The current aspect of the “Trader Joe’s” project soon coming up for consideration before the City Council—a traffic diverter on Berkeley Way—is the last recognizable shred of the original requests the neighborhood had made in October of 2002. The mitigation of excessive traffic on a residential street with a full traffic diverter, in this case Berkeley Way, is not a special request on our part.
The mandate for protection here is clear. It is an integral component of the Berkeley General Plan, the UASP, and Council Resolution 52,353-N.S. Section 23E.28.080 of city code, Location of Parking Spaces and Driveways, clearly states: “Access to new parking areas for commercial uses shall be oriented in such a way as to minimize the use of streets serving primarily residential uses.” The University Avenue Strategic Plan, a set of guidelines in place for all development on the UA corridor, specifies in Policy UA-21: “Implement improvements to tame traffic along University Avenue, but protect the adjacent neighborhoods from excessive traffic.” City Council Resolution 52,353-N.S. reinforces that “…it is a stated policy of said Transportation Element (Policy 2.36) to prevent to the greatest extent possible the use of local streets by through traffic,” and resolves to this end that the use of diverters on “other than major and collector streets” is accepted city policy to help protect the existing residents’ “public health and safety.”
Certain streets like University, Ashby, Sacramento, Gilman, and Dwight have been designated by the city as “major” or traffic-bearing streets. The current theory seems to be that since we can’t figure out how fix our traffic problems, the only option left is to overrun all the local streets, including primarily residential streets, with excessive traffic and thus ruin Berkeley for everyone. This is not a viable solution. Democratic, maybe, but not very inventive!
There is absolutely no reason Berkeley Way deserves fewer protections than current Berkeley neighborhoods with protective traffic barriers that also abut grocery stores. This project is not just a Trader Joe’s, it is a Trader Joe’s with a commercial parking entrance on a residential street and 148 apartments towering above it, the first of its kind in Berkeley. No one seems ready to dispute the fact that the single-entry/exit Trader’s Joe’s parking lot on Berkeley Way will easily be the most heavily trafficked commercial driveway in Berkeley. Those of you who might naively fantasize that we can rely on the honor system and that without a full barrier, a “No Left Turn” sign at the Trader Joe’s parking garage exit will prevent Trader Joe’s shoppers from abusing our street, please raise your hands. Anyone? Berkeley Way should be, by virtue of its name if nothing else, the most iconic street in Berkeley. Are dense five-story buildings with homogenous grocery stores really what we want our city to look like? Welcome to Anywhere, USA.
We would like to impress upon those have recently accused us of acting merely out of self-interest that this was not a short-sighted or selfish attempt on our part to safeguard our own little patch of street in Berkeley. We may have been overly optimistic in 2002 about our chances to effect change, but we realized by the size of the proposed project, originally a whopping 186 units, that this was going to be a precedent-setting building.
We entered into a dialogue with the developer with the stated intent to help overhaul the entire development process, to help assure that in future, none of our Berkeley neighbors would have to fight a block-by-block battle for their neighborhoods ever again. Our mission statement, written in October 2002, was a call to arms to all Berkeley residents, specifying not only our neighborhood goals in relation to this particular building, but also a very specific list of longterm goals for the safeguarding of small residential neighborhoods like ours from inappropriate mega-projects. We did not commit to spending countless hours and precious personal resources poring over code and zoning laws to win one small skirmish. Seven years later we’re still here trying to make a difference for all of Berkeley. Selfish, indeed.
To those who would actually dare to suggest that we are “lucky” to get a traffic diverter, I say the following: this is not Christmas in July for us. The barrier is no triumph, it is a last-gasp survival tactic to save our neighborhood. It is the very monument to the fact that we were not allowed to help shape a neighborhood-appropriate building for this site. We have spent 7 long years earning what you perceive to be our “serendipity.”
The question is not why this neighborhood should be protected. City zoning policy and law clearly indicates that we have every right to expect to be protected by all means available that the city will grant us. The real question is this: why is Berkeley not enforcing the policies and laws so thoughtfully put in place over decades that require the protection of existing residents? Why is Berkeley so eager to reward developers with the policy-busting, excessive variances that destroy local residential neighborhoods? Why are the neighbors being forced to enforce policy and law themselves? In a developer-friendly city, who is going to protect us, if not ourselves? It is not private Berkeley residents who have created the untenable, development-giddy scenario here. The traffic barrier is the last valiant stand of this particular skirmish, in a protracted war waged for the fate of all of Berkeley.
I recently came across an excerpt from a May 25, 2006 letter to the Zoning Adjustments Board which is still woefully pertinent in this context: “It’s time to decide: Are we going to do this the Berkeley Way, and do what’s right for the future of our fair city, or are we going to do it the developers’ way, in the name of the almighty dollar, and seriously reduce the quality of life for all concerned? A member of the Transportation Commission recently had the audacity to ask us why we think we are so special and should be spared the severe detriment of the Triple Threat of traffic from Trader Joe’s, the 64-unit residential entrance on Berkeley Way, and the residential trash pick-up. Our answer to that is simple: we are not special. We don’t think anyone should be asked to live this way, including the people who will live in this project, and we will continue to fight to make sure that the lowest common denominator dictated by the developer’s bottom line doesn’t become the standard for living in all of Berkeley.” United we stand, diverted we survive.
Regan Richardson is a Berkeley Way resident.