Fast Track to Obliteration

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 06:51:00 PM

The long knives are starting to come out for West Berkeley, now that Downtown has been carved up. Two harbingers this week: There was a special meeting on Monday of the Zoning Adjustment board which gave the new West Berkeley Bowl carte blanche to open even though the conditions on its use permit which called for changes to mitigate the project’s dire impacts on traffic have never been carried out. And there was another special meeting on Tuesday, so special that some engaged neighborhood stakeholders didn’t even hear about it until the last minute, a “workshop” for the City Council wearing both of its hats (Redevelopment is the other one) to discuss speeding up proposed zoning and traffic changes to the area covered by the West Berkeley Plan.  

We didn’t hear about it in time either (just a fax late on Thursday with no detail about the agenda), so we didn’t go to the Tuesday meeting, but conversations with those who suffered through it indicate that it was just more of the same-old same-old. It sounds like the mayor’s bad case of old-guy-itis is getting worse and worse—he just can’t resist cutting off anyone he disagrees with any more, even councilmembers trying to speak up for their constituents, and in the worst case even those councilmembers he generally agrees with.  

The Brown Act requires members of the public to be given a reasonable opportunity to comment, but does it extend the same courtesy to elected officials? Evidently not, or else we’re just continuing our hallowed local practice of ignoring the Brown Act until someone sues. 

Many home-based reviewers told us that the discussion at the council’s regular meeting last week of that great PR extravaganza, the Berkeley Climate Action Plan, was even more comic. Poor Carolyn Jones at the Chronicle made the fatal mistake of assuming that the river of words produced by the planners for the occasion meant what they said, and what the words said caused enormous consternation in the Berkeley circles which still read the Chron. Some of us listening to KPFB at home fell asleep before the widely mocked last fifteen minutes of that meeting, which featured feverishly back-pedaling councilmembers and an out-of-control mayor dissing everyone in sight, but luckily it can be savored in all its foolish glory in the online video—when we have time to watch it.  

Our small staff of reporters does its best to keep up with all of this, but there are only so many hours in a day, and there are so many meetings to cover now that the skids are really being greased on the fast track. Here’s a quick summary: climate change coupled with economic stimulus are being used (all over the country, not just here) as the latest excuses for rationalizing the most exotic fantasies of the building industry, and Berkeley’s planning department, the mayor, and a majority of councilmembers are eager enablers.  

One disbelieving spectator at Tuesday’s special meeting reports that Bates reprised Charley Wilson’s famous Eisenhower-era dictum that what’s good for General Motors is good for the country. Bates has been heard to opine on several occasions in various ways that we should do anything necessary to persuade new businesses to locate in Berkeley, that any kind of new venture is good for the city. He applied that same logic, for example, to ground floor offices proposed for Solano’s retail area, opposed by both merchants and neighbors. The recent fate of General Motors is a graphic illustration of the failure mode for that kind of simple-minded boosterism. 

It’s becoming a cliché that green is the new dot-com. Almost any enterprise that looks lucrative is green-washed as a matter of course, in exactly the same way that all kinds of foolishness were once thought to be okay if online. That’s the mindset that has honchos in Berkeley’s planning department, which is funded exclusively by permit fees, salivating over the prospects for a building boom bonanza in West Berkeley, now a pleasant mixture of older buildings with sunk environmental costs, low-impact industry and greenery. The mad rush to cut down all the trees and cover it with concrete which seems to be in the works could put a stop to all that.  

No one who’s paid much attention to the math believes that we can build our way out of global warming, even though construction is well-regarded as an economic stimulus mechanism. My friend in Bloomington reports that a long-opposed freeway project with dire consequences for Indiana is being tagged for stimulus fast-tracking, to the consternation of local environmentalists who fear that it will cause irreversible habitat destruction and other bad effects.  

The trick here is that an honest environment impact study for the myriad changes now being proposed will certainly show drastic local environmental effects, particularly traffic catastrophes, which simply can’t be mitigated. Unmitigatible environment effects will require the council to adopt a “statement of overriding considerations”—that is to say, something else, for example economic stimulus, is more important than the identified bad environmental consequences of the plan. If Berkeleyans are not vigilant, we’re likely to get big bucks to build bad stuff, in West Berkeley, Central Berkeley and elsewhere, which could even result in increasing Berkeley’s carbon footprint instead of shrinking it as Measure G specified.  

Keep an eye out for an accelerated schedule of special and unpublicized meetings pushing toward the desired EIRs between now and the council’s July 15 departure for its long, long vacation.