Despite how he tried to portray himself in a recent East Bay Monthy article, Patrick Kennedy is no “Jane Jacobs.” He’s more like Jane’s nemesis, Robert Moses —the infamous developer who decimated New York City with freeways and oversized housing projects from 1920 to 1970.
All urban developers try to get the largest possible building on their land to maximize profit. In the last twenty years, urban developers have often used the rhetoric of New Urbanism to build thousands of ill-conceived, high-rise buildings, completely out of scale with human beings and their surrounding communities. The developer’s logic goes something like this—“Because New Urbanists and others have shown that dense urban housing is environmentally good, hyper-dense high-rise housing must be even BETTER!”
In reality, hyper, high-rise density can be almost as inefficient as suburban sprawl …and far more unpleasant to live in. The communities that Kennedy (and Jane Jacobs) cite as their models of success (like Greenwich Village or Cambridge Massachusetts) are all composed of densely packed two- to four-story walkup town homes and apartments. There are no 20-story high-rise buildings in these communities! The charm, walkability and community of these neighborhoods comes precisely from their smaller, “human” scale, where people have a sense of ownership or what human ecologists call “Territoriality and personal space.”
From an environmental point of view, these smaller urban neighborhoods provide a nice level of bikeable, walkable density. Yet they are composed of buildings that can be (and were) made by hand, with low-energy materials. They use wood and stone versus concrete and steel and they don’t require elevators, compactors, electric water pumps or elaborate electrical air and water circulation systems. In the recent east-coast blackout of 2003, hundreds of blocks of New York City high-rise buildings were suddenly rendered uninhabitable, as toilets ceased flushing and people suddenly had to walk 20 flights of stairs to enter or exit their apartments. By contrast, life in lower scale neighborhoods (like those of Brooklyn and Queens) was able to continue as usual.
Most importantly, high-rise buildings over four or five stories cut off sunlight from streets and nearby structures. As we develop solar energy, access to sun or “solar rights” will become a bigger issue. Uniform, densely packed two- to four-story development will ensure all buildings have equal access to sunlight. Buildings like Kennedy is proposing will make downtown Berkeley’s streets into lightless, anonymous, noisy canyons of concrete and traffic.
The Wells Fargo and Power Bar buildings were terrible mistakes and are part of what destroyed downtown. The most vibrant neighborhoods in Berkeley like Elmwood, Westbrae or upper Shattuck are vibrant precisely because they lack high-rise buildings and are built on a dense but human two- to four-story scale. Kennedy’s proposed buildings are reminiscent of the high-rise “Urban renewal” apartment projects that Robert Moses and other city developers rammed through urban areas in the 1960s. In the process, they bulldozed vibrant two- to four-story (often minority) neighborhoods, replacing them with huge, anonymous apartment blocs that became hopeless prisons of poverty and crime. It was precisely this kind of development that Jane Jacobs opposed. I urge people in Berkeley to oppose Patrick Kennedy’s development proposals.
Andy Singer grew up in Berkeley and
currently lives in St. Paul, Minn.