Public Comment

Commentary: A Moderate Position on Density

By Charles Siegel
Tuesday October 30, 2007

The debate about development in Berkeley has been polarized for decades, but a moderate position is emerging in the current debate over downtown height limits. The moderates support smart growth but oppose high-rises. I myself am a long-time advocate of smart growth. I have supported all the pedestrian-oriented infill projects built in downtown and on transit-corridors during the past 20 years, including the Gaia Building. But I am completely opposed to building 16-story or 12-story towers downtown, because I want to preserve downtown’s human scale. During the current debate over downtown density, both extremes—anti-development advocates and pro-high-rise advocates—have made misleading claims. 

First, anti-development advocates have claimed that Berkeley is already very dense, denser than overwhelming majority of American cities. But it is parochial to compare Berkeley only with contemporary American cities. Berkeley is much less dense than most cities in the world. Traditional European cities are made up of row houses and apartment buildings of three to six stories, and they are about five times as dense as Berkeley. Asian cities are filled with high-rises and are much denser than European cities. Europeans who come to Berkeley sometimes say that they expected it to be a city, and they are surprised that it is a suburb. 

Berkeley is also less dense than American cities were 100 years ago. During the 20th century, densities declined dramatically as American cities were rebuilt around the automobile. During the 21st century, our cities will have to be rebuilt at higher densities again to deal with global warming. Even in America, current low densities are a historical anomaly. 

Second, anti-development advocates have claimed that higher densities will not help solve our environmental problems, since building high densities in Berkeley will not prevent people from moving to sprawl on the suburban fringes. 

In reality, international comparisons by Kenworthy and Newman and comparisons within the Bay Area by Holtzclaw show that automobile use is inversely proportional to density. Americans who live in urban downtowns drive only about one-quarter as much as the average American. Because automobile use is the prime source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, building housing downtown is one of the most effective things we can do to counter global warming. 

Third, anti-development advocates claim that working families want houses and will not live in apartments in downtown, which will just be filled with students. 

But what would those students do if they could not find apartments? They would find houses to share, and they could easily spend more on those houses than working families, because they are willing to cram more people into one house. The result is that fewer working families would be able to afford housing in west Berkeley, north Oakland, or El Cerrito, and they would be forced to move to remote suburbs. 

Even if apartments downtown are occupied exclusively by students and by empty nesters, that will open up more houses for families in nearby neighborhoods and cities. 

High-rise advocates have made two claims that can be dismissed quickly. First, high-rise advocates claim that it will not be economically feasible for developers to build in Berkeley downtown Berkeley unless they can go to fourteen stories or more. This is obviously untrue, since the Gaia Building, Library Gardens, and other downtown developments have been built with much lower height limits. 

Second, high-rise advocates claim that higher densities will give us the revenue to build amenities such as parks downtown. This reminds me of the famous statement that a Vietnam War general made: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” If we have to destroy downtown’s character to build an extra park there, then I would rather do without the park. 

Third, and more seriously, high-rise advocates claim that, the more density we build downtown, the more we will do to fight global warming. This argument is made by planners, who tend to think in terms of abstractions. They calculate the precise greenhouse gas reductions under different scenarios, but they do not care as much about how it will feel to live in or shop in downtown under these different scenarios. 

Since Berkeley is a small city, the number of people who move downtown will have a small impact on global warming under any scenario. The most important impact we can have is to provide a model that other cities will imitate. I would like to see people come to downtown Berkeley from other parts of the region and nation, and to think that it is such an attractive downtown that they would like to see the same type of development in their own cities. Millions of American tourists go to Europe each years to experience traditional urban neighborhoods with buildings up to six-stories tall, and I think they would also be willing to build this sort of neighborhood in their own cities. Traditional European cities are dense and walkable, but they have a very comfortable and appealing human scale. 

I don’t know of any tourists who go to experience neighborhoods with buildings sixteen stories tall, and I think most Americans would not want that sort of neighborhood in their own city. If Americans believe that smart growth requires buildings that are massive and impersonal, then there will be a backlash against smart growth. 

There are high-rise neighborhoods available for the limited number of people who want them—for example, in San Francisco. 

I think the most important thing that Berkeley can do to promote smart growth and fight global warming is to provide a counter-example to San Francisco: we should create a downtown that shows other cities that it is possible to build smart growth on a human scale.  


Charles Siegel is a Berkeley resident.