Paris and Berkeley’s Downtown Development

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday August 06, 2009 - 10:41:00 AM

Last stop, Paris, on the globalized grandparents’ express. Our clever son-in-law has arranged to exchange their family’s Santa Cruz house for a series of European equivalents which are the homes of families like theirs—no money needed to change hands. Grandparents and aunts were invited to go along for the ride, with eight of us together at times. It’s been fun, if exhausting. Who could pass up the use of three-bedroom family apartments in both Rome and Paris, but who anticipated how far apart the two cities actually are, or how hot Rome can be in July? 

It’s been an unduplicatable chance to see how “people like us” live in European cities these days. In many ways what’s remarkable is how much “like us” these people whom we’ve never met actually are. The Oaxaca hand-woven rug in the living room here is the same one that’s on my daughter’s bedroom floor in Santa Cruz. Décor is the familiar-to-Berkeley mix of ethnic souvenirs, flea market finds and Ikea.  

Though I’ve visited Paris several times, this is only the second time I’ve stayed in a resident’s apartment, the only real way to get a feel for what it would be like to live here. This one is on one of the broad boulevards which radiate from the Place de la Bastille, in a prototypical six-story 19th century building which has seen better days, but is still firmly and comfortably middle-class at least (our exchange partner is a doctor). It takes up the whole fifth floor of a wide, shallow building fronting on a tree-lined boulevard, and boasts huge floor to ceiling windows and doors across a narrow hall from one another other, flooding the apartment with natural light and breezes for natural cooling. All kinds of plants flourish on the balcony across the front. Ceilings are 10 feet high or more, with exquisite original mantels and molding. Two new Moroccan-tiled bathrooms with showers and a modern kitchen are a considerable improvement over places I stayed in Paris 40 years ago. 

Outside the building, however, it’s easy to see that even the City of Light has not escaped the woes which go along with modernity. Graffiti is everywhere, much more than in Berkeley, even on ancient monuments. Apparently homeless people gather in side streets near the Cathedral de Notre Dame, and beggars ask for money in the plaza in front of it. Signs suggest that some of these might be pickpockets, something we don’t usually worry about at home.  

The boulevard outside our temporary home has many attractive features, and some which are not so attractive. It’s about 200 feet across, building to building. In the middle there’s a tree-shaded strip park and walkway with playground equipment including fountains which are used by skateboarders for “surfing.” There’s a twice-weekly market here too. Individual narrow one-way lanes carry autos and bicycles in each direction, and there are four lanes of curbside parking, for which residents get special permits. Parking for others is limited to two hours, controlled with sticker machines, just like in Berkeley, at the rate of $3 an hour. On weekends, holidays and the whole month of August parking is free. 

This basic street design geometry was pioneered in mid-19th century Paris by Georges-Eugene Haussman and his disciples. Huge swaths of medieval and renaissance Paris were destroyed to realize his vision, with much of the bohemian tenant element evicted to create building sites. Like it or not, it worked, and where it survives it still works. 

Some semi-literate Berkeley developers have claimed that if they were given carte blanche to rebuild downtown Berkeley it would be a similar success. That’s what the recently passed developer-driven Berkeley downtown plan is all about—that’s how it’s being pushed, and that’s why it’s being opposed by genuinely sophisticated citizens who worked for two years on a plan draft which was summarily rejected by the politicos. 

Here’s what the council/developer plan for downtown Berkeley lacks that classic Paris still has: dedicated park space, water access, playgrounds, natural light, on-street parking, dedicated bike lanes and more. A cleverly crafted letter that claims that the new plan is everything it’s not is circulating over the signature of Erin Rhoades, wife of developer Mark Rhoades (though her name is mysteriously misspelled in the copy I got). 

The most disingenuous statement in the letter: “If the referendum succeeds, four years of hard community planning work would be thrown away and improvements for Downtown would be put on hold again.” In fact, as Mr. and Mrs. Rhoades know full well, it’s the new council/industry plan that threw away four years of community work, which is why the outraged community workers who were the majority on the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee are referending it.  

This letter was forwarded to me as part of a mass email from a well-meaning writer acquaintance who has recently shown an interest in national and state politics and now aspires to go local. She captures the attitude of many of those who winter in Berkeley: 

“If you don’t live in Berkeley, just delete. Seriously, this won’t interest you. But if you do, and you agree that downtown Berkeley is a monstrous blot on our city, that it is a sinkhole desperate for some decent urban planning, then please read the attached email. It was written by someone who knows more than you and I do, and forwarded by an architect whom I trust. 

“I’m telling you, I love our town, but I am so goddamn sick of the myopic vision of some of its more vocal (and colorfully-dressed) citizens.” 

As a colorfully-dressed and vocal citizen herself, not to mention a smart person, she should know better than to believe everything she’s told. When I managed a high-tech business in one of my past lives, I often used to quote the aphorism that “anyone who believes a programmer deserves what he gets.”  

The same thing is true about architects: anyone who believes an architect deserves what she gets. Architects, like others in the construction industry, have a vested interest in advancing the notion that we can build our way out of climate change and urban blight, but as someone who’s spent 40 years thinking about these things, I’m here to say that it’s not nearly that easy.  

Architects (and some of my best friends and relatives are architects) will tell you that we’ll end up with classic Paris if only we’ll let them do their thing when and where they want to. What many of us who have been working on urban problems since Jane Jacobs was a soccer mom fear is that instead Berkeley will end up like the Paris suburbs, which are a monstrous ring of crime-ridden airless high-rise storage units for the urban poor, sacrificed to preserve the glory of the center at enormous cost to residents of surrounding areas.  

Only slightly better would be a Berkeley downtown composed of empty luxury condos pitched for the pre-suburban young, which is how it’s tending now. The vacancy rate is already huge, and will just grow as the recession deepens. People like my correspondent who don’t like downtown seldom go there, but it doesn’t stop them from having opinions. Perhaps the referendum supporters should create a series of downtown tours for the benefit of those who’d actually like to see what’s really happening there before they make up their minds.