Editorial: Planners Come and Go, But the Department Never Changes

By Becky O’Malley
Friday August 10, 2007

The announcement that Mark Rhoades is leaving Berkeley’s Planning Department for greener pastures has been greeted in many parts of the city with expressions of enthusiasm—they’re, in a phrase, jumping for joy. One group of citizens, the kind who would sign their letters “Outraged” if the Planet allowed it, is even hosting a party at Café de la Paz on Monday night to celebrate his departure. The paper has received a number of caustic letters about his track record, a few so caustic that the opinion editors breathed a sigh of relief when the senders had second thoughts and withdrew them. We don’t really like to print personal attacks on private individuals, but we don’t like to censor letters either. And it’s hard to top an earlier correspondent’s “duplicitous insect” appellation for Mr. Rhoades—anything more is piling on. 

Civil servants like Rhoades inhabit a curious gray area between public and private status. They’re paid with public money, supposed to be cogs in a well-oiled apparatus which implements policies presumably at the behest of the voters. In theory at least public servants, as they used to be called, are not supposed to use their jobs as levers for advancing either their personal fortunes or their personal political beliefs. But the planning profession has historically had problems keeping the bright line distinction between their own desires and their duty to the democratic process. 

Any analysis of what’s wrong in Berkeley which focuses on the person called Mark Rhoades misses the point, and leaves the city vulnerable to yet another round of more of the same when he’s gone. For many years planning departments in many cities, not just Berkeley, have been infested with ideologues and/or dominated by developers. There are many reasons why this is true. 

The root cause goes way back to the early seventies: Proposition 13. That initiative, supposedly for the benefit of taxpayers, dramatically changed the way city governments were financed. Most revenues no longer came from property taxes, forcing cities to think up creative ways of paying for the services residents of cities like Berkeley expected. 

Funding planning departments from fees assessed on permits seemed like a good idea at the time, since a major part of their functions relate to monitoring and regulating building projects. But the law of unintended consequences soon kicked in. Departmental budgets became more and more dependent on income from development fees, less development meant less budget, and nobody enjoys laying off employees. Keeping the development engine chugging away, whether we need it or not, became important for keeping planning departments solvent. 

Even without the financial incentive, there’s another factor at work. Patti Dacey, who has served on several key city commissions, is fond of quoting what her administrative law professor told his students on the first day of class when she was in law school: every regulatory body is eventually captured by the industry it’s supposed to regulate. That’s a good rule to remember. Think of the PUC, the FDA, the FCC—any acronym agency you know anything about. And it’s true in spades in planning departments.  

Developers, by the very nature of their job, are frequently in and out of the Berkeley building known not so fondly in some quarters as The Planning Palace (one of the nicer buildings, downtown with its own roof garden and other amenities.) It’s only natural that they quickly get on a first name basis with the planning staff. Anyone masochistic enough to watch Zoning Adjustments Board meetings soon notices that it’s been “Mark” and “Ali” and “Patrick” for a long time, not “Mr. Rhoades” and “Mr. Kashani” and “Mr. Kennedy,” and they all are chummy with “Rena,” the developers’ favorite lawyer. And then there’s the revolving door problem: witness the rumor that “Mark” will soon be working for “Ali.”  

A third element in the mix is ideology. Planners are educated, often poorly educated, to believe that they know more than is knowable about the right way to do things. Their profession, like much of the social science world, is infested with pseudo-scientific jargon fueled by “studies” that follow few of the protocols that would be required to quote results in hard science.  

There are classic examples of planning theory run amok: nationally the social engineering attempted by Robert Moses (not the civil rights hero, the other one) in New York, locally the urban renewal disaster of driving the African-American residents out of San Francisco’s Western Addition. Berkeley in the same period was saved by vigilant citizens from a similar fate. The now-thriving Fourth Street shopping area was supposed to be leveled to build yet another office park, but it was preserved by local action. 

However ideologues just don’t quit. In the last 10 years or so the dominant ideology has been “smart growth,” the unproven theory that making already-developed urban areas ever-denser will prevent sprawl into the hinterlands. It has its soft practitioners who have some good and intelligent ideas, for example Richmond Councilmember Tom Butt, who pushes re-use of the best older buildings in his city. But hard-core smart growthers seem to truly believe, in the complete absence of replicable data that a real scientist would recognize, that cramming more and more people into older cities like Berkeley and San Francisco will quench the American’s historic thirst for a little plot of land to call his own.  

The evidence, such as it is, seems to point in the opposite direction. As old urban areas like New York, San Francisco and Berkeley become increasingly uninhabitable for everyone except the very rich who can afford to escape to the country occasionally, working class and poorer people continue to move out to the ever-more-distant suburbs.  

Berkeley’s first high-profile ideologue in this era was city manager James Keene, who hired a consultant to draft a general plan whose main feature was supposed to be super-density, damn the consequences. The public process, mandated by the city charter, was intended to be perfunctory, but a vigorous planning commission, with backbone courtesy of Rob Wrenn, Gene Poschmann and Zelda Bronstein, took it over. With lots of citizen input, they produced a remarkable document that stands as a real monument to what the public actually wants. Not, of course, that the Planning Department pays any attention to it. 

James Keene departed in July 2000, with this comment by Berkeley’s beloved Pepper Spray Times: “Keene developed a knack for derailing critical policy discussion through bureaucratic lexicon laden with subjunctive clauses, arcane qualifiers and numbing equivocations.” (PST is now printed inside the Planet and recently celebrated its 10th anniversary; the next edition runs Tuesday). He originally hired Mark Rhoades, who has continued the tradition of trying to evade the public will by any means necessary. Other Keene-era functionaries are still functioning, such as Wendy Cosin, responsible for the legal tangle around the Gaia building, in which the city is still enmeshed even after developer Patrick Kennedy has sold out. 

So it’s a bit simplistic to start cheering because one Mark Rhoades will no longer have the job of Director of Current Planning. (Or whatever job he holds at the end of his term. One reason Planet editors won’t miss him much is that his job title seemed to morph as his influence waxed and waned. We never knew what to call him.) The oxymoronic edifice called “planning theory” still stands, and it will continue to emit true believers who see their job as outwitting those city residents they like to denigrate as NIMBYs. (Somehow they never seem to be able to remember that the slogan “Not In My Back Yard” was coined by residents near Love Canal to oppose the carcinogenic toxic wastes that planners approved for dumping in their neighborhoods.) As long as we have a planning department bought and paid for by developers, things can’t be expected to change much.