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Travis memo to DAPAC

Friday October 19, 2007


Within hours of DAPAC’s adoption of two key chapters governing historic buildings and open space in downtown Berkeley, committee Chair Will Travis sent members an impassioned plea calling for taller buildings in the city center. 

What follows are excerpts from his memorandum, entitled “Downtown Land Uses and Urban Form.” 


To: DAPAC Members 

From: Will Travis, DAPAC Chair 


My responsibilities (and authority) as DAPAC’s chair are largely limited to keeping track of who gets to speak next. As a result, other than asking questions to help speakers clarify their points and offering brief editorial comments, I’ve have had little opportunity to express my own views on the form and content of the plan we’re developing for Berkeley’s downtown. Now that we’re reaching the final weeks of our deliberations and are forging the most critical element of our plan––the one that deals with land use, building forms and heights––I’ve decided to take this opportunity to share some of my ideas in the hope that they’ll be helpful to my fellow members on DAPAC. 

Given the disparity of interests and perspectives represented on DAPAC, I believe we can all be justifiably proud of the amazing consensus we’re reaching on a wide variety of issues. The most contentious issue we’ve yet to settle is how many taller buildings we should have in our downtown and how tall they should be. As we all know, this is a complicated issue. But I think that if this issue is evaluated on an analytical basis and we rely on the previous decisions DAPAC has made, we should be calling for as many tall buildings as possible to be built.  

Why do I say this?  

First, we’ve settled on environmental sustainability as our overarching objective. To achieve this objective, we can draw on the abundant data and numerous studies demonstrating that higher density development results in lower per capita greenhouse gas emissions. The most recent, comprehensive and compelling documentation is provided in a new book entitled, Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change by the National Center for Smart Growth America, the Urban Land Institute and the Center for Clean Air Policy.  

The reason higher density development results in less per capita air emissions is both markedly simple and highly intuitive. Higher density development allows more effective use of public transportation systems––like those we have in downtown Berkeley––and accommodates enough workers and residents to support a wide variety of retail establishments and community facilities. In turn, the close proximity of these shops and services allows residents, workers and patrons to conveniently get around by walking or bicycling. This isn’t merely a matter of opinion. The authors of Growing Cooler found that “the link between urban development patterns and individual or household travel has become the most heavily researched subject in urban planning, with more than 100 rigorous empirical studies completed.” 

So if we truly want downtown Berkeley to be a model of sustainability, we must support more development downtown. 

Second, higher density development would advance our goal of making Berkeley a global leader in sustainability. The initial step in accomplishing this lofty goal would be to become a leader in our own region. Although ABAG’s housing production goals have been sharply criticized, it’s important to recognize that in setting these goals, ABAG’s objective for our region is the same as DAPAC’s goal for Berkeley: reducing greenhouse gases. We know that the largest source of greenhouse gases in our region is the private vehicle. To deal with this problem, ABAG would like to see more housing built in existing cities and near transit so fewer people have to rely exclusively on private vehicles for mobility. ABAG’s goals aren’t mandatory. Local governments can simply ignore them and forgo a portion of the State’s affordable housing funding. But if Berkeley and other cities with excellent public transportation shy away from accommodating this needed housing, it will likely continue to be built in more welcoming distant suburbs, and the new residents will continue to spend lots of time and emit lots of greenhouse gases commuting to and from jobs in Berkeley and other cities in the Bay Area’s urban core. 

The importance of thinking regionally when we act locally can be illustrated by an overly simplistic hypothetical example. Last year, Berkeley’s voters overwhelmingly supported Measure G, which sets a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Berkeley at least 80% by 2050. The easiest way to achieve this goal would be for 80% of Berkeley’s population to move somewhere else in the Bay Area, and the remaining 20% to continue with business as usual. Berkeley would achieve its goal even though greenhouse gas emissions in the region wouldn’t decline. (In fact, for a variety of reasons, they would probably increase.) As this example demonstrates, what happens in Berkeley affects the surrounding region, and what happens elsewhere in the Bay Area affects Berkeley. 

