Editorial: Will DAPAC Have Been Worth it After All?

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday October 23, 2007

We encountered many of our Elmwood neighbors at a recent party, most of them grumbling in typically articulate Berkeley style about the big new restaurant cum who-knows-what which is under construction near the corner of Ashby and College. The talk turned to general questions of development and density, and specifically to what might be in store for downtown Berkeley if the University of California gets everything it wants from the official progeny of the advice which is scheduled to be delivered in November by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.  

The conversational tone was very negative about the kind of ultra-densification via tall towers currently being promoted by a combination of true believers and shills for UC. But one person, a long-time guru on the music scene for whom I have the deepest respect and admiration, muttered to me sotto voce that he didn’t really see what was the matter with tall buildings. “People have to live somewhere,” he said. He allowed as how he was happy he’d bought his home in the hills 40 years ago, because he himself wouldn’t be happy living in a downtown condo, but he thought some might be. 

His comments came to mind on Saturday morning, when we dropped in on DAPAC’s public workshop about its latest draft of goals and policies after buying our tomatoes and peppers at the Farmers’ Market, conveniently located right near Berkeley High where the meeting was held. This proved to be another in a recent run of civic meetings where the inmates seem to be taking over the asylum, or at least it must appear that way to the public employees who’ve largely thought they had things under control until now. The same phenomenon has been observed at several other recent “workshops,” the polite name for gatherings where citizens are allowed to vent a bit if they follow the rules. Attendees are refusing to sit through any more vapid powerpoint presentations, declining to break up into small groups, insisting on having their say even if their words are not being recorded on butcher paper tablets for later disposal.  

The DAPAC workshop was attended by what looked like 100 or so citizens and perhaps 15 of the 21 DAPAC members, plus lots of paid staffers from the city of Berkeley and the University of California racking up comp time. Early on, before we got there, participants seem to have decided that they were going to use all of the scheduled three hours for public comment, with not much time devoted to staff’s scheduled rehash of the draft, which was available on-line with copies distributed around the room.  

By 10:30 or so, public participation was in full swing. At the rate of three minutes per speaker, more or less, about 50 Berkeleyans were able to contribute to the public discourse about what should happen downtown in the future. They were, for the most part, intelligent and well-spoken, and even the few presentations which seemed a bit—er—scattered had interesting nuggets embedded in them. The Planet didn’t have a reporter there, but we really didn’t need one, because most of the best speakers have already expressed their ideas in these pages in the past.  

And—are you surprised?—almost no one spoke in favor of a taller, denser downtown Berkeley. The retired UC development official and current small-time developer who is Mayor Bates’ appointee to the Planning Commission, David Stoloff, did say a few positive words about it—no surprise there. A couple of true believers spoke up. One is on the board of Livable Berkeley, the pro-growth lobbying group, and the other is the main member of Friends of Bus Rapid Transit. A planning student or two expressed a deep desire to get the chance to test the theories they’d been absorbing in their classes on our fair city, which they’d come to know and love at least since freshman year. That was about it. 

Just to be sure the public is fully informed, however, we have invited all and sundry to send their comments to opinion@berkeleydailyplanet.com. We’ll print as many as possible, and we’ll run the rest on the Web at berkeleydailyplanet.com. And our technical staff (i.e. the publisher) tells me that if we can get the tape of the meeting, it can also be posted there in audio form, in case anyone has three hours to listen to it. 

But the big unanswered question is what I think of as the J. Alfred Prufrock dilemma: Will it have been worth it after all? One of the best speakers, and a fresh face on the scene, was Bruce Kaplan, the proprietor of Looking Glass Photo [shameless plug for a Planet advertiser], who talked sadly about seeing Westwood, UCLA’s home neighborhood, converted into cement canyons. When the University of California is on the move, it seems that there is no force on earth that can stop it.  

In Santa Cruz, at least they’re trying. On Sunday we went to the opening of an art exhibit on the glorious campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. A freelance graffiti artist had decorated the bathroom with his or her own artwork: “Stop the LRDP.” There’s a UC plan to destroy Santa Cruz too, with another Long Range Development Plan like the one threatening Berkeley.  

The difference is that the city of Santa Cruz sued challenging the environment impact report on UCSC’s plan, just as Berkeley did on UCB’s, but Santa Cruz stuck to its guns and won, in trial court at least, though UC might still appeal. The issues were the same: water, sewers, streets—who’s going to pay for all that when enrollment increases? Not to mention the impact of the for-profit biotech spin-offs that faculty and staff at both campuses lust after, which will pay little in the way of local taxes. 

The Berkeley City Council, the victim as usual of poor legal advice from its city attorney’s office, backed off, and topped off its surrender with a totally unnecessary agreement to go through the DAPAC process. The question, frequently repeated in these pages and at the workshop, is why our city has volunteered to surrender its excellent existing general plan before UC’s advancing army.  

A major problem is that for the large percentage of Berkeley citizens living in what are now million-dollar hillside homes, filling downtown Berkeley with towers will affect only a minor portion of their view. That’s true even of the best intentioned people like my musical friend. Some imagine teachers and policemen living in the market rate downtown condos they envision, but check the math. As many workshop speakers pointed out, these will have to be luxury dorms for wealthy students, not family homes for public employees. 

We’re tempted to run pictures of the pleasant homes of the most vocal members of the “smart growth” mafia, though that might seem tacky. The downtown condos they champion are for other people, by and large. Some refer touchingly to their grown children who have had to leave Berkeley to find single family homes they can afford, but I seriously doubt that said offspring will come back to live in downtown condo towers even if BRT materializes. Berkeley didn’t invent the real estate bubble, and we can’t solve it by cannibalizing our downtown.  

The answer to the Prufrock question might be the Macbeth answer: The protestations of those trying to preserve what’s best about Berkeley’s downtown might amount to not much more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Some predict that they might win the DAPAC battle but lose the war. 

Here’s a novel suggestion: Let DAPAC finish giving its advice, then file it and dare UC to do its worst. And though the city has blown its opportunity to follow Santa Cruz in asking for a better EIR, it still has the option of refusing water and sewer connections to excessive projects which will overwhelm city services. Does anyone on the City Council have the nerve—I can think of a more graphic Spanish synonym—to do that?