Public Comment

Why Progressives Back the Downtown Plan Referendum

By Nancy Carleton
Thursday August 13, 2009 - 10:36:00 AM

As a longtime progressive activist as well as South Berkeley neighborhood leader, I urge progressive voters in Berkeley to sign the referendum to place the City Council’s adopted Downtown Plan on the ballot as I did.  

It’s important to understand that both plans that were initially put before City Council—the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) plan, which had the longest and most involved community process of any, and the developer-backed Planning Commission version of the plan, which the City Council used as a template for the version it ultimately adopted—are pro-density, pro-development plans. 

Both the DAPAC plan and the council plan have the potential to add thousands of new residents to Berkeley’s downtown. So it’s not accurate to characterize those who support the referendum as being anti-density or anti-development, as the anti-referendum forces have done. While that may be true of a few of the referendum’s supporters, there are too many rock-solid progressives who have historically supported infill housing for that accusation to hold water. The referendum’s backers including two of the most consistent—and most consistently intelligent and well-informed—progressive voices on the council, Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington, along with several members of Berkeley’s pro-tenant, indisputably progressive Rent Board.  

As someone who has been a progressive activist since my preteen days, given the blessing of growing up in an anti-war, pro-civil rights, pro-labor family, and having worked as an organizer for a labor union in my early adulthood (the UFW), as well as on behalf of progressive candidates and causes in the East Bay and nationally for decades, I signed the referendum because I believe our City Council didn’t get it right. Given that the Downtown Area Plan will influence how Berkeley evolves for many years, even decades, to come, it’s worth taking the time to make sure the plan adopted fully reflects Berkeley’s values of environmentalism, social justice, and respect for community participation.  

Signing the referendum gives the City Council a chance to step back and incorporate the progressive elements of the original DAPAC plan, including protections for labor, a larger affordable housing component, a stronger transit component, a stronger environmental component, and a stronger Open Space Fund requirement rather than a watered-down wish list with major loopholes—and, yes, some protections to keep the really tall buildings in the central core of downtown rather than right up to the newly defined edges, where they impact nearby residential neighborhoods (the new boundaries are Dwight to the south and Hearst to the north). If we want to show how infill housing can work, then we need to do it with sensitivity to the impacts on the existing, already-dense neighborhoods in the flatlands. When Berkeley gets it right, other cities follow; but when we get it wrong, they run in the other direction.  

Berkeley shouldn’t be giving away public resources to for-profit developers (which is essentially what changing our zoning standards amounts to) without receiving substantial public benefits in return, including fair wages for workers, a healthy mix of affordable housing, and a strong Open Space Fund so that the downtown we end up with really is livable and green in addition to having more density, vibrant plazas, exciting arts and cultural resources, and a progressive heart the city’s residents can be proud of.  


Nancy Carleton is a former chair of Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board and former vice chair of its Parks and Recreation Commission.