Third, DAPAC has agreed that all future development downtown must be of the highest design quality so that it enhances the experience of residents, workers, shoppers, students and visitors. Similarly, we also want a lot of amenities for the people of Berkeley. We want more parks, open space, clean streets, affordable housing, better social services, green construction, public restrooms, and improved transit. Good things all, but they cost money. And where, given the fiscal realities of California in this post-Proposition 13 era, will Berkeley get the money pay for the things we want? Largely through taxes, fees and other fiscal extractions that are derived from the approval and operation of new development. Thus, the more new development we have downtown, the more revenue the City of Berkeley will gain to provide the sort of amenities called for in our plan. 

To help us achieve our stated goals of environmental sustainability, global leadership, high quality community amenities and design excellence, members of DAPAC and our staff have presented several land use alternatives that would provide more new housing, accommodate more new workers, generate more revenue for the city and reduce cumulative environmental impacts. Yet, we have not yet endorsed any of these proposals. Why is this so? 

First, I believe it’s because none of these proposals include detailed design standards and other provisions that will provide us the assurance that the new development will, in fact, be of the highest quality. Absent these standards, we’re being asked to support development for the sake of development. The second reason we haven’t embraced higher density development is because we have properly decided that the shape and form of our downtown shouldn’t be based only on objective analysis. We understand that cities are more than machines that house people, provide jobs, accommodate movement and manage pollutants. Cities are expressions of who we are, what we value, what we aspire to be. In American city planning, the job of expressing community values and agreeing on public policies that reflect those values is usually handled by citizen representatives who serve on planning boards, commissions or committees like DAPAC. The job of a citizen organization like ours is to go beyond rational thinking in deciding what we like, what we dislike and what we want our community should look like.  

Each of us has been appointed to DAPAC to provide an expression of our values in defining a vision for downtown that will best meet the needs of Berkeley now and in the future. None of us has been elected to our posts, and, so far as I know, none of us has been appointed to represent a particular constituency. Thus, at the end of the day, each of us is representing no one but ourselves and what we believe future generations expect from us.  

As we try to decide the form we want downtown to take, it’s hard to ignore the comments and testimony we’ve heard about the evils of buildings––particularly tall buildings. We’ve been told that tall buildings create noise, cause high winds, result in dark shadows, and generally make cities unattractive, unhealthy and unpleasant places. There have even been a few suggestions (frivolous, I’m sure) that the two existing taller buildings downtown Berkeley should be razed, and that a community of mud huts is preferable to one with tall buildings. 

This disdain for tall buildings does not reflect my experience working in downtown San Francisco. There are scores of buildings in San Francisco, all much taller than those we’re considering in Berkeley, coexisting in a beautiful district served by superb public transit and filled with sunny plazas, fountains, ample trees, rich landscaping, great shopping, and excellent restaurants. This isn’t true only in San Francisco. Take a stroll through Vancouver, Portland or any number of other cities where a community has embraced well-planned density coupled with excellent amenities. 

The difference between my experience and the comments made at DAPAC meetings makes me wonder whether the people who attribute a variety of ills to tall buildings simply don’t like cities. At very least, they don’t believe that taller buildings have any place in downtown Berkeley. There is nothing wrong with this sentiment. But it’s important to recognize that it’s an expression of personal taste––and just that. More importantly, we need to recognize that embracing a vision of a downtown with small buildings and low density has costs, including the loss of the amenities we want, such as increased public space, affordable housing and cultural activities. 

It’s challenging to distill personal tastes into community values that should be reflected in our downtown plan. Most of us love spending time in beautiful natural areas, enjoy the tranquility of farm land and open space, find charm in villages and small towns, and relish our memories of Paris and the bustle of New York. But downtown Berkeley isn’t a national park, a farm, a village, Paris or New York City. It’s the heart of a dynamic city adjacent to one of the great universities of the world. Therefore, it would probably be unwise to incorporate ideas that belong in rural settings, villages or Paris into our downtown plan. In this regard, I’ll readily admit that my love of San Francisco doesn’t mean that Berkeley should try to replicate San Francisco in our downtown. 

