Public Comment

Poisoning the Debate About Downtown

By Charles Siegel
Thursday August 27, 2009 - 01:02:00 PM

The downtown plan could have moved Berkeley toward a more cooperative approach to planning. Instead, it has stirred up antagonisms that will poison the debate about smart growth for many years to come. 

The DAPAC plan was a compromise forged during four years of meetings that included all factions in the city. If the Planning Commission and City Council had simply passed the DAPAC plan, it would have had broad support. Except for the small fringe who oppose everything, virtually everyone would have supported the DAPAC plan as a reasonable compromise.  

Instead, the planning commissioners allowed more high-rises than the DAPAC plan. They also dropped green building requirements; they say this is necessary to make it economically feasible to build high-rise housing downtown, but they do not mention that they also increased the parking requirement for housing beyond the DAPAC plan, which makes it less economically feasible to build rental housing downtown. 

The council stepped back a bit from the PC plan, but the council passed a plan that provoked a huge storm of protest and a referendum. Many people who would have backed the DAPAC plan were pushed into the opposition. 

In the most foolish and counterproductive move that I have seen during my decades of watching Berkeley politics, some planning commissioners and members of Livable Berkeley trailed the petitioners and disrupted their conversations with voters. It is a psychological truism that frustration causes aggression, and I expect that these frustrated petitioners will fight even more fiercely against development in the future. Supporters of the PC plan may have stopped one referendum, but they have embittered the debate over development permanently. 

To gauge the emotional reaction of these petitioners, the planning commissioners and councilmembers should imagine how they would feel if they were walking the streets talking one-on-one to constituents, and if someone followed them wherever they went and disrupted every conversation they had. After a couple of hours of being followed and disrupted, I expect they would consider the disrupters enemies for life. 

(Warning: I caution readers to keep this a thought-experiment and not to try it on Mayor Bates to see how he reacts.) 

Elected officials can back policies that appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. Or they can back policies that are offensive to large numbers of voters and then try to crush the opposition. 

Our city government chose the divisive strategy. I can predict the likely result by looking at two bits of recent Berkeley history. 

First, I predict that one ugly high-rise will be built, and the reaction against it will set back the cause of smart growth in Berkeley for decades. 

This has already happened. In the 1960s, the Great Western Building was built on Center and Shattuck, and it provoked such a strong reaction that NIMBYs dominated Berkeley’s development politics during the 1970s and 1980s. The Bank of America had been planning to build a large building across the street, but the anti-development reaction was so fierce that the bank built the one-story suburban building and parking lot that have blighted downtown ever since. 

Second, I predict that some frustrated petitioners may be angry enough to look for game-changer strategies to shake up the council. 

Something like this also has already happened. In the 1980s, the BCA dominated Berkeley politics, with eight of nine votes on the council, but it made the political mistake of building affordable housing on school sites. This antagonized people who had never been active in Berkeley politics before and who passed a district-election initiative that shook up the council and reduced the BCA’s influence to near zero. 

Today, the obvious game-changer would be a term-limit initiative. Term limits have passed virtually everywhere that they have been on the ballot, and I have no doubt that they would pass if they were on the Berkeley ballot in an election with a heavy turnout. 

I would not be surprised if some of the frustrated petitioners were already thinking about term limits for councilmembers as a way of unseating the Planning Commission appointees who trailed them. 

At this point, I think the best thing the council could do is to put the DAPAC plan on the ballot. Tell the voters that this is the compromise that was worked out during four years of negotiations among all factions in the city, and give the voters the choice of adopting this compromise plan instead of the divisive PC plan. 

Then the voters would have the opportunity to support a more cooperative, consensus-based approach to planning, rather than the narrow, antagonistic approach that is now poisoning the debate over smart growth downtown. 


Charles Siegel has been advocating smart growth in Berkeley for decades.