Public Comment

Commentary: Berkeley’s Misplaced Planning Priorities

By Paul Glusman
Friday August 31, 2007

I am so thankful to Dan Marks of the Berkeley Planning Department for pointing out how the planners know better than the citizens what is best for everyone. It is so relaxing just to be able to leave all the decisions to the professionals. Why should we criticize them for favoring big developers when only two or three of their 100 or so taxpayer-funded staff spends time on Big Projects? Of course the rest of them are busy handing out forms like the ones I filled out when I moved my law office from one office suite to another, asking how much food I would sell on the new premises and whether I planned to sell alcoholic beverages. One always has to watch for lawyers selling alcoholic beverages to minors in law offices close to the impressionable University of California students. I had, of course, thought that the admissions standards were too strict for the university to be accepting the kind of person who would walk into a law office looking to order a gin and tonic (and as yet, none have), but our city bureaucrats know better than we do about such things, and the best thing is to let them do their jobs (while envying them their health insurance.) 

One of those Big Projects is right down the street from my office in downtown Berkeley. I must preface this by saying that I spent part of my childhood in Philadelphia, which has thoroughfares named, “Spring Garden Street” “Hunting Park Drive.” One would think, reading the names of these streets, that they are pleasant greenery-filled paths through an east coast Eden, an earthly paradise fittingly placed in the City of Brotherly Love. Sorry, they’re not. They look like post-industrial visions of rust-belt hell. So, when the name “Library Gardens” is applied to a Big Project in our own downtown, we shouldn’t have high hopes. It is next to the Berkeley Public Library, accounting for half of its name. If there are any gardens, though, in the premises they certainly aren’t visible from the street. The architecture looks like a cross between a Soviet-era workers housing complex in Irkutsk, and a monolithic miniature of San Quentin Prison. The charm of this project is enhanced by its Pepto-Bismol pink paint job appropriate for addressing the nausea that it induces. The Hinks parking lot it replaced was more architecturally pleasing. But who am I to complain—after all the best minds of our planning staff worked on and approved it. 

The point, according to Marks, is that we want to put a lot of people in the center of town. This leaves a smaller footprint and encourages people to take advantage of public transit. Apparently there is an academic course that is taught in some esteemed university for planners that holds that the way to get people out of their cars and into public transit is to make their lives so aggravating, to so ramp up the annoyance factor of getting from one place to another, that everyone will all give in and ride the bus. Take away parking lots. Increase parking fees. Decrease lanes to drive in. Set up barricades so that drivers can’t get from one place to another very easily. The other view, which is to provide more and better public transit, somehow doesn’t cut it with are esteemed public agencies. BART decreases the number of cars per train so that no matter what time of day you ride, you have to stand up. BART parking lots charge a parking fee. BART makes it harder to transfer from one line to another by matching fewer of the trains. AC transit decreases buses and routes. Forget the Muni. It is historically one of the worst systems in the known world.  

An example of inadequate public transit: I worked for 15 years in northern Marin County, commuting from the East Bay. That ended eight years ago. But during that time—and until today—there never has been any direct public transit between Berkeley or Oakland and Marin County. The only reliable way to get there by public transit was to take a bus to BART, take BART to San Francisco, walk to a pick-up spot for Golden Gate Transit, then take GGT from San Francisco to northern Marin. The whole trip is about two hours, using three public transit entities. Because of the lack of direct transit, I used my car daily. I heard lectures, read newspaper articles, had my employer decrease parking spaces, all to get me and my co-employees to take public transit. But you know what? Without public transit, I couldn’t. Twenty-three years later, if I still worked there, I still couldn’t. That’s nearly a quarter century without progress. 

Or you can take BART to the city. I often do, seeing as how it is impossible now to get a second loan on the house to pay for a parking space, given the present financial markets. But forget it if you want to stay there after midnight, which some people do. BART stops running. One would think if you wanted to get people out of their cars, you would provide public transit instead of increasing annoyances to people who have no other way to get around. But our public servants know best.  

Since I moved my office to downtown, the city planners, whose wisdom is enshrined in the design of Library Gardens, have removed two parking lots. The Hinks lot is gone. Now the one on Oxford where the Brower Center will be is gone. And, if you walk down Shattuck Avenue, there are standing memorials to what used to be businesses. Eddie Bauer—an empty building. Gateway Computer—empty. Barnes & Noble—empty. Cambridge Sound Works—empty. There are three empty store fronts just on the block between Bancroft and Durant, bounded by the new Longs and the old Cambridge Sound Works. Outside my office, on the street running between Berkeley High School and the university passing by Library Gardens, are sidewalks covered with human urine, broken glass, empty liquor bottles and cans, human shit, cigarette butts and the occasional used condom or hypodermic needle. If one were of the conspiratorial mindset, one might think that the city was purposefully set on destroying downtown so that yuppie condos and university offices could replace local business. But to believe that, one would have to believe that our government would engage in secret negotiations with the university and come to agreements that they would then conceal from the public. 

According to Marks, we are paying a department of planners for this. If there are 100 of them—as Marks’ commentary seems to say—and they are making an average of $50,000 per year, plus another $10,000, conservatively, of benefits, we are paying over $6 million per year for these results. Think how what a good start that money would be to improving public transit. 


Paul Glusman is a Berkeley attorney.