Public Comment

New Housing Isn’t a Solution for Downtown

By Randy Shaw
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 06:55:00 PM

According to the April 23-29 Planet, Patrick Kennedy recently told the Planning Commission that “downtown is on life support” and only new housing construction will save it. I once agreed with Kennedy’s assessment—but that was before the new buildings that he and other developers constructed in the past decade failed to improve the Berkeley downtown business climate. 

Kennedy’s logic was impeccable. Adding hundreds and even thousands of residents to downtown Berkeley should have dramatically increased demand for area restaurants and shops. It should also have improved public safety. 

Unfortunately, Kennedy’s prescription for revitalizing downtown Berkeley—which at the time I strongly shared—did neither. Much of the new housing was inhabited by UC Berkeley students who lack the disposable income to boost downtown businesses. Many students go home on weekends and holidays, so that the presence of thousands of new residents downtown has not brought a noticeable increase in weekend or evening foot traffic. 

In retrospect, it is remarkable that so much new housing could have so little impact. Constructing what became a large number of quasi-dorm units in the downtown may even have prevented more economically productive future development on these sites.  

In any case, continuing to promote new housing development as the solution to Berkeley’s downtown problems is like Republicans steadfastly promoting tax cuts for the rich: the evidence shows that the strategy does not work.  


A Lack of strategic investment 

While city officials understandably felt that greatly increasing downtown density was key for improving the area, focus must now shift in making downtown Berkeley a more exciting place to be. This could involve the city renting longtime vacant storefronts—such as the former Eddie Bauer’s—and then subleasing the space at below-market rents to desirable users. Or the city could agree to subsidize the rents for desirable businesses that lease such locations, while ensuring that it does not result in a windfall. 

For one of the nation’s most progressive cities, Berkeley has pursued a surprisingly free-market approach to its downtown. We wait for a private interest to express interest in a site and, thrilled to get any investment, do our best to make the project happen. In some cases—such as the construction of multi-plex movie theaters on Shattuck—it really seemed that such investment would increase in legitimate nighttime activity throughout downtown. But Kennedy is correct in claiming that there is little investor interest in opening retail in downtown Berkeley, so city government must step into the void. 

We can think of businesses that might succeed in downtown Berkeley, and then city staff should aggressively recruit them. The Brower Center may be too massive for some, but it provides a model of more community-driven development. Its success could become a model for the process needed to boost downtown. This direct government involvement in boosting Berkeley’s downtown is more consistent with the city’s progressive legacy than the free-market, laissez-faire approach of allowing for-profit developers to buy land and then rubberstamping their projects. 


Redesigning downtown 

Berkeley’s downtown has design defects—too wide streets, too much traffic, too much parking area adjacent to sidewalks—that inhibit its success. But whenever ideas are floated to redesign downtown to make it more inviting—such as barring traffic on Center Street or having a creek run through downtown—some Berkeleyans respond as if the destruction of a wonderful area is being proposed. 

It’s odd how many of those that promoted Barack Obama’s mantra of “Change” are so resistant to this concept when applied to downtown Berkeley.  

I give Patrick Kennedy credit for advancing a vision of rejuvenating downtown. But now that we know that vision has failed, where is the political will to try new and creative strategies? 



Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (beyondthe fields. net).