Public Comment

United We Stand: Doing It the Berkeley Way

By Regan Richardson
Thursday June 18, 2009 - 07:08:00 PM

There are some shocking and disturbing misconceptions among some humans in Berkeley that desperately need to be debunked, among them: that any type of development is progress, no matter how inappropriate and ill-conceived; that Berkeley residents get special favors to protect them from said development; that Berkeley residents mysteriously do not have a right to participate in the process, that it is our responsibility to “get out of the way.”  

The delusion that NIMBY residents are holding up “progress” is a fantasy concocted and assiduously circulated by developers. Considering the fact that in the end residents are consistently shut out of having any real effect on the development approval process, no matter how long and diligently we try to participate, this is a laughable and patently absurd notion. Where to begin? 

If you need proof of these assertions, I have no better example than the now almost seven-year process that has finally resulted in the overwhelming, behemoth development now rising at the northwest corner of University and Martin Luther King, the so-called “Trader Joe’s building.”  

First of all, a successful urban landscape is not about piling as many bodies as possible into the smallest, densest spaces. Maximum market-rate residential density does not translate into diversity or community. To insist on forcing five-plus-story buildings on existing one- to two-story residential neighborhoods is to completely dismiss the legitimacy of the existing neighborhood. This is not Manhattan, or even San Francisco.  

Second, it is not private Berkeley residents who are getting special favors to protect them from the current spate of mega-projects in progress. It is rather the developers who are being granted the special variances that leave us no choice but to protect our community with the existing neighborhood safeguards clearly written into our city code and laws. If you have any doubt about who is pulling the strings here, I refer you to Dave Blake’s excellent commentary from the June 11 edition of the Planet, “A Frightful Decision for Downtown.”  

Third, it is one thing to be allowed to “participate,” which essentially boils down to a brief two or three minutes of comment at a public meeting. It is quite another to be allowed to have an actual impact on the development approval process. Real and legitimate participation requires having a truly substantive effect on the outcome. 

To truly appreciate the process, here’s a short project history: The local residents have been proactive in this project from the beginning. In October of 2002, prior to the start of the entire approval process, one of our neighbors bravely suggested that we approach then-developer Panoramic Interests to initiate a “constructive” dialogue. We were not opposed to the concept of a new development at the former Kragen site, as long as it honored the stated principles and standards of the Berkeley General Plan and the UASP, both of which strongly specify that all new development must ultimately respect the character of existing neighborhoods.  

We believed that by directly engaging the developer, we could finally rewrite the historically contentious, developer-vs.-neighbors operating procedure for future development in all of Berkeley, not just on our block, so other neighbors would never have to suffer the same fate. We in essence gave the developer our playbook, a minimal list of neighborhood requirements all backed by city policy and law, that would allow us to support the project and to help streamline the labyrinthine approval process. The developer could design a building in keeping with the existing neighborhood, and there would be no need to declare war. A productive template for the future would be forged. Blatantly optimistic, bordering on nauseatingly naïve? Apparently. 

So seven years later, what did we get from putting our blood, sweat, and tears into this process? Did we succeed in rescuing Berkeley from mega-project oblivion? If you have seen the monolith rising at University and MLK, obviously not. It quickly became clear that the multiple developers involved felt no onus whatsoever to honor our reasonable, policy-backed requests, and that they were quite confident they could circumvent or manipulate existing policies and zoning laws, as they had done before with great success, to their full advantage.  

Regarding special favors granted to developers, the most shocking precedent of the Trader Joe’s project is that it challenges the requirements of the state density bonus law, which awards “bonus” market-rate rental units to any developer providing a specified quota of “affordable” units. However, in this particular case the developer has been awarded a larger-than-mandated density bonus not for providing sufficient affordable housing, but by promising a seductive retail tenant, a tenant they have promised free parking. The developer has actually been allowed to reduce the number of required affordable units to be able to subsidize free parking for their commercial tenant! This paves the way for all future deemed-by-the developer “economically unfeasible” projects to reap these same benefits. 

But here we are in June 2009, still trying to be a part of the solution in any way we are allowed. We are clearly not the ones asking for special favors. Had the developers made a sincere attempt at the start to make this building neighborhood-appropriate they could have had it built by now. We were not the ones standing in their way. From the beginning, in the spirit of conciliation and compromise, we asked for so very little to make this a livable project for the neighborhood. I will address the specifics of the Berkeley Way barrier and its policy precedents in a future submission. 

For those of you who have engaged in this same process and been left out, if you dare to imagine that we don’t understand your frustration at being summarily denied, dismissed, and disenfranchised by the powers that be, please think again. Why do you think we are still here after seven long and grueling years of rejection? Just like you, we too are still fighting the good fight. Not only for ourselves, but for the quality of life of all our Berkeley neighbors. It is the developers’ time-honored tactic to divide and conquer, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by bloody block. We reissue our 2002 call to arms to all Berkeley neighborhoods to work together. United we stand. 


Regan Richardson is a Berkeley Way resident.