Public Comment

Commentary: Downsize the Downtown

By Fred Dodsworth
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:48:00 AM

The Berkeley Downtown Plan our City Council recently tried to foist on us was turned back by direct citizen-action with an astounding 9,200 signatures, nearly twice the number required to place this highly controversial proposal on the ballot. Clearly the city’s Downtown Plan isn’t the downtown the citizens of Berkeley want, nor is it the fatally-compromised downtown plan the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) approved. 

While seven of our council-folk were willing to compromise our community for developer profits, clearly the citizens are adamantly opposed to a bigger, uglier, denser, less livable downtown. The good folks of Berkeley want a livable downtown rather than a developer-friendly piggybank with oversized monstrosities that blot out the sun. The folks who live here and vote here want to keep our downtown to Berkeley scale. 

One of the factors which drove the city council’s plan over the cliff was the claim that developers couldn’t profitably build anything in the downtown over four stories, unless they were allowed to build substantially over ten stories! (This excuse has to do with construction methods.) Rather than giving the developers whatever they want, the city should have down-zoned the whole damn downtown to four stories so developers could continue to make profits while we kept the downtown we want! Everyone knows that developers will find some way around the restrictions and build seven story buildings if they have a four-story limit, but at least those buildings won’t be San Francisco high. If we let developers have 20-story buildings they’ll demand we let them build 30-story buildings, because developers always push the limits for higher profits. 

The claim that folks want a better downtown is correct but it’s not because downtown isn’t big enough or dense enough. It is because our downtown lacks vitality. Despite the plethora of new five-story buildings up and down Shattuck and University avenues, there are a lot of empty storefronts—still rents haven’t come down to meet the market. The people and businesses of Berkeley suffer with each empty storefront. What strangles our commercial districts are parasitic rental rates. No neighborhood-serving store can afford $3.50 to $5 per square-foot rents! Black Oak Books was paying $17,000 a month in rent before it went out of business! Radston’s Office Supply, a business that had employed folks, contributed services and paid taxes (as much as $400,000 a year) for 60 years, was forced out of Berkeley when the landlord raised their rent! Now that building sits empty contributing nothing. Similarly the 25,000 square-foot former Tower Records store on Durant has been empty for almost 10 years. Obscene commercial rents are the undoing of Berkeley’s much vaunted economic stability, not lack of density.  

Look at the excitement and growth of our ‘Arts District’ where two- and three-story buildings are the norm. What makes our ‘Arts District’ sustainable is that these cultural treasures owns their buildings, like La Peña, like Ashkenaz, like Shotgun Players, like Chez Pannise. When they’re successful, they reap the benefits, not a rapacious landlord who would squeeze the life out of our treasured, local institutions. One of the reasons Berkeley wasn’t hurt more profoundly by the current economic downturn is that we have so few mainstream corporate chain stores. Locally-owned stores are flexible and capable of meeting local needs. 

It’s time for the citizens of Berkeley to talk to their neighbors about more traffic, more speeding cars, more people, and more giant ugly buildings and whether that’s the future they want. Write letters and make phone calls: Tell your council member to ‘Downzone the whole damn Downtown.’ Let San Franciso or Oakland be Manhattan. Let Berkeley be Paris. 


Fred Dodsworth is a Berkeley resident.