Public Comment

Commentary: Berkeley’s Charm At Risk

By Fred Dodsworth
Friday December 08, 2006

Thank you for the excellent Dec. 5 article regarding the push to increase housing in the downtown Berkeley corridor. I especially liked that you paired ABAG’s demands with UC’s building boom on the front page. 

Let me see if I’ve got this right: The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is threatening to restrict some federal funding options if Berkeley does not add approximately 387 new units of housing per year! (By the by, 387 new units a year also means nearly 1,000 new residents every year and an approximately equal number of vehicles.) 

That enormous oversized inappropriate sore thumb downtown known as the Gaia Building has only 91 apartments. ABAG is saying that we need to add the equivalent of more than four Gaia Buildings a year to our city/town, every year for the indefinite future! (Four Gaia Buildings would still be 23 units short of ABAG’s mandated annual minimum increase!) You quote Berkeley’s Planning Director Dan Marks as saying (in a slightly redacted form: “That means we would have to ... remove any policy barriers to that housing being produced.” 

Welcome to part two of the big business, big government assault on Berkeley. In addition to the on-going and current push to increase retail space throughout the city to add tax revenues to the city coffers, now our little flawed but charming town is being pimped out by a powerful regional governmental agency for every mixed-use developer’s pleasure.  

Recall that current commercial rents in Berkeley ($3 to $4 a square foot) already are too high for local non-chain store businesses. Say goodbye to neighborhood restaurants, coffee shops and bookstores. Say hello to national and international chain stores. 

Recall that current residential rent in Berkeley ($1,000-plus per month for a studio) is approximately the same amount a person working full-time at a minimum wage job makes in a month, before deductions! Say goodbye to diverse neighborhoods and low density neighborhoods. Say hello to entire families living in studio apartments and/or San 

Francisco-style professional-class neighborhoods. 

The political and financial pressures being brought to bear on our community are powerful, well-connected, well-financed, relentless, and ruthless. Additionally the university’s scheme to add several millions of square feet of commercial space, both on campus and in the downtown, will exacerbate the pressures from ABAG for more housing. On average (as I recall from my sojourn in architecture school three decades ago) every thousand square feet of commercial development adds three employees to the mix ABAG uses to set housing standards. With just two million square feet of additional development (that does not factor in the as yet unknown but substantial additional private development in the pipeline) ABAG will see 6,000 additional employees. 

Those employees are not likely to come from Berkeley’s under employed, unemployed and inadequately educated sub-classes. No, those employees will be from somewhere else and they’ll need someplace to live. Say good-bye to the little city/town of Berkeley. I, for one, don’t want any part of the city “our betters” are building for us. 

As was true in the 1970s, somewhere in Berkeley at some point in the near future, the people of this wonderful community are going to have to draw a line in the sand and insist that enough is enough, that we’re not willing to surrender the quality of life we love for some distant developer’s new second home. War has been declared on Berkeley’s quiet charm. The city/town we know and love is under attack and it will not survive in anything like it’s current form if we don’t defend it. 


Fred Dodsworth is a Berkeley journalist.