Another of the community values we’ve heard expressed at our meetings is a desire that Berkeley remain pretty much the way it is now. I believe much of this resistance to change comes about because many of Berkeley’s residents have moved here from elsewhere. Often when someone chooses to move to a new community, they do so in large part because they find the new place attractive. It’s only natural that if they like a place the way it is, they don’t want it to change. This is resistance to change is common in towns across America, but in Berkeley this conservative tendency is often rooted in the rhetoric of historic preservation, environmentalism or just thoughtful skepticism.  

Despite all the efforts to stop change in Berkeley, there has been a lot of change during the 30 years I’ve lived here, and there will be more change in the future. Change is not only inevitable, it is desirable because great cities are dynamic places. The best cities embrace change and manage it positively. Our plan for downtown Berkeley shouldn’t try to prevent downtown from changing. Nor should we try to recapture a past that can never exist again. Some have called for preserving the historic character of downtown that they see. Others see a downtown that has no distinct historic character, but see instead an eclectic collection of structures of varying ages and design quality with some truly handsome historic buildings included in the mix. We need to find a way to respect both viewpoints, protect our historic heritage and welcome innovative new buildings into our downtown. 

To craft strategies for managing the change that will inevitably come to Berkeley, it’s helpful to look at our downtown in a much broader context. We have the good fortune of living in a region that’s highly prosperous and innovative. Our knowledge-based economy is producing many new jobs. Berkeley is one of the leading incubators in this job-creation process. Our region has also done an admirable job of protecting its natural resources, including the Bay, open spaces, farmlands and parks. Over three-quarters of the land in the nine Bay Area counties is undeveloped. These protected resources add much to the quality of life in our region and make the Bay Area a spectacular place in which to live.  

Our region isn’t growing very much (only about one percent a year), but even at this slow rate there isn’t enough housing being built in the Bay Area to accommodate all the workers and new residents who want to live here. The combination of low housing productivity and high demand has pushed Bay Area home prices up to the highest levels in the nation. In order to find affordable housing, increasing numbers of Bay Area workers are being forced to “drive until you qualify” for a home mortgage, often on a house in a subdivision at the far fringes of the region or beyond. 

As I’ve noted earlier, ABAG’s objective is to address this problem by encouraging more housing to be built within the existing urban core of the Bay Area. Some might argue that buyers who chose a suburban lifestyle wouldn’t be want to live in Berkeley––even if they could afford to do so. But changing demographic patterns and new lifestyle choices have created a demand for a wide variety of housing types. The major homebuilders are capitalizing on this new demand. For example, KB Home, a national builder usually associated with suburban houses, is increasingly shifting its focus to urban infill projects. An excess of new housing inventory in the Central Valley has resulted in a significant drop in the prices of new homes there, but the prices of KB’s infill homes have remained stable and, in one recent quarter, generated 90% of the profit for the company’s northern California division. 

Thus, the question isn’t whether there’s a demand for housing in downtown Berkeley. The question is: how much of this demand is DAPAC willing to meet? 

Even if we choose to meet this demand, we should be under no illusion that building housing downtown will lower the market price of homes in Berkeley. The simple truth about housing in Berkeley is that land is scarce and expensive, construction costs high and demand great. As a result, housing is expensive to build, and developers will charge buyers the highest price that the market will bear. Berkeley’s two most effective ways to increase the supply of below market-rate housing are: (1) investing public funds to build or subsidize affordable housing; and (2) requiring private housing developers to either offer some portion of their units at below market rate or pay in-lieu fees which can be pooled to support subsidized housing. Berkeley currently has precious little public funding to invest in affordable housing. Therefore, the only effective way to increase the supply of low-income and affordable housing is to encourage more market rate housing to be built.  

DAPAC owes its existence to a decision of the University of California to build 800,000 square feet of new buildings in downtown Berkeley. UC didn’t make this decision because it wanted to stimulate a lawsuit by the City of Berkeley or because it wanted to underwrite and participate in a lengthy new downtown planning process. UC made its decision because the university believes it has outgrown its campus park and needs to meet a portion of its future demands for education, laboratory and office space downtown. In addition to direct University expansion, there’s also a stream of bio-tech, consulting, green energy, technology and other start-up businesses that would love a home within walking distance of the campus. These entrepreneurs often find it necessary to launch their businesses in other cities or move away when they can’t find room to expand in Berkeley. 

