, it actually just turned out to be a pep rally for supporters of Trader Joe’s, alternative transit and even denser housing, staged on public time in a public venue. 

I am a resident of the 1800 block of Berkeley Way, the street most directly affected by this twisted attempt at “smart growth” (or is it “intelligent design”?). I am sick and tired of being told, by neighbors who are less directly affected and developers alike, that we should “get with the program” and embrace “reasonable compromise.” I am one of the original members of a neighborhood group that proactively pursued a dialogue with Panoramic Interests, now under the guise of Hudson McDonald, in October of 2002. Our realistic goal was achieving a neighborhood-appropriate project, thus escaping the viciously cyclical process in which we are now engaged. To all the Livable Berkeley newbies, I say welcome to our world! 

The neighbors of Berkeley Way have never been, nor are we even now opposed, to a project that respects our neighborhood. We have also never maintained that the current strip mall is superior to a mixed-use building. In 2002 Scott Harrison, then a homeowner on Berkeley Way, suggested that we initiate a “constructive” dialogue, our hope being that by voicing neighborhood concerns directly to the developers before the approval process even began, we could rewrite the standard operating procedure for development in Berkeley, and the developer would have a distinct guideline to design a building in keeping with the existing neighborhood.  

We have more than held up our end of the bargain, as evidenced by the Herculean efforts of people like Steve Wollmer and Kristin Leimkuhler, to participate constructively in this process. But it is pretty clear, after four years of ever-increasing redesigns, that Hudson McDonald does not feel any obligation to honor any of our reasonable requests, rather they are choosing to roll the dice and roll ZAB and City Council. At the neighborhood meeting we had with them in July 2005, they suggested that it was time for us to get out of their way and let them get on with it, “it” being the rape of our neighborhood in the name of their profit. Each time Hudson McDonald promises an “improved” project that serves the “common good,” they come back and slap us in the face with a taller, larger, and audaciously detrimental building, their perpetual promise being that they will impose something even worse upon us if we don’t roll over and comply. In my experience, most people don’t respond well to threats to their homes and neighborhood—I know I don’t. 

Had they ever made a genuine attempt to make their building neighborhood-friendly and to respond to our clear, consistent, and reasonable concerns four years ago, we would be happy to cooperate. But by continually pushing their agenda without genuinely responding to our concerns, by displaying blatant disregard for our requests, they have willingly made us into an obstacle when we were trying to be an ally. So now, it’s personal. And they are frustrated?! We find it ironic and not a little galling that they choose to characterize us as a “dedicated group of opponents,” considering that they are responsible for that! 

There is something inherently wrong with a process that puts developers’ profits ahead of protecting the neighborhoods they invade. We have spent countless hours poring over code and debating the particulars of setbacks, density, parking, and detriment, and it is easy to lose sight of the bigger issue here: developers’ refusal to design buildings that fit alongside the small-scale residential neighborhoods they overwhelm, their argument being that they can’t make a profit otherwise. They stretch the existing laws to the breaking point, and we are asked to bear the full burden of their greed. Even the modest concessions imposed on developers based on community and ZAB recommendations are dwarfed by the sacrifices we are expected to make.  

To all you card-carrying Livable Berkeley-ites (again, a name-change will soon be required), Hudson McDonald flunkies and disingenuously recruited Trader Joe’s junkies out there (and from Thursday’s ZAB meeting turnout there seem to be an unhealthy number of you, your checks are in the mail), who clearly buy the company line, that classic American credo that bigger is better, and greed is good, I say the following: Be careful what you wish for. You will certainly get it. Please do not condescend to lecture us on what constitutes acceptable density and congestion in our neighborhood. Berkeley Way is already severely plagued by the failed traffic pattern on MLK and University, with frequent speeding cars attempting to save a few seconds. We will be the ones forced to shoulder the entire burden of this project for your “greater good.” Please do not ask us to buy into your Utopian parking, bicycle, and pedestrian fantasy. You may lead a person to public transit, but you can’t make him ride. 

