Public Comment

Debating Berkeley’s Plans for Growth

By Stephen Wollmer
Wednesday April 08, 2009 - 07:08:00 PM

I was both amused and appalled by Mr. Sukoff’s statement in his April 2 commentary that “There is no reason Berkeley could not comfortably house 150,000 or even 200,0000 people and be a more interesting and dynamic place as a result.”  

To begin with, the 1955 Berkeley Master Plan’s goal of 150,000 - 200,000 citizens that Mr. Sukoff approvingly cites was based on two unsustainable assumptions.  

First that Berkeley’s then current family structure and land use pattern could and would continue unchanged, and secondly we would be able to increase our land area by filling in San Francisco Bay and extending the city’s borders to a line halfway between the Berkeley Marina and Treasure Island.  

In making his case that Berkeley has failed to “live” up to its ‘manifest destiny’ of becoming more urban, Mr. Sukoff makes the most elementary of errors by using the Census Department’s American Community Survey data without having noticed the survey is “limited to the household population and excludes the population living in institutions, college dormitories, and other group quarters.”  

It is impossible to discuss Berkeley’s density using a data source that excludes the multitudes of UC dorm dwellers. The “almost a quarter” decrease in population Mr. Sukoff bemoans simply does not exist except in his mind—Berkeley’s only statistically significant population decrease was the 11 percent decline between 1970 and 1980 when the tail end of the baby-boom generation finally left home, caused by and reflected in the demographically significant decrease in the number of persons per household over the same period. 

More seriously, in his cheerleading for a doubling Berkeley’s density, Mr. Sukoff fails to engage in the serious ongoing discussion of who lives in Berkeley today and who will be able to live here in the future. Berkeley is beginning its required update of the Housing Element of its General Plan (today’s version of the above mentioned Master Plan). 

I urge all who are concerned with how Berkeley plans for our present and future population to attend upcoming meetings and contribute their voices to the conversation lest Mr. Sukoff his ilk succeed in sacrificing our city on the altar of “Smart Growth.” The next informational Housing Element meeting is at 7 p.m. on April 16 at the South Berkeley Senior Center. Background material on the plan can be found at 

Simply allowing more density by granting additional development ‘rights’ to landowners and developers so they can build yet more market-rate housing with a few crumbs thrown to parks and poor people will only accelerate the already rapid gentrification of Berkeley. A strategy of removing any remaining constraints on growth in the Downtown has been the driving force behind the Planning Commission’s perversion of the citizen drafted Downtown Area Plan that attempted to establish a balance between development rights and community wide benefits.  

Over the years Berkeley’s citizenry has responded to such big-city pretensions by our political leaders and the business interests they serve with initiatives and movements to democratically re-take control of our community’s destiny. Our successes include preserving our shoreline for recreation and the environment, retaining affordable housing through rent control, preserving the livability of our residential and commercial neighborhoods through initiatives limiting out-of-scale development and capitalism’s impulse to “creative destruction,” and most recently retaining by referendum our landmark ordinance from a gutting by development interests and their political allies. I urge Berkeley citizens to stay involved and informed—the future is upon us. 


Stephen Wollmer is a Berkeley resident.