Public Comment

Commentary: On Architecture and Building Heights in Berkeley

By Gerry Tierney
Thursday September 24, 2009 - 09:31:00 AM

Two recent articles in the Daily Planet, Steve Finacom’s regarding Parker Place in your Sept. 3 edition and Fred Dodsworth’s commentary regarding the Downtown Plan in your Sept. 17 edition, provide an interesting insight into how certain segments of the Berkeley population regard development and the built environment. As both a resident of Berkeley and a practicing architect—who has been very fortunate to work not only in Berkeley but also throughout North America and around the globe—I would like to make the following observations: In Finacom’s Parker Place article he acknowledges “… that there are substantial elements of the project to praise” and enumerates several programmatic benefits, going on to suggest the transformation of the Shattuck Avenue median into a linear park —a great idea that should be pursued further. However the rest of the article makes for depressing reading. Whereas comments regarding “the atrocious skin” are subjective and therefore open to debate, what I found troublesome and symptomatic of so much that is pushing Berkeley further into the margins of cultural irrelevancy was the quote—and following comment—from a letter by Design Review Committee member Bob Allen. In his opinion, Mr. Allen feels that the street facing character of the project resembled a “morose new neighborhood in Emeryville.” This, along with the comment by Mr. Finacom that he had “hit the nail on the head” as most people “hated the way the structure is wrapped in an Emeryville/San Francisco SOMA aesthetic” is in my mind a depressing realization that indeed Berkeley is now a culturally irrelevant dormitory suburb where, to quote John Kaliski, AIA, in his review of Thom Mayne’s UCLA “L.A. Now” studio, there exists a “normative city planning and urban design…that looks to a singularly defined and supposedly golden past … and (an) architecture or urbanism that turns its back on the present.” Now, I understand that what people like John Kaliski or Thom Mayne think is of no consequence to the majority of people in Berkeley, I think it does matter if Berkeley considers itself as something other than a typical culturally isolated suburb—it certainly has pretensions of something other than an El Cerrito or Walnut Creek. 

With regards to Mr. Dodsworth’s commentary regarding the Downtown Plan he makes some valid observations, such as the impact of commercial rent increases on downtown business—the three year vacancy of the former Radston Office Supply space being a good example—and the success of the “Arts District.” However, the Arts District two- and three-story buildings otwithstanding, I feel he misrepresents some crucial points of the Downtown Plan. Commercial rent and density do impact the viability of a retail district and that density needs to be reflected in foot traffic spread out across the day and evening, seven days a week. This is especially true for local businesses without access to national marketing or purchasing and is best achieved by residential development located close by. The economic viability “sweet spot” of a building relative to its height is impacted by several factors, which include construction type, fire and life safety requirements and lateral force design. However this is not a linear progression, but is more like a series of stair steps or development plateaus. A “4-over-1” (five-story) development steps up to an eight-story (uppermost floor less than 75 feet) development, which then steps up to the 18- to 22-story range. Beyond that, there is a large step to 40 stories, due to service core and lateral design considerations. Thus, the notion that developers would seek to build 30-stories instead of 20, as stated in his commentary, is not borne out by the realities of the construction or development market today or in the foreseeable future. 

Density is not synonymous with an “uglier…less livable downtown.” Mr. Dodsworth’s commentary concludes with the admonition to let San Francisco and Oakland be Manhattan and let Berkeley be Paris—if only. With regard to his apparent disdain for Manhattan, it is worth pointing out to those who feel the Downtown Plan as currently proposed is not “green” enough, that the resident’s of Manhattan have the lowest carbon footprint of anyone living in North America—it turns out that denser is greener and more sustainable. With regard to the desire to let Berkeley be like Paris—and who wouldn’t!—I don’t know which arrondissement Mr. Dodsworth had in mind when he calls for all of downtown Berkeley to be down zoned to four stories. Whether you are in the 5e or 6e arrondissement of St. Germaine, home to the Sorbonne, or across the river in the 3e or 4e arrondissement of the Marais, home to Alan Ducasse’s Bistrot Benoit on Rue Saint-Martin, you will be surrounded by six- to eight-story buildings throughout. Any Berkeley resident who takes objection to either the intimate quality of the Rue Saint-Martin (six-stories) or the graciousness of the Boulevard Saint-Germain (eight-stories) probably shouldn’t be living in a city. 

On the matter of high-rise towers, one can find attractive precedents in Vancouver, considered by many to be North America’s most livable city. Located on the edge of False Creek at Marinaside Crescent, east of Davie Street, the composition of the six 12- and 22-story residential towers located there are sleek sophisticated examples that would be a welcome addition to any city. By no stretch of the imagination is False Creek and its environs an unlivable neighborhood. 

One upon a time Berkeley had a reputation of being a center for innovative thinking. It prided itself in being at the forefront of ways to improve our world. That was then—this is now. Increasingly when I get back to Berkeley from being in various vibrant cities around the world, I’m overwhelmed by the dead hands of hubris and mediocrity. Hubris in the provincial nature of Berkeley’s discussion about the built environment—some of these folks really need to get out more—mediocrity in the “architecture and urbanism that turns its back on the present” to quote John Kaliski above. We have many fine talented architects and designers in this town—if Mr. Dodsworth and his cohorts really want to “let Berkeley be Paris” they should stand aside and let them get on with their job. 


Gerry Tierney, AIA LEED AP, is a Berkeley resident.