Public Comment

Commentary: Planning in Berkeley: Doing Our Job

By Dan Marks
Friday August 17, 2007

Mark Twain is supposed to have said “never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” I have followed that adage for most of my career, choosing not to respond to articles and editorials in newspapers, and especially not the Daily Planet, which has shown antipathy for my department, my staff and my profession. Despite my concern with the forum, as the director of Planning and Development for the city, I feel compelled to respond to Ms. O’Malley’s editorials of Aug. 7 and 10 and Mr. Wollmer’s commentary of Aug. 10.  

First, there seems to be some confusion as to who pays for the Planning and Development Department’s work. Some people seem to believe that a significant portion of the department’s budget comes from fees for major development, making staff prone to support big projects. I would estimate that 95 percent of our work reviewing and permitting projects is for homeowners and businesses improving their homes; remodeling offices and restaurants; establishing new businesses and modifying old ones. Big projects get a lot of attention, but if there were a moratorium tomorrow on them, the Planning and Development Department would still be very busy. Although I have never calculated it (because it is irrelevant to me), I would estimate that these high-profile projects occupy the time of two to three full-time employees—around 3 percent of the department’s total staff time.  

Second, there is a tendency to blame the messenger about decisions that are made on development projects. The Planning and Development Department’s job is to evaluate projects in light of the General Plan, Zoning Ordinance and other laws, and make a recommendation based on our assessment of the conformance of a project with those policies and laws. We also describe the constraints placed on decision-making by state law. In short, staff is expected to provide the information necessary for the public, the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB), and the City Council to understand how we applied the law and the choices before the decision makers. There is no lack of opportunity in the public review and hearing process for anyone to point out any alleged errors in city staff’s analysis or recommendations. The ZAB and City Council are ultimately responsible for the city’s projects and city staff members have no vote either place.  

But even if we did, there would still be no excuse for the personal, vitriolic attacks I have seen on my staff. These attacks contribute to a poisonous, disrespectful environment in the city and make it difficult for all residents to engage in substantive, civil discourse about honest policy disagreements.  

Finally, let me address “smart growth.” “Smart growth” is popular shorthand for a number of very old planning ideas that are held by not only professional planners, but by elected officials, local, national and international environmental leaders, and many residents of our community and our state.  

Those ideas are based around the central idea that land is valuable and scarce, and if we are going to preserve the open space and beauty of the Bay Area, reduce our collective carbon footprint, and accommodate the two million people who are projected to live here over the next 30 years, we must accommodate growth in cities where there is already infrastructure, transit and jobs. The suburban dream may be alive and well, but not everyone can afford it, and not everyone wants a two-hour commute to Stockton. We can and must provide alternatives in places such as Berkeley where the jobs and the transit are located. 

Of course, allowing for new development in a built-out community such as Berkeley presents some serious challenges. It’s one thing to say “Down with Sprawl!” and another to imagine a new apartment building near your home. We’re all subject to that “not in my back yard” feeling, and we all occasionally feel a little overcrowded in the Bay Area. Some people seem to think that Berkeley doesn’t need any more growth because Berkeley has done its share. They claim that Berkeley is already more dense than most communities and that more development will fundamentally change Berkeley’s character.  

These are all valid concerns. However, having worked in a few cities in my career, I can say with some authority that virtually every community thinks the exact same thing: anywhere but here. No one wants the impacts of new residential development: more congestion, more overcrowded schools, more strain on infrastructure. That is exactly why we must plan so carefully. The city’s General Plan calls for sensitive infill. And despite the opinions of some people, I believe we’ve done a pretty good job. The new development that has occurred in Berkeley over the past 10 years, primarily on major transit corridors and in downtown, is not destroying its character—in fact, the City of Berkeley today has about as many non-UC housing units as it did in 1970. Moreover, new housing and retail businesses add vitality to the city’s business districts and major boulevards. If the character of the city is changing, which it probably is, it’s because the city is aging. The young faces of 1970s Berkeley are now middle-aged faces with middle-aged concerns and objections. There are also new young faces with new visions of what Berkeley is, and what they hope it will be. Some of those faces are just passing through, and some are the next generation of Berkeley leaders. The character of a city is always changing.  

It takes all of us— the City Council, the staff, residents and business owners—to work together in good faith to plan a good future for Berkeley. I am very proud of the work of my department. We work hard to represent the General Plan, the city’s ordinances and the City Council, and we will continue to do so to the best of our ability.  


Dan Marks is director of the City of Berkeley’s Planning and Development Department.