In a Nov. 18, 2003 commentary, Mayor Bates and Councilmember Linda Maio made what appeared to be a heartfelt plea for immediate incorporation of the University Avenue Strategic Plan into the zoning ordinance. In light of developments such as the behemoth building proposed for 1950 MLK, affectionately known to some as the Trader Joe’s building, this public promise to champion the UASP principles of protecting Berkeley from inappropriately large development and to maintain the residential character of the neighborhoods definitely bears re-examination.
The letter began with the sentence, “The future for University Avenue cannot be wall-to-wall five story buildings.” It goes on to assert, “New buildings in Berkeley need to respect adjacent homes and protect their sunlight and privacy—not loom above and overwhelm their neighbors” and “We pay attention…to blending with the neighborhood context, to the interface between commercial and residential, to how a building impacts the streetscape.” It concludes with the statement, “We should all realize that our major corridors are where new affordable housing can and should be built. But we must respect the context of the street and neighborhood and ensure that new buildings do not make a significant imposition on their neighbors.”
As Mayor Bates lamented in 2003, the requirements of the State Density Bonus law often result in “…large, blocky buildings which are too big for the lot and overwhelming to neighbors and the street.” The state density bonus law has been used as a convenient scapegoat for ignoring the neighborhood protection principles of the UASP. The 1950 MLK project’s current promise of a ground-floor grocery and increased tax revenues is no excuse for abandoning the stated protection principles of the pre-existing UASP, which Mayor Bates clearly claimed to champion in 2003. I defy anyone to explain in public forum how this project fulfills the protection principles delineated in the UASP. Let’s take a look at those principles:
• UASP, Strategic Plan Goal No. 3: “Protect and improve neighborhood quality of life,” including the following goals: “Protect Existing Local Business and Established Neighborhoods”; “Enhance the quality of life for current residents at all income levels; “Protect and improve neighborhood quality of life.”
• UASP Strategic Plan Goal No. 5 includes the goal to “Respect the Character of the Local Neighborhoods.”
• UASP Housing Policy UA-17 specifies that “The design of new and renovated housing along the University Avenue Corridor should contribute to its character, without negatively impacting residents of adjacent residential areas.”
• UASP Transportation Policy UA-21 mandates “Implement improvements to tame traffic along University Avenue, but protect the adjacent neighborhoods from excessive traffic.”
Nowhere in these clearly stated UASP requirements to protect the existing residential character of the neighborhoods, and nowhere in Mr. Bates’ and Ms. Maio’s letter to the editor of 2003, does it specify the caveat “unless there is a profitable reason not to uphold these principles.”
The 1950 MLK project will reduce on-street parking along MLK for existing businesses. It confronts the neighborhood with a 4-5 story façade, looming 43-55 feet high on our one- to two-story residential block. It places a residential entrance for a 64-unit apartment building opposite a single-family Queen Anne cottage, effectively doubling the number of residents the street already houses. It proposes a retail parking entrance for a Trader Joe’s on our residential block. Without a full traffic barrier in place as requested by the neighborhood, that equates to a projected 2,200-plus extra cars driving down our street per day. Certainly none of these proposals enhance our quality of life. They increase traffic, air pollution, noise, density and reduce our safety significantly; this on a block where we are already a frequently-used and abused shortcut for cars evading the traffic light at MLK and University and a block where parking is already scarce.
We, the Neighbors for A Livable Berkeley Way, are not and have never been NIMBYs. We are a diverse, predominantly low-to-middle-income community. We initiated a dialogue with the developers specifically to forge a productive template for development for all of Berkeley, not just our block, so other neighbors would not have to face this same fate, a template that would specifically include respecting the character of the existing neighborhood, clearly delineated in the UASP. The 1950 MLK project is a substitute design, and regardless of the state density bonus, it is entirely at the council’s discretion to make any modifications necessary to comply with UASP guidelines to maintain our “lovely” town, as Bates referred to Berkeley in his letter.
According to Mr. Bates and Ms. Maio’s letter of 2003, they believed in and pledged publicly to uphold all the goals of the UASP, including the protection of existing neighborhoods, not to pick and choose whichever UASP principles might be convenient at the time. We call on you now to honor that pledge.
Regan Richardson is a Berkeley resident.