Those of us lucky enough to live in Berkeley celebrate its unique character—beautiful tree lined streets, craftsman houses, parks, shoreline, and much else. But the uniqueness of this place is more than just its appearance. We are all enriched by a vibrant arts and music scene, by a strong activist community, and by the diversity of people, cultures, and ideas. As this city evolves and changes with time, it is important to protect both parts of Berkeley’s heritage.
Some people argue that we can’t have both—that protecting our quality of life requires we close the doors to Berkeley and try and stop most new housing from being built. I disagree with that view. With vision and careful choices we can expand housing opportunities for the people who work here, maintain our lovely residential neighborhoods, have the best of new building design, and create a vital urban environment.
Berkeley is doing a remarkable job of protecting our unique architectural heritage with strong protections for historic buildings and neighborhoods. In fact, Berkeley has nearly 300 landmarks and other protected buildings and sites—more than the entire city of San Francisco. In my four years as mayor, we have added over 40 new historic designations to the list.
Yet our other heritage, that of a diverse cultural life, is threatened. Berkeley’s housing market is among the most expensive in the nation. Only 10 percent of present Berkeley residents can afford to buy the average-priced home in our city, which is now nearly $700,000. The average one bedroom apartment rental is more than $1,000 a month. Two bedroom apartments—the minimum size for most families—are averaging $1,500 a month.
These housing costs push many people out of the city and are challenging to Berkeley’s unique character. In addition to changes in our racial diversity, we are also losing artists, activists, and anyone not in a high-end professional job as they move to less expensive cities. This isn’t just speculation. Berkeley has actually lost population over the past few decades. Today, Berkeley has 14,000 fewer residents than it did in 1970. The percentage of African-American residents has declined by more than 30 percent in the same time period.
What’s more, these demographic and economic changes hurt our quality of life. The lack of affordable housing in Berkeley actually contributes to our traffic congestion as more and more of the workers at UC Berkeley, Bayer, the schools, and other job centers are forced to live outside the city and commute. Census data tells us that people who actually live in Berkeley are less likely to drive themselves to work than residents of nearly any other city in the Bay Area. In fact, the percentage of Berkeley residents that get to work without driving in their car alone (57 percent) is more than double the state average.
The good news is that with care, creativity, and high design standards, we can address all these challenges and maintain our diversity, protect existing neighborhoods, reinvigorate our downtown, and support our neighborhood shopping areas.
I believe we are meeting this challenge. Berkeley has approved over 1,400 units of new apartments and condominiums over the past four years, 36 percent of which were set-aside as permanently affordable units.
Of course, not every housing project that is proposed is a good one. Berkeley remains the most difficult city in the Bay Area for new development and many projects are withdrawn or turned down after opposition from neighbors, staff, the Zoning Adjustments Board, or the City Council. That is as it should be. But given all the debate in this newspaper over development, it may come as a surprise to find that many of these new projects were so widely accepted and non-controversial that they were never even appealed to the council.
For me, there are two key threshold issues regarding any major new development.
First, any major new development must be in the downtown or along a major transit corridor. In the 1960s, we saw a number of large ugly apartment buildings built in the middle of residential neighborhoods. Those days are over. The issue today is how best to protect those homes and neighborhoods that border major traffic corridors where higher density development is appropriate.
In 2004 we protected neighborhoods with new zoning as outlined in the University Avenue Strategic Plan. We increased setbacks from neighboring homes, reduced shadowing, and increased the amount of required open space. We continue to review the zoning to see what changes should be made in other areas to provide the City with flexibility to ensure nearby homes are protected.
Second, we expect and demand that all new buildings be well designed and attractive. This means buildings must provide residents with appealing units and grounds as well as a design that is attractive from the street and encourages pedestrian traffic with cafes and neighborhood serving shops. Many developers complain about multiple visits to our Design Review Commission, but I believe that is a sign our process is working.
Without question, land use and development decisions are some of the most controversial faced by any city, especially an engaged city like Berkeley. Change is difficult and no decision is likely to please everyone. But to be a progressive and forward-thinking city does not mean closing ourselves off from the world. We should be no more afraid of change than we are of stagnation.
Let’s embrace what we love about this town and ensure that new development respects and enhances it. Remember, Berkeley is more than just a collection of single-family homes—it is also one of the world’s most innovative and creative places. We need to protect that legacy as well.
Tom Bates is running for re-election as mayor of Berkeley. He previously served for 20 years as a member of the state Assembly representing Berkeley.