Public Comment

Commentary: A Response to Capitelli on the Downtown Plan

By Tree Fitzpatrick
Thursday September 24, 2009 - 09:31:00 AM

Councilmember Capitelli seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding about the role the City Council plays in this city. It is his job to do what is best for the citizens, not what is best for real estate developers. He has an obligation to discern what the citizens want and then to do whatever he can to make that happen. He is not supposed to infantilize the citizenry and make decisions that the majority of citizens do not approve of. He is not supposed to think he knows better than the people know what is good for them. In his commentary, it makes it sound like all the folks who signed that petition are mindless children who don’t know what’s good for themselves. 

Capitelli reveals his contempt for citizen advisory groups, failing, apparently, to grasp that he is beholden to citizens. He makes it sound like the City Council can ignore citizen advisory groups and citizens. Mr. Capitelli, it is your job to both listen to citizen advisory groups and citizens, and to serve those groups. You are not supposed to serve real estate developers. You are supposed to help the City of Berkeley develop a downtown that its citizens want. If you see obstacles to what the citizens want, it is your job to help overcome those obstacles. It is not your job to give away our city, to kow-tow to greedy for-profit developers who donate to your election campaigns, who flatter you at cocktail parties and dinners and, for all we know, give jobs to your family and friends. You work for the citizens of Berkeley. 

Fortunately, here in Berkeley, we have caring activists who will not allow this City Council to ramrod a pro-development plan that does not provide enough affordable housing, does not protect labor, and does not protect the downtown environment. I hope the City Council is now on notice that they are going to have to start doing much better listening to citizen advisory groups, or we citizens can form another petition, get another 9,000-plus signatures and stop the next bad, pro-developer plan. Capitelli should now understand that citizen advice is something he needs to listen to, instead of deriding citizen advisories in the newspaper. 

If Mr. Capitelli is unable to do his job and help downtown Berkeley become the downtown its citizens want to see, then he should leave the City Council and make room for leaders who are dedicated to bringing the citizens’ dreams for our city into reality. The old saying ‘where there is a will there is a way’ is a universal truth. If our elected leaders were committed to creating the downtown that our citizens, not his developer buddies, want, then the City Council would find a way. 

I especially resent how Capitelli misrepresents the thousands of citizens who signed the petition to overturn the awful downtown plan Mr. Capitelli and his real-estate-developer-loving cohorts on the City Council passed. Capitelli insults the citizens. He suggests that thousands of us signed that petition without understanding the facts. 

The fact that Berkeley has such an engaged citizenry should be celebrated by its councilmembers. Rejoice, Mr. Capitelli, that so many people care passionately about Berkeley’s wellbeing! 

I don’t think there were paid signature gatherers. Since Capitelli makes so many distortions in his commentary, I question this fact. I talked to a lot of signature gatherers and all the ones I talked to were volunteers who care passionately about Berkeley and democracy. I did wonder, I admit, if some of the people who harassed this act of democracy—a citizen petition is democracy in action, Mr. Capitelli—I wonder if those horrifically behaved protestors who tried to suppress democracy by keeping people from signing their names, I wondered if any of them were paid to suppress the democratic process. It is a little scary to me to read one of our elected servants (servants, not dictators) complain about citizen activism.  

Capitelli makes it sound like most of the people who signed that petition did not understand what the petition or the competing downtown plans were about. I wonder if Capitelli realizes how insultingly he speaks of his constituents. He comes right out and insists that many signatories were misinformed and manipulated by a distortion of the facts. Speaking for myself, I sought out an opportunity to sign the petition. And I will tell you my greatest objection to the too-developer-friendly plan that Capitelli trills so happily about: the actual content of either plan did not upset me nearly as much as the arrogant dismissal of the City Council for the views of ordinary citizens. I was disgusted by the way the council pretended, for years, to value the work of the Downtown Area Plan Citizen Advisory and then, at the last minute, the council and city planning staff engaged in a lot of backdoor politicking, listening to aggressive lobbying from greedy developers who are always going to whine and complain. I signed that petition because I want my council to listen to the citizens over the developers. I signed that petition because I was sickened by the way the council and city planning staff behaved, deceiving the public and giving preference to developers’ views. 

And another thing. I am so angry about the way this council and the mayor steadily ignores the will of its constituents and blindly favors developers. Does anyone, including Capitelli and the other council members who voted for the plan that the petition drive has hopefully stopped, seriously believe that if Berkeley prohibits 20-story buildings and if Berkeley insists on more affordable housing and if Berkeley insists that developers pay for more green space as a concession for winning the right to build in Berkeley—does anyone seriously believe that no real estate developers will want to build in downtown Berkeley? 

If the city of Berkeley puts out the word that they would like to see new residential buildings downtown, with X percentage of affordable housing, and X labor guarantees and X green space, I guarantee Mr. Capitelli that builders will come. Maybe your real estate buddies won’t build here but I guarantee you that other developers will see that Berkeley is a fantastic market and they can make money building six-story, four-story buildings. 

It is nonsense to cry that no one will build in downtown Berkeley unless you make all those ridiculous concessions to the developers. 

If the city of Berkeley creates a wise development plan, outlining the criteria that all developers are legally bound to honor if they want to build in Berkeley, I guarantee you that builders will come. Builders will always want to take advantage of the economic opportunity that is downtown Berkeley. We don’t have to make endless concessions to the realtors sucking up to our City Council. There are other developers in the wings. I guarantee it. 

And if I am wrong, it this city limits downtown construction with tightly regulated affordable housing requirements, tight height requirements designed to preserve the small Paris-like atmosphere of our fair city, provide lots of green space in exchange for the substantial privilege of building in our city—we hold the cards. We don’t have to give them to the developers. If we pass a citizens’ approved downtown plan and absolutely no real estate developers want to build under the limitations of that plan, maybe it means that it isn’t supposed to happen. If the only way these ‘developers’ can make a buck in Berkeley is by destroying the quality of life for most citizens, gee, maybe we shouldn’t let that happen anyway. 

Do what is right, Mr. Capitelli. The City Council should set truly green, progressive* and livable plan for downtown Berkeley. Pass a plan that pleases the citizens. Put any plan to a vote. Let the people decide. And then, if no builders come, well, time will pass and we’ll figure something else out. But in the meantime, we don’t have to give extremely valuable building rights to builders who don’t seem to give a crap about Berkeley. All they care about is making a buck. And more power to them. This is America. but here in America, all citizens have a voice in their shared destiny. And if Mr. Capitelli, who speaks, in his commentary, so derisively about citizen advisory groups, doesn’t understand that all citizens have a voice in their shared destiny, then he should leave public office. I bet he could get a sweet job working for one of the developers he seems to care so much about. 

One more question for Mr. Capitelli. Why are you afraid, seemingly, to put the plan that you voted for, on the ballot? This is a democracy. The City Council is not in charge of this city. Its citizens are. Sometimes we citizens forget this. We allow the cumbersome public process to overwhelm us and make us feel that we can’t have a meaningful voice in our shared destiny. It confuses me why Mr. Capitelli wants to serve Berkeley’s citizens whilst disregarding input from its citizens and their advisory committees. If you think that a better informed citizenry would actually vote for the plan you and your cohorts ramrodded through, put it on the ballot and we’ll find out what the people prefer. 


*The affordable housing detail is the one most important to me. I don’t want any city to be an enclave for people who can afford million dollar condos. Te working class has rights. It isn’t right that only people with money can feel a sense of ownership in a city, and workers shouldn’t have to commute to their low-paying jobs. 


Tree Fitzpatrick is a registered voter in Berkeley.