Editorial: How About Some Density in the ‘Burbs?

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday February 27, 2007

It happened that last weekend we had two excursions which took us out of the Berkeley Bubble and into the genuine suburbs, in fact into the old established bridge-and-tunnel suburbs, over a bridge to the Peninsula and through the tunnel to Lamorinda. On Saturday night in Palo Alto we were lucky enough to see two fine singers with local connections, Berkeley-born Alaine Rodin and current resident Kathleen Moss, in the West Bay Opera’s stunning production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, which demonstrated conclusively that culture is alive and well outside the urban bay area. The Lafayette trip on Sunday was for a sadder purpose, a memorial for a friend who had died suddenly.  

On both trips we were struck, as we always are when we leave the city, by how much space, just plain space, there is in the suburbs, particularly in the ones which saw their major development between the ’50s and the ’70s. On a rainy Saturday night we drove (no possible alternative transit, needless to say) from 101 to Palo Alto, across wide boulevards with spacious median strips as big as some “parks” in flatlands Berkeley, to a smallish theater surrounded by a parking lot so close to the stage door we didn’t even get wet running in from the car. We couldn’t help but contrast it to Berkeley’s equivalent Julia Morgan Theater, walking distance from our house and on the 51 bus line, but where it’s almost impossible to park if those options don’t work for you. Even in the dark we could see that adjacent civic amenities—museums, schools and so forth—were in one-story buildings and surrounded by parking and parklands.  

On Sunday the 10-minute drive from Highway 24 through “downtown” Lafayette to our destination, a lovely rustic lodge in a verdant canyon setting, was also on wide boulevards, in this case leading to curving rural roads. Twice on our journey we had to brake for flocks of wild turkeys crossing in front of us. Twenty minutes from our Berkeley home, we were in the country.  

A quick peek at the invaluable Berkeley Parents Network website reveals many transplants from Berkeley rhapsodizing about Lafayette living. Numerous University of California faculty members and administrators enjoy living in the Lafayette-Moraga-Orinda area. They all drive past our house every weekday morning, and on weekends it’s even worse as they head for Elmwood shops. There’s a BART station in Lafayette, but not everyone seems to use it.  

“Downtown” Lafayette is a succession of strip malls gussied up in standard northern California pseudo-Hispanic stucco facades. Each one, and often each store, has its own right-by-the-front-door parking lot. Those who post to the Parents site make much of the fact that Lafayetters drive vans instead of the bigger and more expensive SUVs you might find in Danville, and judging by the parking lots we observed that’s true. Perhaps they also take the bus and BART, but no busses were in evidence on Sunday afternoon. You can’t get very far in Lamorinda without a car, it seems. 

What’s all this got to do with Berkeley? We’re here because we really enjoy the urban experience, right? We have BART stations (three, unless you want to come home from your event after midnight or go anywhere except the center of the city) and bus stops (many, though not necessarily all, served by frequent or comfortable busses). We even have the occasional wild turkey, if you live in the right neighborhood.  

But Berkeley now seems to be the target of a campaign to make it uninhabitable. The Planning Department is dominated by true believers who think that every flatlands back yard deserves a condo of its own, and who are bending the zoning laws to accomplish this. Such efforts won’t be needed much longer, of course, since Planning Commission purges have recently paved the way to change those same laws permanently. Zealots from ABAG to the oxymoronic Livable Berkeley seem to think that covering every square inch of the scant remaining open space in Berkeley, green or paved, with new construction will make more people want to live here and fewer people want to move to new subdivisions in former cornfields.  

Well, those who believe that urban legend should spend some time reading the Lafayette entries on the Parents’ website. They all seem to come from transplants from Oakland and Berkeley, people who finally got fed up with the stresses of living too close to too many folks. ABAG is dominated by representatives from the second-ring suburbs who are anxious to off-load the growth pressure on first-ring cities like Berkeley which long since achieved urban density. The result of putting condos in every backyard in Berkeley will be making everyone who can possibly afford it move to Lafayette or the equivalent, unless they just move all the way to Tracy. Some web-site-posters said that their new suburban homes were less expensive than their old ones in the first ring cities, and they boast of 25-minute BART commutes to San Francisco.  

They’ve even got culture out there. We passed a theater marquee touting a production of a rarely-seen Noel Coward play, and Berkeley’s favorite Philharmonia Baroque programs a Lamorinda night in addition to their two nights here. And there are acres and acres of soccer fields in evidence.  

We are going to be very sorry in five years when the vast number of shoddy Berkeley apartment buildings which were supposed to warehouse the Bay Area’s excess population have turned into poorly-maintained and often vacant rental condos, when the students who eagerly rented sparkling new units have established their families in Hercules or Fairfield. Wouldn’t it make more sense to get started now on modest density increments in all the sixties suburban towns like Lafayette? That Blockbuster Video we saw near the BART station and the central Lafayette freeway entrance could support four stories of apartments above the store and still have some parking for those who needed it. The Starbucks on the main drag would have more patrons if there were apartments above it, and AC transit could send them some buses. Of course, we have our one-story Blockbuster and our single-floor Starbucks here too, but we also have residents crowded much closer together in our neighborhoods, and they’re the ones that don’t need even more density.