Public Comment

Commentary: More About Density Downtown

By Will Travis
Tuesday October 23, 2007

I very much appreciate the Daily Planet posting the text of the memo I sent to my fellow members of DAPAC regarding downtown land use, building forms and heights. However, it’s a disservice to your readers for Becky O’Malley to suggest that my comments can be summarized by quoting the following single phrase: “We should be calling for as many tall buildings as possible to be built.” 

I respect the right of others to disagree with me, but it would be unfortunate if they do so because they believe my ideas on a complex issue like the planning our downtown are captured by a simple statement taken out of context for the purpose of being inflammatory. 

I hope that your readers read the entirety of my memo. However, I realize that not everyone has the time or interest to do so. Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty of doing what I had hoped the journalists at the Daily Planet would do, which is to quote the following several sentences that fairly capture the nuances of the challenge DAPAC is facing. 

“The most contentious issue [DAPAC has] yet to settle is how many taller buildings we should have in our downtown and how tall they should be. This is a complicated issue, but 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...[because] 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 reason we haven’t embraced higher density development is because the shape and form of our downtown shouldn’t be based only on objective analysis. 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.” 

“DAPAC has agreed that...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...will Berkeley get the money to 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.” 

“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.” 

“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.” 


Will Travis is chair of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.