Public Comment

Commentary: Smart Growth: Let’s Not Dumb it Down

By Rob Browning
Friday July 13, 2007

Those of us who advocate “smart growth”—siting new and denser housing near jobs, academic centers, services, etc., and on transit corridors—have a responsibility to help ensure that such developments are assets, not detriments, to their neighborhoods.  

On Monday, July 16, the Berkeley City Council will hold a public hearing to consider the largest mixed-use project ever proposed outside downtown. One hundred forty-eight units of housing and a Trader Joe’s market are proposed for the vast (by midtown Berkeley standards) site now adorned by Kragen Auto Parts, its long-vacant neighbors, and their parking lot. In its prior incarnation as the U-Save Market, this was the setting for Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” as well as the subject of a swell Robert Bechtle painting called ’60 Chevies. No, I’m not proposing another landmark designation. It’s hard to imagination a development that wouldn’t improve this site. Or is it?  

The proposed development has substantial virtues. It addresses significant housing and retail needs. Kirk Peterson’s historicist design goes a long way toward achieving a congenial aesthetic interface with the neighborhood and has improved profoundly over earlier versions. But even the City Council should have little trouble discerning that this one has a way to go before it enhances, rather than encumbers, its site. 

The council should get a big clue to the proposal’s corpulence from the fact that squeezing it in would require major alterations to all three adjacent streets as well as a whopping three variances from our Zoning Ordinance. The streets would see alterations at the University-MLK intersection, a new stoplight at MLK and Berkeley Way, removal of all on-street parking on MLK between University and Hearst as well as several spaces on Berkeley Way, and—at neighbors’ insistence—installation of a full traffic barrier across Berkeley Way west of the site. The proposal exceeds our zoning’s 50-foot height limit and is five stories high where four are allowed.  

Could anyone—say a smart growth zealot who’s a regular Trader Joe’s shopper—believe that 48 TJ parking spaces could be adequate? Remind that innocent that because the project removes 10 on-street spaces, the net gain in new spaces for TJ would be a grand 38, while well-used on-street parking for the North Berkeley Senior Center, for neighboring businesses, and for nearby residents would disappear. The San Francisco Trader Joe’s at Masonic and Geary, with many more than 48 spaces, suffers strangling backups due to inadequate parking.  

The design provides only a single entrance/exit for TJ’s lot (Andronico’s, Monterey Market, Berkeley Bowl, etc., all have at least two) and turns rational planning on its head by situating that access on Berkeley Way, the only one of the site’s three bounding streets that is solidly residential. The design isolates a little Victorian house on the TJ side of the Berkeley Way traffic barrier and spews the full deluge of TJ traffic just a few feet from that house’s driveway. Berkeley Way neighbors also get the entrance and trash room for 64 of the project’s households.  

At least some of these impacts are avoidable. If the residential entrance and trash room were consolidated with their counterparts on the MLK edge of the building, the traffic barrier could be moved east of the little house on Berkeley Way, preserving its connection with its neighborhood. The project would force the removal of all on-street parking on MLK but lacks an off-street vehicle port for resident drop-offs and deliveries on that busy block. There is space for such a port if the design loses a small retail space at the corner of MLK and Berkeley Way.  

The ticking time-bomb embodied in this proposal is its request for 25 more housing units than are required by state law or permitted by Berkeley’s Zoning Ordinance, with no increase in the number of affordable units. Planning becomes meaningless if legislated standards are ignored when a developer requests it and a compliant staff accedes. It makes cynics of those good citizens who have invested their time in setting those standards and encourages the kind of knee-jerk resistance to change that thwarts and delays good proposals. 

There is no doubt that the job of accomplishing large-scale infill development is difficult. And in a world suffocating under suburban sprawl and a rapidly degenerating atmosphere, there should be no doubt that it is important. Those who do that job and the public officials who guide them will serve our communities best if they insist on projects that will make all of us smart growth advocates. If we want community support for new development, that development must support our community, respecting the comfort, safety, and amenities that make that community livable.  

The City Council hearing on this project will be Monday, July 16, at 7 PM, at Old City Hall, 2134 MLK Jr. Way. Citizens can write the Council via e-mail care of 



Rob Browning is a Berkeley resident and business owner in the University/MLK neighborhood.