Editorial: Doing Things Wrong on the West Side of Town

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday May 22, 2007

West Berkeley’s been the top planning controversy in the news in the last couple of weeks. On the southern flank, yet another edgy, vibrant artists’ colony is being pushed out, this one The Shipyard, a prominent contributor to the annual Burning Man extravaganza. On the north, speculators seem to have big plans for the approximately 5 acre home of the former Cal Ink company, once a central player in a small industry. In 1999 Cal Ink (now owned by Michigan’s Flint Ink) was the oldest factory in Berkeley operating at its original location. If information about their plans gleaned from the internet by Public Eye columnist Zelda Bronstein is reliable, some developers might be hoping to parlay the Berkeley City Council’s authorization for the addition of a zoning overlay for auto dealerships into much, much more.  

A good guess would be the currently chi-chi form of gentrification: condos upstairs, retail down. A faux-urban mall like Silicon Valley’s Santana Row seems possible. But whatever’s going on, it should be going on in the open, not under the radar as it seems to be. 

The area is currently governed by the West Berkeley Plan, which took untold amounts of public money, years of citizen labor and much compromise to enact. Adding more space for auto sales is a logical extension of the spirit and intent of the plan, but it looks like the promoters of the new development might be trying for an even bigger bite of the apple, if the disclosures made as part of the offer to sell are to be believed. 

In Oakland, there’s been a similar effort to take over a big chunk of the land set aside for “dirty” uses like manufacturing and art and gentrify it for condo/retail use without bothering to make appropriate zoning changes. Jerry Brown’s administration came and went without making the official zoning amendments which were needed to support the city’s general plan for crucial areas of the city.  

It’s so much easier to do land use planning by making small changes to the rules which only the privileged few are party to, or simply by giving variances to the people you favor. That’s historically been a bit harder to pull off in Berkeley than in Oakland, but Berkeley’s Planning Department is now getting the reputation of doing sweetheart deals with people it likes, and the City Council has become accustomed to just rubberstamping them. That’s why former School Board chair Anna DeLeon, currently the proprietor of Anna’s Jazz Island, is suing the council. She alleges that all the concessions the city granted to her Gaia building landlord, Patrick Kennedy, were illegal, and that they’ve harmed her business.  

The worst thing about planning by privilege is that it almost always has results which aren’t consistent with the greater public good. Auto dealerships are good producers of sales tax revenue, and given California’s love affair with the auto they probably have to be near the freeway. But taking this well-defined and reasonable change in West Berkeley’s rules and trying to leverage it into more and different kinds of retail, including perhaps a Big Box store, is another matter entirely. Doing it by fooling around with the language of the proposed zoning overlay which was supposed to be specifically for auto dealerships is inexcusable. And some of the buildings on the Cal Ink site are designated historic resources protected by CEQA, but promoters seems confident that they can just be demolished anyhow, no problema.  

The condo part of the conventional equation, if it materialized in West Berkeley on that site, would add many new drivers to the already overloaded freeway exits without contributing a fair share of the city’s tax revenues. There’s not much public transit in that area, and what there is doesn’t go much of anywhere that condo-dwellers would want to go. And when manufacturing is driven out to the distant burbs while the cities are packed with cheap condos for singles, it creates reverse long-distance commuters. It’s happening all over the country, not just in Berkeley or Oakland. 

In the meantime, back at Berkeley City Hall, they’re again talking about about funding the mayor’s no-smoking plan for improving downtown by raising parking fees. Here’s a question for our Berkeley readers, and even for the couple of hundred anonymous members of the Kitchen Democracy claque: why don’t you shop downtown? Is it (a) the weird people on the street, (b) parking problems, (c) nothing much to buy there any more or (d) all of the above?  

It’s a cinch that making (b) worse will do nothing at all to make (a) or (c) better. That’s our city management, dropping the planning ball again. And the city manager floated another trial balloon at the budget workshops recently: raising property taxes yet again. Even Berkeley’s public-spirited citizens are finally starting to notice that all we seem to get with each new tax is bigger and better pension plans for city employees, while services continue to go downhill fast.  

Here’s what current West Berkeley trends, if they’re not addressed by the City Council, will add up to: fewer good jobs for local residents, more new residents who don’t pay their share of the upkeep for public services and shop elsewhere, and higher taxes for the long-suffering taxpayers in the rest of the city. It looks like a bad deal, but it also looks like it will be hard to stop.