Public Comment

Let’s Not Talk About It

By Norbert Humphrey
Thursday October 30, 2008 - 09:53:00 AM

Hard issues that include local development come up on a project-by-project basis but never rise as a top-level campaign issue. Political campaigns are remarkably free of pro- or anti-development dialogues. Even UC Berkeley, the big bully in town, has hardly been mentioned by the candidates in their mailers and websites.  

The video on Bates’ re-election website emphasizes balancing the budget, being a leader as a green city with a mighty fine Climate Action Plan and education. At the end, mention is made of the upcoming Brower Center, a new hotel and the relocation of Freight and Salvage to downtown. UC and future development is not mentioned at all. Hmmm, must not be an issue people care about. Wrong.  

I have attended a number of candidate forums since September and there are always questions from the audience about increases in Berkeley’s density and the number of big buildings going up. These are not friendly questions. People want to know about future plans and about parking congestion and quality of life concerns.  

Quietly but quite importantly, political barriers are being put in place to trump local opposition to development in Berkeley. They are fundamentally end runs to local control regarding growth, and they are being used by elected officials to avoid discussing the issues. Each of these is a story by itself so please pardon the brevity. 

1. ABAG, Association of Bay Area Governments, has given Berkeley a huge requirement for new living units even though the city has added thousands of units in the past four years and the city is one of the most densely populated city in the area. I assume our representative to ABAG went along with the requirement. 

2. Assemblywoman Hancock introduced a bill requiring the Department of Transportation to partner with certain metropolitan planning organizations (ABAG) to develop and implement models that mandate the use of smart growth concepts. Smart Growth is the catch phrase for high-density urban planning. In referring to the San Pablo Corridor Project Hancock told a press group touring the area, “How can we extend our view past our own zoning ordinance and our own piece of the pie and make a street that exemplifies the New Urbanism?”  

3. Mayor Bates refers proudly to Berkeley’s partnership with the Bay Area’s Greenbelt Alliance. Take a wild guess what the implication is of being an alliance member? The central purpose of the Alliance is push development inward into existing urban areas, use smart growth planning that calls for high-rise residential construction near transits hubs.  

Most neighborhood associations do not support “smart growth” when it is used a rationale for high-rise, high-density projects. Clearly, Berkeley’s Planning Department and Bates have drunk the smart growth kool-aid, and the big reason is that the people who contribute to either their budget (Planning Dept.) or their campaign for office.  

I have heard Bates and council members like Capitelli say in public forums that the city has no choice but to approve high-density development. They use ABAG, the Greenbelt Alliance and other mandates as the reasons they feel obligated to comply with new development. It’s a convenient political strategy to hide behind a higher authority.  

Perhaps its time to demand that candidates give full disclosure about their positions regarding development, smart growth and higher densities. 


Norbert Humphrey is a Berkeley resident.