Public Comment

Commentary: By Definition, Downtowns are Populous

By Erin Bradner
Friday March 02, 2007

I typically find the critical coverage of Berkeley development and city planning issues reported by the Daily Planet polemical yet comforting since this type of in-depth coverage of planning issues reassures me that our community is taking a critical and balanced look at growth in our unique city.  

However, in reading the Feb. 23 cover story, “High-Rise Tower Plan Proposed for Downtown,” I was surprised by the pithy and dogmatic negative reaction to the high-density option for the downtown plan reported in your interviews with the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee. One committee member is quoted as saying “density for density’s sake sucks.” Another is reported to be capable of both “never” supporting the high-density alternative while simultaneously being “prepared to support a range of options.”  

I’m concerned about the Advisory Committee’s ability to objectively shape the vision of our downtown. The Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee and the City Council need to have the foresight to envision a populous, livable, and lively downtown that is as vibrant and inspiring as the world class university that put this city on the map. I take pride in the environmental prescience of our city leaders—they speak for me when they decry suburban sprawl and promote environmental protection, energy conservation, alternatives to the automobile and affordable housing.  

Paradoxically, as the Daily Planet reporting reveals, many of those same leaders are philosophically opposed to higher-density construction in our downtown. I find this hypocritical at best and irresponsible at worst, since concentrating our population is how we get the economies of scale we need from our infrastructure. Concentrating housing and business in a vital downtown is a planning strategy from antiquity; by concentrating housing, jobs and services in downtown we can accommodate the inevitable growth of our population and still allow for low density and no-density open spaces elsewhere. Density helps us address the social and environmental concerns that face the entire Bay Area, if not the world. To appropriate a turn of phrase from the advisory committee member, preservation for preservation sake sucks—while charming in concept, low-density downtown corridors are the feeble signature of dying business districts throughout Middle America. The crude visual simulations pictured in your article and shown by the planning staff look monolithic and jarring if you take them literally. They don’t concern me because I’m confident that those featureless blocks are as malleable as clay in the able hands of our city’s fine architects, planners, artists, advisory committees, councilmembers and everyday citizens who take the initiative to make their opinion heard.  

It’s easy to take political pot shots at the visual simulations shown by the city planners. Rather than choosing to see them as an easy target, I see those simulations simply as a conceptual placeholder; though featureless as a nascent concept they temporarily reify a vision for our downtown where the people who work and play in downtown also make a home there.  

Downtown Berkeley should be a place where responsible historic preservation is balanced against the benefits that new buildings and a critical mass of residents can bring to the downtown. A silent majority of Berkeley residents, those who do not make careers out of engaging in city politics, are truly progressive. We want a vibrant downtown brewing with exciting new businesses and residents. We want a mature downtown community that simultaneously serves the needs of the vital, somewhat seasonal, university population plus providing a home for a year-round downtown community of families, single urban professionals and the elderly who can walk, bike or take transit to work and other destinations throughout the city and region.  

A populous and diverse downtown would invigorate and expand the arts and other existing cultural institutions from the Farmer’s Market to the theatre. Residents who want a vibrant, livable city that they and future generations can be proud of would be wise to communicate to the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee and the City Council that they support higher density development in the place where it makes the most sense—downtown! 


Erin Bradner is a Berkeley resident.