Public Comment

The Green Smoke Screen

By Toni Mester
Wednesday January 07, 2009 - 06:23:00 PM

Things are seldom what they seem 

Skim milk masquerades as cream 

—W.S. Gilbert, HMS Pinafore 


The Climate Action Plan (CAP), a policy work now in its second draft, is currently under public review ( and slated for a City Council workshop Tuesday, Jan. 13.  

Presumably the CAP was written by Timothy Burroughs, the Climate Action Coordinator, but when I asked at a public workshop who wrote the land-use chapter, Dan Marks, head of Planning and Development, answered, “It was a group effort.” 

The plan reads like a job description that would cost additional expenditures of $1.4 million a year to implement its proposals, mostly bureaucratic coordination. But added to this second draft are sweeping land-use changes that unravel zoning protections for neighborhoods. 

One of the most egregious proposals is to “adjust zoning to allow for greater residential and commercial density along transit corridors and in proximity to the…BART stations,” an apparent call for widespread up-zoning. The plan also wants to “establish minimum building heights …, reduce the minimum lot size for construction of an accessory dwelling unit..., revise zoning restrictions on removing of housing units …” and to effect other zoning changes that have raised eyebrows around town. 

These recommendations made their way into the second draft through pressure from Livable Berkeley as evident on their website. One can overlook the impropriety of a position paper signed by Erin Rhoades transferred into city zoning policy when her husband is a use permit applicant, but not the glaring inconsistencies and lack of findings specific to the inner East Bay that would justify these proposals. 

The smart growth concept of planning greater density near transit to decrease car use sounds logical, but allowing too much density in the wrong places can be counterproductive, adding rather than reducing traffic. As the CAP reports and we know too well, Berkeley is awash with cars, responsible for 29 percent of carbon emissions. 

In the years between 1960 and 2000, the number of autos increased by almost 20,000 while the number of households rose by only 5,000. The CAP fails to analyze this data, jumping to increased density as a corrective, which assumes that residents in new housing will use public transit more than we. That’s a stretch.  

Car increase can be explained by social, economic, and geographic factors. With two parents working, families could afford a second car. More students must own cars. And because Berkeley is central in the Bay Area, traffic flows in all directions. Add the bifurcated topography that requires trips up and down the hills to shop or just get a decent cup of coffee, and voila: a glut of cars. 

More research is required to get at solutions beyond guilt-tripping attempts at behavior modification. We need serious measures such as better buses and bus routes, a congestion charge on cars entering the city, peripheral parking garages served by shuttles, and a regional tax on the second car. One thing we learned from gas prices: people will drive less when driving costs more. 

The CAP neglects to analyze diesel, which accounts for 17 percent of emissions, or methane, including the pump at the waterfront and sewage gas. The plan also fails to consider smoke from wood burning or industrial pollution. 

Home owners will find little information on how to reduce natural gas emissions, which account for 19 percent of CO2 escaping into the atmosphere. Solar installations are expensive, and switching to more efficient gas appliances takes a sizeable investment. The CAP offers little practical advice like cost-benefit analyses on tank vs. on-demand water heaters or preferred types of washers and dryers and overlooks PG&E’s puny rebates compared to $150 that EBMUD credits for a low-flow toilet. 

Nor does the CAP weigh the emissions from demolition or the heating, cooling, and ventilating of new apartment buildings against the exaggerated benefits of density. One of their doubtful claims is that “compact development patterns result in improved public health” when a recent study of downtown San Francisco found that noise creates health risk. Such dangers should be considered before approving residential development on busy avenues. 

While buildings account for 53 percent of emissions, the CAP fails to cite preferred engineering standards, systems and materials or to consider increased run-off to the bay and demands on the sewers, especially along San Pablo Avenue, which is only ten feet above the current sea level. The over-use of the vague rubric “green building” is tiresome, to say the least. 

The city’s commendable solar initiative, funding installations through the property tax, assumes that home owners have the right of solar access, which would be threatened by increased density on lots. The CAP also encourages open space, trees, and gardens, which are all endangered by the building allowances the plan advocates in its land-use chapter. The City Council cannot ignore these contradictions. 

The solid waste section doesn’t explain that many units in the flatlands have absentee landlords and no manager, which accounts for poor practices. We need mandatory recycling and enforcement. 

No city is an island. Berkeley cannot reduce emissions alone, but we can do our part. Except for the debatable density proposals, the rest of the Climate Action Plan sounds tentative. There’s too much bureaucratic flab for a price tag of $1.4 million a year and not enough muscle. 

One thing is certain though; Berkeley is at a turning point. Get involved, or what we value most in Berkeley will soon be memory. Or as Gilbert put it: “We shall learn the truth with sorrow / Here today and gone tomorrow.” 


Toni Mester is a West Berkeley resident and gardener.