Public Comment

Commentary: Brower/Oxford Development Was Well Reviewed and Is Needed

By Rob Wrenn
Tuesday February 20, 2007

The David Brower Center/Oxford Plaza project, which is two months away from breaking ground in downtown Berkeley, is an excellent project despite the misleading claims being made by opponents of affordable housing who are trying to derail the project. 

No project in recent memory has undergone more extensive public review. The project was reviewed not only by the Zoning Adjustments Board and the Design Review Committee, but also by the Planning Commission, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Housing Advisory Commission and the Transporta-tion Commission.  

Extensive outreach was done. The developers talked with and provided information to businesses in the vicinity and met with the Downtown Berkeley Association. There were ample opportunities for members of the public to register their opinions about this project, more opportunities than has been the case for other projects. 

Opponents claim that the city is giving away the site, but this is misleading. 

Currently, what does the city get out of the site? It gets a supply of parking for downtown visitors and it gets the revenues from that parking. 

What will the city get after the project is built? It will keep and will continue to own the parking, which will be moved underground. Revenues from that parking will increase because demand for the parking, which is not fully utilized at present, will increase according to the Traffic Impact Analysis and Parking Study that was done for the project. So the city will continue to get what it gets now from the site. 

In addition to parking revenues, the city will also get additional tax revenues from the taxable portions of the project. And residents of the Oxford Plaza housing units will spend money in local supermarkets, restaurants and retail businesses. The people who work for the non-profit environmental groups who will occupy the David Brower Center office building will also spend money, giving a boost to local restaurants and retail businesses. 

The Brower Center will include a 170-seat theater, an art gallery, a cafe and meeting rooms. Visitors will also spend money in downtown. In short, the city keeps the parking revenue and gets additional sales tax revenue. And local merchants get additional business. 

But despite the financial benefits to the city, this project is not primarily about money. The primary thing the city will gain is 97 units of affordable housing, something that private for-profit developers have not been able to provide. Two-bedroom apartments in new market-rate housing projects downtown tend to rent for between $2,100 and $2,900 a month. Using federal affordability standards, these units are only affordable to households with incomes of at least $70,000 to $95,000. Some more-affordable inclusionary units have been built, but none is like the family-sized units planned for Oxford Plaza. 

The city’s housing trust fund contribution is lower on a per-unit basis that is the case for contributions by other cities to similar affordable housing projects in the East Bay in the current environment of rapidly rising construction costs. The city is getting a good deal.  

The city will also gain the David Brower Center, its first LEED platinum, green building. Berkeley voters overwhelmingly supported Measure G, which calls for the city to develop a plan to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80% by 2050. To achieve this goal, new buildings will have to consume much less energy than they do now. The Brower Center will lead the way. 

Berkeley has historically been a center of environmental activism and it's entirely fitting to have a center for environmental groups, including the Earth Island Institute, which David Brower founded.  

The project being built on the Oxford parking lot exemplifies the use of public land for public good. 

Opponents point out that the land is worth by $5.7 million. That means that if it were sold to the University of California or to a private developer, the city would get a one-time windfall of $5.7 million, but it would lose all the parking revenue that it gets now and could end up with less parking. The developers are spending almost $8 million on the parking at the site, parking which the city will keep; no private developer will do that if they have to spend $5.7 million to acquire the land. The owners of the privately owned HInks Garage replaced only a fraction of the parking when they developed that site. 

Who is opposing this project? The primary opponent is Gale Garcia. She is known to readers of the Planet letters and opinion page as someone who has claimed that Berkeley has a glut of housing and that its population is not growing, both claims that have no factual basis. It's pretty widely known, and can be easily documented, that Berkeley is part of one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States. 

Garcia wants the Oxford parking lot left exactly as it is (Planet, Feb. 13-15), despite the clear financial, social and environmental benefits that will come from developing the site.  

Garcia says there should have been a full environmental impact report. The fact is that the project underwent environmental review. An initial study was done in June 2005. That study determined that there were four areas of potentially significant impacts. These impacts, related to noise; transportation/traffic; historic resources; and hazards and hazardous materials, were addressed with specific mitigations and by additional studies.  

A Historic Resource Analysis was prepared to the project's impact on historic resources in its vicinity. A geotechnical study was done to obtain information on subsurface conditions at the site. And as already noted above, a Traffic Impact Analysis and Parking Study was done. Doing a full EIR would have been a waste of resources for a project of this size and type at its specific location. 

All the reports related to the project are available online on the City's Web site under planning/landuse: 

Garcia had numerous opportunities to voice her opinion about this project. She could have challenged the City Council's decision to building affordable housing on the site back in 2001. She could have appealed the Zoning Board's granting of a use permit to the City Council. She could have voiced her opinions at any of the numerous commission meetings and Council meetings where the project was discussed. Instead, she is taking the irresponsible and destructive approach of trying to derail a project that has obtained all the approvals it needs.  

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been spent on the project. The City's housing trust fund contribution has leveraged an additional $32.6 million in funds from non-City sources for the Oxford Plaza housing component of the project. The David Brower Center is being financed with $28 million from private sources. Delays brought on by Gale Garcia's misguided efforts will only add to the final cost of the project. 

Don’t buy the misinformation opponents are peddling and don’t sign their petitions. 


Rob Wrenn chaired the Planning Commission's Oxford Parking Lot subcommittee in 2001 and is currently a member of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.