What’s Wrong With Downtown Berkeley, and How to Fix It

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday June 18, 2009 - 07:06:00 PM

A couple of sort-of-newby sort-of-techies have started a blog where others similarly situated have been pooling their enthusiasms for the many virtues of their new home in Berkeley. You can find out, for example, that there are 10 restaurants within walking distance of College and Ashby that are pretty darn good, and (there’s a connection) that houses in Elmwood (near the same corner) are pretty darn pricey. By and large, their excitement is sweetly touching, kind of like kids at Christmas. Santa’s left all this great stuff for us!  

But it’s not all sweetness and light.  

Here’s one of them, Dave Winer, on day 1 of his blog: “Now there are things not to like about Berkeley. And I suppose each of us has our own list. For me, it’s the black hole that downtown is. I don’t like going there. I don’t understand why a great city like Berkeley doesn’t have a thriving bustling downtown. With the great public transit and the world-class university, located in the middle of one of the most dynamic metropolitan areas of the world, why isn’t the downtown a place more people want to come to, not just from within Berkeley but from all around the Bay Area, and the state, the country, the world?” 

He goes on to admit that “having lived here only three years, most of what I know about Berkeley is how much I don’t know about Berkeley.” 

Well, do you want the long course or the short course about why downtown’s awful and getting worse? Just as many kids eventually figure out that all the great stuff on Christmas was actually provided by grownups shopping ’til they dropped and staying up exhausted until the wee hours of the night, people who enjoy Berkeley’s many virtues eventually learn that it takes a lot of work by a lot of grownups to keep Berkeley great. 

For the long course, a good place to start for the Internet junkie might be in the online archives of the (wait for it) Berkeley Daily Planet over the last five or six years. Google there, for example, “DAPAC” and “Brenneman,” and you’ll find a blow-by-blow account of how 19 good citizens attempted to save the village without destroying it. Not, sad to say, that they’ve succeeded. It’s still possible, but things are looking grim. 

The short course would be a quick look at the online video of last week’s City Council meeting. There you can see, in living color, one of the battle-scarred veterans of DAPAC—the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee—trying to explain basic urban economics to the obviously bored and impatient array of local pols who sit as Berkeley’s City Council.  

Steve Weissman is an attorney with credentials beyond impressive who slogged away for more than two years, completely unpaid, on DAPAC. Just to touch the highlights, he’s been an administrative law judge for the Public Utlilities Commission, where he needed to deal with complex economic presentations. He was a legal principal for the state’s Local Government Commission. He’s now working with UC’s Environmental Law and Policy Center, and he’s an unabashed advocate of more density downtown. He just doesn’t think that the developer-dominated Planning Commission’s quick and dirty rewrite of the plan DAPAC worked on for so long will accomplish the goal.  

He tried to walk a balky council through a point-by-point critique of a lightweight report produced by local consultants which addressed the economic feasibility of getting the kind of downtown Berkeley needs with a completely market-driven analysis. His message: the study, which was written before the world economy collapsed, relied for its conclusions on a continuation of the go-go housing market of the last 15 or 20 years—and there’s no guarantee now that recovery will happen any time soon. The report’s rosiest projections, he said, depend on existence of a market for million-dollar condos in downtown Berkeley, for which even recent history lacks precedent. 

His attempt to educate the council, however, was punctuated by impatient remarks from the mayor, whose never-long attention span seems to be getting shorter and shorter: “I just want you to conclude.” “You people have already had 17 minutes.” “Go ahead and finish.” Not surprising under the circumstances, the council majority didn’t seem to have learned much from the lecture. 

What’s the takeaway for someone like our blogger who sincerely wants to learn why downtown Berkeley has been and will continue to be dysfunctional? Well, market-driven land use planning, like many other market-driven enterprises in the world today, doesn’t seem to be working any more, if it ever did. It certainly doesn’t work if it’s the kind of planning (familiar to anyone who was part of the dot.com bust) which extrapolates today’s upward curve into infinity. And that describes the “feasibility study” to which the Planning Commission and the City Council genuflected before deciding to scrap the product of DAPAC’s sophisticated work.  

This is how it should be done: the people of Berkeley or their representatives should get together and evaluate the best ideas for “fixing” downtown with features that work for everyone, and only then make the plan for how we get there financially. That means not just “penciling out” projects that enrich participants in the building industry. It’s providing more than just trickle-down housing units for low income residents, more than just mall chains for shoppers and restaurant patrons. It means creating attractive street amenities, including a pleasant public space which gracefully accommodates UC students, faculty and staff, as well as skateboarders and other Berkeley High students, tourists, small kids and their parents. In other words, re-creating a downtown for the whole messy cast of characters who populate the Berkeley we know and love.  

But wait! We did that. That was DAPAC’s mission, and they succeeded admirably. And now the foolish Council wants to junk their product. 

The third re-write of the Downtown Plan (the one on goldenrod copy paper, produced first by Bates, tidied up by Maio, rumored to have been authored by Capitelli) is perhaps the worst yet. Details were still hazy at press time, but it seems to feature three unspecified skyscrapers of at least 180 feet each. The DAPAC plan also had three, but two of the three were supposed to be hotels, which would bring major revenue benefits to the city. Sadly, with the “hospitality industry” in the doldrums, no one wants to build hotels anymore.  

The Bates/Maio/Capitelli plan now seems to allow for any old kind of tall building, perhaps some of the empty office or condo towers now cluttering up downtown San Francisco. Even worse, the tight Green Building requirements for such extra-height projects in the DAPAC plan have been replaced by murky “trust me” language—there’s no green guarantee at all, just the stated intention to get around to it sometime in the zoning law.  

One of the major justifications for planning big buildings downtown was supposed to be the revenue they’d bring in, which would fund desired amenities. But what we seem to be getting instead is yet another instance of faith in market capitalism run amok in the face of contrary evidence. It’s not surprising that most councilmembers seem to cherish a touching faith in the power of markets, since only Laurie Capitelli has recently worked in the private sector and he’s a realtor.  

For a better idea, if it’s not too late, council members should acquaint themselves with Walter Hood’s revelatory plan, presented to the Planning Commission last week, for linking the UC campus with downtown with a tree-shaded plaza on Center Street, featuring a bit of uncovered Strawberry Creek. Problem: Hood’s vision might cost as much as $12 million to carry out, an amount that would never trickle down in our lifetime from commercial construction ventures downtown. Solution: as part of his presentation, Hood mentioned that he’s working on similar projects in New Orleans which are being funded by federal stimulus funds. The federal money is not allocated for beautification per se, but for rebuilding street infrastructure.  

I called Hood for more details, and it’s a simple analysis: if you’re going to do the work anyway, why shouldn’t it be beautiful as well as functional? Now there’s a concept. It might even make downtown Berkeley “a place more people want to come to.” 

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the final Downtown Plan on July 7. That doesn’t give them much time to get it right. If they get it wrong, the word on the street is that a referendum might have to set them straight. More hard work for the grownups, but they’re used to it.