Thus, the question isn’t whether there’s a demand for education-related new development in downtown Berkeley. The question is: how much of this demand is DAPAC willing to meet? 

DAPAC has been briefed on proposals for two large hotels and conference facilities. Another hotel is about to be built. A new grocery store has been approved just across the street from our downtown planning area. Proponents of these businesses have indicated that it’s now necessary for patrons looking for the type of services these businesses provide to go to other cities to meet their needs. For example, we’ve learned that if we want to buy a new computer or a television, there don’t seem to be any Berkeley retailers who sell them. 

Thus, the question isn’t whether there is a demand for hotel and retail commercial development in downtown Berkeley. The question is: how much of this demand is DAPAC willing to meet? 

Overall, Berkeley is in an enviable position when compared with other cities that have struggling downtowns. Berkeley doesn’t have to market itself to attract housing, office development or businesses so much as it simply has to decide how much of this development it wants and then craft planning policies and processes that will ensure that the desired growth will be well-designed and will enhance our downtown. 

In many ways, I think urban growth is like toothpaste. If you squeeze it at one place, it comes out somewhere else. If you accept this maxim, it’s entirely plausible that Berkeley’s existing planning policies and growth restrictions have helped create prosperous hotel, office and retail centers in El Cerrito, Emeryville and elsewhere. Of course, it’s more than just that. Not only could Berkeley also have accommodated much of that activity here, but we could have done it better––with far better transit access, far better design and with far more benefits for our community. 

This brings us back to the basic question we members of DAPAC have to face: will we take advantage of the demand to live, work and shop in Berkeley and sculpt a new downtown that meets the needs of the future? Or will we call for a continuation of the existing downtown planning policies, which have resulted in the demand for new development largely being met elsewhere? 

The job of DAPAC is to deliver a plan for the downtown of our city. To carry out our charge, each of us has to accept a simple truth: cities have buildings, and bigger buildings meet more of the demand for housing; accommodate more workers who patronize downtown businesses; help make transit systems run more efficiently; provide more space for growing enterprises; generate more city revenues needed to pay for public services; and better advance strategies to combat global warming. These many benefits to our community, our region and our planet shouldn’t be dismissed lightly and surely not just because any one of us feels a taller building “just doesn’t look right” or because we fear that others might question our decisions. 

Despite the many benefits of higher density, it’s important to recognize that all the land use alternatives we’re considering have been tempered to comport with the traditions of Berkeley. Any taller new buildings would be limited in number and, except for the hotel and conference center DAPAC has endorsed, would be restricted to being not much taller than the existing Wells Fargo and Great Western/Power Bar buildings. One of these structures (the Wells Fargo building) is a treasured historic resource with graceful proportions and pleasing details. The other has been the subject of much derision, not so much because of its height, but because it is markedly unattractive. Our experience with these two buildings underscores the importance of having good design guidelines in place and gives reason to believe that more taller building will be acceptable to our community if they are well-designed and phased-in gradually over time. 

I’m not advocating any particular land use or density alternative. My only objective is to ensure that DAPAC has a clear sense of the tradeoffs on the issues of height and density. If we accept a plan that sharply limits the capacity of our downtown to accommodate residents, workers, shoppers, students and visitors, we need to confront the tradeoff we’re making head-on. We shouldn’t pretend that such a choice can be made without paying the price of reduced amenities, poorer environmental performance, and lost economic and cultural opportunities. 

We have plenty of solid analytical information to help us determine which land uses and urban form will provide the greatest benefits to Berkeley. It will take great courage to put aside our preconceptions and become community leaders, rather than followers, as we forge our plan for the future. But if we don’t do so, we won’t be fulfilling the honor that has been bestowed upon us to craft public policies that will make downtown Berkeley a truly great place.