Public Comment

Downtown Planning and Building Heights

By Gerald Autler
Tuesday November 06, 2007

Having lived in Berkeley and other parts of the Bay Area for a number of years (yes, I am one of those dreaded “true believers” indoctrinated at UC Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning), I occasionally read the Daily Planet online from across the country—mostly for entertainment, it must be said. I’ve watched the debate over tall buildings in downtown Berkeley with some interest and have to say that, despite my “true believer” status and my tendency to agree with the “pro-development lobby group” Livable Berkeley, I find myself in this case sharing the skepticism about the wisdom of filling up downtown Berkeley with buildings of 14 stories and more. But opposition to that kind of height should not translate into support for the anti-growth position so often espoused by the Daily Planet.  

The moderates in this debate—and the others as well—would do well to find examples of places like Berkeley that have achieved smart growth goals without a lot of height. Not Paris, not San Francisco…wonderful places, but not really models for Berkeley. What about Cambridge, Massachusetts? Despite having a total population and demographic composition almost identical to Berkeley’s, despite having a university presence of at least the same scale (if one adds up Harvard and MIT), and despite having similar politics and ethos, Cambridge has achieved a more compact, urban feel without sacrificing its livability or human scale. To be sure, much of this is due to historical patterns of development, and the anti-development voices in Cambridge are loud and persistent. But Cambridge has also achieved density in some of its new developments without a lot of height and without detracting from the established residential neighborhoods. Equally importantly, the main activity nodes—Harvard Square, Central Square, Inman Square—have an urban feel lacking in Berkeley, and again, without a lot of height. The result is a small, livable city where people walk more (check the journey-to-work figures in the census) and that feels, in my opinion, more active and alive than Berkeley. 

When I moved from Massachusetts to Berkeley, I was surprised that the place that I had always thought of as a West Coast Cambridge was actually very different. When I moved back, the differences seemed even more striking: lots of compact urban nodes with restaurants and services, more people in the streets, no stretches of major avenues with vacant lots or used car dealerships, no empty retail spaces, a healthy job base in the biotech sector. 

Cambridge is not perfect, and the debate going on in Berkeley would not sound unfamiliar there. But it does show that the goals shared by many across the debate in Berkeley can be achieved without excessive height and without sacrificing quality of life. I would be happy to show anybody from Berkeley around Cambridge (as well as the best of Boston and surrounding communities) any time you wish. I suggest, however, that you wait until spring…weather is one realm in which Berkeley definitely has the upper hand. 


Gerald Autler lives in Boston, Mass.