Berkeley is, and always has been, a “street-car” (now BART) suburb, which is one of its many charms. In 2001 I moved 3,000 miles from Manhattan, where I lived for 13 long years, to Berkeley, specifically to live in a friendly, small-scale residential neighborhood where the sun does not disappear behind a 60-foot wall at 2 p.m. Yet some among us apparently aspire to turn Berkeley, starting with University Avenue and the streets immediately north and south, into a mini-Manhattan by allowing developers like Hudson McDonald to build without restraint. You may foolishly think this is an exaggeration, but having lived for over a decade in an intense urban environment, I respectfully beg to differ. As even you “progress” acolytes must have heard at the Thursday meeting, a substantial number of the apartments in this well-conceived building face dark, narrow, windy corridors and light-wells. I have been there, done that. Congratulations. Manhattan here we come!  

The assertion that mere architectural details will make this five-story building compatible with the existing neighborhood is patently absurd. No matter how the architect dresses it up, this massive 58,800-square-foot Goliath perched atop a 15-foot concrete podium will never a tasteful craftsman cottage make. To those of you who seem so desperately to crave density and excitement, I say move to San Francisco or New York. I have lived in Manhattan, and Berkeley is plenty exciting enough for me. Please don’t insist that we all share your need for “progress.”  

In April 2001 the Berkeley City Council unanimously declared Berkeley Way a “fragile neighborhood” that couldn’t even support the addition of a one-unit apartment and a projected six to seven extra cars at 1825 Berkeley Way. We are curious to know why, four years later, the addition of a possible 156-plus units and, realistically, an additional 100-plus residents’ cars, not to mention the projected 1,300 extra neighborhood car trips per day, is not considered a huge threat to our community. It is not our duty to make Hudson MacDonald’s assault on our neighborhood easier at the expense of our families, our safety, and our right to a livable residential environment and a livable streetscape. We cannot afford million-dollar homes in the hills. This is the only home we may ever rent or own, and this is where we intend to make our stand. While you may be drooling over the prospect of a Trader Joe’s, small streets like Berkeley Way will have to live with this massive project’s ramifications 24 hours a day. 

We do not insist on stasis, as members of Livable Berkeley mistakenly maintain. In case they hadn’t noticed, we are still constructively engaged in this dialogue. They would do well not to take the word of a developer clearly driven solely by economic interests. But this ill-conceived project is not an isolated proposal and will become yet another shameful landmark on the slow slide of Berkeley into a dense, family-hostile, DINK (Double Income No Kids) city. It dwarfs all surrounding commercial and residential buildings along its stretch of University Avenue with the exception of its evil sister—the Golden Bear, squatting malevolently a block up the Avenue.  

Hudson McDonald’s current and previous designs ignore many of the stated objectives of the University Avenue Strategic Plan and this behemoth’s approval effectively guarantees the unchecked construction of oversized developments in small-scale residential neighborhoods throughout Berkeley. This is a watershed issue for the entire city of Berkeley, not a one-block anomaly.  

This is a call to arms to the residents of Berkeley. It is time to stop this true-believer optimism that masquerades under the moniker of “smart growth.” You choose to spend all your time foisting more density in the urban core rather than fighting development in the surrounding suburban counties that are sprouting sub-divisions like a cow pasture sprouts mushrooms after the rain. As obstacles to this bright idea to Manhattan-ize Berkeley, we are clearly in the way of your “progress” to a “brighter day,” when everyone will ride bicycles to the friendly (unless you want to form a union) Trader Joe’s. 

If you care at all about where you live and breathe, it is time to wake up and smell the exhaust fumes, and to hear the warning sirens. They are not just going off in your head, they are going off at the proposed retail parking entrance for Trader Joe’s, “logically” located on a fully residential street called Berkeley Way. If you do not stand up and speak, this type of megabuilding is coming much sooner than you think to a small residential neighborhood near you, maybe yours.  

I urge you to attend the next ZAB meeting on May 11, which will address detriments to the surrounding neighborhood. If you think there won’t be any because you are not right next to this building, think again. Stop this madness, for the future of all the small-scale neighborhoods that are the core of what makes Berkeley Berkeley. The future is now. 


Regan Richardson is a Berkeley Way resident..