Public Comment

Commentary: Not In My Backyard

By Joanne Kowalski
Thursday September 24, 2009 - 09:36:00 AM

Last month when I stopped to sign the petition for a referendum on the Downtown Berkeley plan, I was accosted by a woman from the build-Berkeley-bigger faction who attempted to get me not to sign. Her argument seemed to be that infill, in the form of tall buildings downtown, was the only way to combat the non-sustainable urban sprawl that was eating up more and more of our farmland and contributed so greatly to our planet’s ills. To oppose this plan, she implied, was NIMBYism on the part of those who had theirs and who were unwilling to work on saving the environment for those to come. 

Now, I live only four short blocks from City Hall. Downtown is my backyard. I am committed to saving the planet in general and in particular to reducing urban sprawl. However I do not believe that building bigger building will solve any of our problems. If anything, Manhattenizing Berkeley will only make the situation worse.  

For over 60 years, building bigger, taller buildings has been our country’s standard solution to almost any urban ill. After World War II, Urban Renewal was touted as the way to revitalize aging and decaying neighborhoods near the city’s central core. For twenty years, federal and state programs throughout the country were responsible for the massive demolition of smaller, older structures and the building of high rises (via perks to corporations) in their place. In this process, thousands of communities were decimated and millions of individuals, families and small local businesses were displaced. (For instance, between 1948 and 1963 in Chicago alone over 200,000 people were displaced by this process.)  

While sometimes referred to as ‘negro removal’ programs, urban renewal projects targeted older, established white ethnic as well as African-American communities. While racially or ethnically homogeneous, these communities usually had a diversity with regard to age, income and education along with many locally owned businesses and strong family and friendship ties. As new construction favored institutional expansion, high rise commercial buildings and upscale apartments, all but a few of the former residents had no choice but to move out. The white ethnic families who could afford it scattered to the newly developed suburbs while their African-American counterparts made inroads into adjacent previously all white neighborhoods. The elderly were funneled to retirement communities and nursing homes while 20 story prison like projects were built to warehouse those too  poor to move. This mini diaspora fueled the massive suburban development that has contributed so much to global warming and is responsible for our present day urban sprawl. 

This movement to the suburbs, often called ‘white flight’, is usually attributed to racism. But while racism certainly contributed to ‘white flight’, it was not the only cause. As those pushed out of their communities crowded into other well-established older communities density and traffic increased. So did crime. Racial tensions got played out in everyday life. Turf wars happened. Increased anonymity, real estate practices like redlining and blockbusting, failing schools, traffic congestion and the closure of services like post offices and Y’s all contributed to the decision on the part of those who could afford it, particularly young families, to move out. 

As a result, more and more farmers’ fields were leveled to build cheap boxes called homes. Freeways were built to accommodate the movement of the worker from the new suburbs to his downtown job. (Cars were made affordable for almost all.) The building of these roadways caused even greater displacement as they cut their way willy-nilly through other well-established communities often separating residents from their previously walkable schools and stores.  

This outward movement left in its wake wide swatches of inner city blight and decay which was often exacerbated by the decline of industry with its abandoned factories and loss of jobs. Since then the response of most cities to their burgeoning urban problems and failing economies has been (and continues to be) to build even  


Joanne Kowalski is a central Berkeley resident. 


bigger, taller buildings. Downtown. 

In the 1970’s Detroit, which leads the nation in bad planning, embarked on a big building frenzy even as the auto industry crumbled and manufacturing went into a major decline. They razed the Downtown along the Detroit River in order to construct a 79 story hotel surrounded by 39 story office towers (courtesy of GM) along with a host of smaller (20+ story) offices, government buildings and condos, a convention center, casinos, coliseum, riverfront park and spiffy central city light rail in a vain effort to revitalize a dying town. Today, on the other side of the parking lots that surround these megabuildings at the city’s core are empty, abandoned older 10 and 20 story buildings. Beyond them lies an over 40 square mile strip of urban blight that has over 70,000 empty homes and commercial buildings with an equal number of vacant lots where houses, factories, schools and stores have been razzed or burned out. Despite this and despite the fact that the Detroit area has lost over a million residents due to its failed economy, farmland continues to be gobbled up along the periphery of the metropolis, new housing continues to be built and the suburbs march on. Even Chicago with its better economy, its light rail system and much lauded Loop of skyscrapers, museums, universities and parks, has a more than five miles deep expanding belt of urban desolation that your average suburban commuter is afraid to enter along with new housing developments on the fringe that are continuing to relentlessly destroy farmland of even neighboring states. 

California has not been immune to this kind of development. Today, more bigger, glitzier developments are planned at a time when California’s unemployment rate is high (fourth in the nation, right behind Michigan) and budgetary woes have cut essential services beyond the bone. 

The Bay Area already has its dead zones of empty stores and boarded up buildings. There are people sleeping on the streets, in shelters, cars and on their grandmothers’ couches. Inner city services like schools, libraries, recreational facilities, public health and police are so minimal they can be considered to not exist. Along with this, the recent housing bust is leaving swatches of empty foreclosed houses, while planned factory closures guarantee to make the situation worse. 

Berkeley lies between two Bay Area cities - Richmond and Oakland - that have more than their share of decay and  blight. Despite its suburban university self-image, Berkeley is also a city with a density greater than either Oakland or Richmond along with almost twice the national rate of property crimes.  It has urban problems - congestion, parking, noise, murder. traffic fatalities, empty storefronts, drugs, gangs, environmental pollution, wilding, alienation, poverty and homelessness - particularly in its densest neighborhoods south and west of the university. Over the past twenty-five years the commercial areas in these neighborhoods have lost much of their vitality as locally owned, neighborhood friendly businesses have been priced/pushed out by chains who then, when profits dried up, moved on leaving behind sites empty so long they appear to be permanently abandoned. With every turn of the screw the response by the City in collusion with the University has been the same old same-old: build more bigger, taller buildings Downtown. This solution is not sustainable. It is not working, has not, will not work. 

Other cities now realize this. Planners in Chicago are working with neighborhoods to bring about solutions that will strengthen their local communities. Pittsburgh, PA has committed itself to local public education. Detroit and Youngstown, OH are moving toward ‘shrinking’ themselves to create green, livable urban areas.  

Here in the East Bay we have so many people with good, workable sustainable ideas, like Van Jones, Carl Anthony, Alice Waters and the community gardening and historical preservation folk that it would be almost criminal to settle for a model that has a fifty year history of failure.  

So yes, I am opposed to a policy that has contributed so much to global warming.  

Not in my backyard. 


Joanne Kowalski is a central Berkeley resident.