Last Monday’s Berkeley City Council approval of the Trader Joe’s project at the Kragens lot at University and MLK is not only a disaster for our near-downtown, but eminently livable neighborhood, but also poses a significant risk to every neighborhood in the City. To approve this project the City Council has adopted new ad hoc procedures to grant 25 additional units of unknown provenance to reward the developer Hudson McDonald for their promise of bringing Trader Joe’s to Berkeley. According to our city attorney, the City Council’s newly found power is entirely at their discretion—an extremely scary thought given the current composition of the Council.
Although our city government cannot give golden parachutes to departing employees, I can think of no more thoughtful gift than this precedent to give Mr. Mark Rhoades as he leaves his role as the city’s developer-friendly zoning officer and goes on to his new role as your friendly Berkeley developer. Those who have watched Mark in action bending and mutilating our Zoning Ordin-ance over the past five years can only imagine how much damage such a precedent can cause when placed in the hands of such a true believer in smart growth.
Over the past week, the developer made a number of proposals taking off and/or reshaping a few units here or there to produce a marginally less severe transition to our neighborhood, but we could never get them to agree to changing their basic building configuration that burdened one of our most vulnerable neighbors with much of the project’s detriment by placing too many project facilities along our residential street. We were willing to agree to a project with a Trader Joe’s (after all, a legally permitted use) and more than 140 units of housing (40 units per acre more than called for in the General Plan) if only the developer would move all project elements except for the Trader Joe’s driveway off of Berkeley Way and agree to project findings that protected the integrity of our city’s land use process and commitment to affordable housing. Even up until the recess between the public hearing and council deliberations the developer urged us to accept their final offer and drop our appeal, but we ultimately refused.
While the ZAB findings honestly stated that the 25 additional units were only “necessary” for the Trader Joe’s, the findings approved by the council amount to an abject capitulation to long-time developer complaints that complying with our development standards and inclusionary ordinance is too expensive. Under the council’s new procedures, an unlimited number of additional units can be granted to any project on the basis of whole project “feasibility” rather than being reserved to offset the cost of providing affordable housing units. Since the new criteria is the feasibility of the “whole” project, the council approved additional units can be used to offset any and all project “costs.” For the Trader Joe’s project the council findings cited no fewer than 12 “costly” project elements, including commercial floor area and parking, resident open-space and parking, and even “good-design”—things that Berkeley’s development standards and policies expect from all projects. There should be no doubt in any one’s mind that these new criteria will be noted by other Berkeley developers and used in future projects—we can only guess how many additional units “designer kitchens” might require.
Equally disturbing is the council’s finding that it is now acceptable that property line setbacks guaranteed to protect each adjacent residential property can be waived if the project as a “whole” is better than some other proposed project for the site. This procedure will balance an increased setback granted to one neighbor against a reduction in setbacks promised to other neighbors, a finding that opens every neighborhood to a cynical and divisive process of “beggaring your neighbor.” Additionally, it is feared by many that a Trader Joe’s at this location will cost West Berkeley its University Avenue Andronico’s, a result that the City Council joked might leave the poor no choice but to shop at Grocery Outlet, but offering their constituents an attractive choice between shopping at a Berkeley Trader Joe’s or Berkeley Bowl. Displaced Andronico’s workers can, of course, apply for one of those high-paying manager jobs at Trader Joe’s some project advocates spoke about.
We have all watched with dismay and frustration as President Bush issues signing statements saying he won’t enforce a new law he doesn’t like; now in Berkeley our City Council issues findings on a single project that gut the protections for neighborhoods that are at the heart of our land use policies and ordinances. Because the council’s new procedures come into force outside of the ordinary legislative process there is no ordinance to put to a referendum (the council learned its lesson from their attempt to change the Landmarks Ordinance).
The only remaining forum for us is to bring this matter before a court to determine whether such a significant change in Berkeley’s pattern and practice of land use can be established on an ad hoc basis in response to a specific project. We urge all concerned Berkeley citizens to join us in our effort to preserve the livability of our neighborhoods in whatever way is “feasible” for you.
Stephen Wollmer is a Berkeley resident and neighbor of the proposed development.