Editorial: Oxford/Brower Brouhaha Turns Ugly at the Market

By Becky O’Malley
Friday February 23, 2007

Going to the Tuesday Farmer’s Market is usually a pleasure, but this last Tuesday it was more than a chore, it was an annoyance. It’s become the battleground of choice for those who have differing views about the soon-to-be-launched Brower Center and Oxford Plaza projects. Only the Planet’s opinion pages (see today’s) and the flamemail circuit have seen more skirmishes. 

First shot was fired at the entrance by a pair of eager beavers (“we’re just volunteers”) handing out a yellow sheet signed by no one in particular, heavy on all caps, exclamation points and underlining: “PLEASE DO NOT SIGN THE REFERENDUM PETITION!” 

Irritant number one was the subhead: “Opponents of affordable housing….”  

Well, no. It just muddies the waters to charge that all or even the majority of those who have doubts about the wisdom of this particular enterprise are opposed to affordable housing in general. In fact, several of them have said privately that what worries them is that Berkeley is putting all of its housing trust fund money into this one leaky bucket. But such sentiments are rarely expressed in public because progressives who have such worries are afraid of being—the sixties’ term was mau-maued, but that must be politically incorrect by now—castigated by their friends with whom they disagree.  

Next annoyance, and here we certainly get into the realm of the politically incorrect, is the new catchphrase “workforce housing.” 

We’ve already learned that “affordable” housing can easily be priced in such a way as to exclude all but the comfortably employed lower middle classes, while leaving the genuinely poor and homeless out in the cold.  

“Workforce” housing is a phrase I first heard in affluent Aspen Colorado, where it most often referred to dormitories for the young skiers who wait on rich seasonal tourists. But in Berkeley our biggest ill-paid workforce is the service workers at the University of California, and the real scandal is that despite the workers’ vigorous organizing efforts the Big U still won’t pay them enough to afford decent local housing for their families. If this project works out, the 97 units (not all family-size, however) will help, but the Oxford Plaza will house very few UC workers as compared to the real need. This can’t be blamed on either the pro or the con faction, of course. But some might say that workers should be paid properly and that public dollars should go first to homes for those families who lack a breadwinner for some reason. 

Irritant number three is this sentence, which manages to contain offensive characterizations made by both camps: “They falsely claim the project is a bad deal for the city, saying the ‘City Council give a piece of land worth at least $5,700,000 to developers for $1.’” 

The most obvious problem here is that project opponents have foolishly fixated on the common real estate contract convention of using a $1 valuation for what is actually a swap. This mistake only serves to distract someone who actually wants to understand the deal. 

The value received, in the eyes of the proponents, is the garage, with the Brower Center office building and the apartment building as added sweeteners. But the real question is still outstanding: is it a “bad deal” as claimed by the referendum people, or a “good deal” as per the flyer?  

The financial impact is mighty hard for the average citizen to figure out. The letter sent to the council on November 9 by the city’s longtime financial consultant Christine Carr was worrisome, however. No matter how desirable these buildings might be, are they worth putting the city’s finances at the serious risk Carr foresaw?  

Her letter said, in part, “While there are two developers and two separate buildings, the project is interdependent from the city perspective and the [David Brower Center] could not be developed without the housing and the shared parking under both. The money the city is putting into the project as a whole is considerable, more than the city has ever expended on a site in the past. There is $4MM in Housing Trust funds which include past and future commitments precluding other affordable housing from being built for several years in Berkeley. There is also the BEDI grant of $1.7MM and the $4MM HUD 108 loan. In addition, if there are cost overruns on the housing or parking, the city, most likely, will be required to fill any gaps. The city’s total commitment is $9.7MM, without cost overruns.” Carr’s letter recommended that the city require the DBC promoters to guarantee more than the $1 million they’ve offered, but that hasn’t happened. 

Which brings us to the next concern the flyer raises: The DBC is described as “a cutting edge building with the latest in green design.” If new buildings are really needed, they should of course be designed according to the best environmental principles. But “re-use” is the mostly highly rated of the long established environmental principles, with “recycle” coming not far behind. Why do environmental organizations need a brand-new cutting edge building? I’ve worked in many a non-profit in my day, and they’ve always been housed in re-used older buildings which were not stylish but very functional. Fort Mason is a good example.  

Adapting old buildings for re-use generally employs more local workers and returns more money to the local economy than showcase new projects. There are many current vacancies in existing buildings in the downtown area. Rents are high, but what’s the per square foot cost as compared with updated DBC cost projections? 

The flyer says that the project is endorsed by Loni Hancock, Tom Bates and Linda Maio. Hancock, Bates and Maio have become notorious in recent years for never seeing a building project they didn’t like, leading the suspicious citizen to wonder if this might not be just another sop to their friends in the construction industry. Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington, the city’s last two consistently progressive councilmembers, have also voted for this project in the past, but their names were left off this particular piece. Is that significant? Who knows? 

All this angst, and we hadn’t even gotten past the market entrance yet. Further inside a table with referendum petitions on it was being maintained by two or three tired-looking project opponents, and there were many more yellow-sheet distributors trying to steer citizens away from it. I heard one middle-aged woman discussing the referendum with a perky young thing who was trying to talk her out of signing to put the question on the ballot. “Why not let the voters decide?” the older woman said. “Are you opposed to affordable housing?” the young woman asked her. “Of course not, I’ve supported it all my life,” the other said indignantly. “Well, this is Berkeley’s last chance to get affordable housing,” the younger woman said. The older woman shook her head as she walked away. 

The truly cynical say that if this project fails the city will sell the land to UC to use as office space for its new greenwashing contract with BP. One friend, a long time housing activist herself, says ruefully that all she can do at this point is stand back and watch the opposing camps fight it out. On any given day, she says, she’s likely to feel like agreeing with either side or to think that they’re both wrong.  

That’s how I felt at the Farmers’ Market on Tuesday. I’ve always supported affordable housing for families, but is this particular project the best way to get it? It’s one of those Cassandra moments. Is it the impending financial disaster that some predict, or just creative financing that will get the right results for everyone? Only time will tell.