Public Comment

Commentary: Too Little Green, Too Far in the Red

By Michael Katz
Friday August 18, 2006

A few points about Peter Buckley’s Aug. 15 response to my May 26 commentary on the proposed David Brower Center/Oxford Plaza megastructure: 

As for environmental leader David Brower’s feelings toward his namesake development, I’ll readily defer to those who had the privilege of knowing him. As for the high environmental and housing-equity intentions of the project’s designers, I acknowledged these upfront. Not at length, though, because the Brower Center project has never lacked good PR. What it has lacked is serious scrutiny. 

There are no “greedy developers” here. Quite the opposite: virtuous, underfunded, nonprofit developers. These are exactly the kinds of partners the city should choose for most development projects. 

But here, my concern is that the Brower/Oxford project has been designed beyond these nonprofits’ financing capabilities, and beyond the city’s ability to bail them out. And if we keep diverting city housing funds to a project that ultimately gets significantly downsized or canceled, the real cost will be the viable affordable-housing units that won’t get built elsewhere. 

Many people—including past Brower/Oxford supporters—have told me I got this point exactly right. Then there’s the George Orwell factor. 

If one chooses to build a new structure to honor an environmentalist of David Brower’s stature, it seems fair to expect a few basic things. First, kill no trees. (But this project would destroy several mature, graceful eucalyptuses of a locally rare species.) 

Second, ensure that the new office space is really needed, and really goes to effective environmental groups. (But this project’s cost overruns have already tacitly evicted those intended tenants. The office space, you see, is already being shopped to UC.) 

Third, make sure the building is wisely sited, through integrated planning. And make sure it’s designed to respect its neighbors—including, in this case, the campus’ adjacent green edge. 

Not the Brower project. Its website ( celebrates a promised “170-seat theater, an art gallery, various meeting rooms, and a café,” together creating a “cultural and educational gathering place for visitors.” All these visitors would descend on a structure providing no new public parking for them. 

That theater would be nearly PFA-sized, but would sit just a block from where UC proposes to destroy a landmark building in order to relocate PFA itself. It would be within another few blocks from three existing movie theaters that have gone dark. Huh? Could town and gown perhaps coordinate on building—or better still, reusing—a single theater that would be viable? 

The site shows a chunk of Brooklyn (the brick housing block) beside a flying wedge of West Hollywood (the Brower tower). The latter is a tall structure with no setback for its aggressive Allston Way facade. Its top few floors would actually overhang Allston Way, blocking neighbors’ solar access. 

Is this really the way to memorialize David Brower? 

This project’s defenders keep pointing to its intended (until the money runs out) “green design” standards. These are certainly better than conventional—brown?—construction practices. But all new construction has huge environmental impacts, embedded both in its materials and in the building process. 

After living in a construction zone for 10 years, I can testify that buildings aren’t erected by magic elves who ride public transit to work. Nor do construction tradespeople typically carpool, or creep up in Priuses. It’s their culture to each drive alone—in the biggest honking pickup truck they can finance, even if its cargo bed is basically empty 360 days a year. 

One construction overseer told me recently, “The ‘greenest’ option is to build nothing”—and to adaptively reuse existing structures where possible. Now with vacant commercial space glaring up and down University and Shattuck avenues, can anyone seriously argue that environmental groups are suffocating for lack of a new four-story office complex? Whose rent they won’t even be able to afford? 

When I worked for David Brower’s Friends of the Earth—yes, I’ve paid some dues to the Archdruid—we operated quite efficiently out of a Washington, D.C., commercial storefront. 

In retrospect, my May 26 piece stated a few things more caustically than it needed to. I didn’t mean to imply that anyone was acting out of anything but the best of intentions. Good intentions abound among the Brower Center’s champions. That’s the whole problem. 

Good intentions are what produced a David Brower “tribute” sculpture too monumental and ugly to site anywhere in Berkeley. It’s hard to find the right scale to take the measure of a giant. 

Couldn’t we just name a redwood grove (or other existing green space) after the Archdruid, and forever forbid development there? Trees rarely embarrass their sponsors or honorees. Save the trees. 

I wanted to get a discussion going about the proposed Brower Center’s real viability and impacts. And it seems I have. I’ll be delighted to be proved wrong about any of my warnings. 


Michael Katz compiles the annual list of Berkeley’s worst-dressed buildings.