Public Comment

Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle

By Dave Blake
Thursday October 15, 2009 - 01:05:00 PM

A decade ago downtown developer Patrick Kennedy regularly explained to the Zoning Adjustments Board that we needed to approve his use-every-inch projects because it was just that kind of density that produced Paris. That argument disappeared once Kennedy started building seven-plus story buildings; Paris, except for a relatively small and contained office park, is comprised almost exclusively of six-story or smaller buildings. 

Now it’s Manhattan. Suddenly you can’t spend 30 seconds at a public forum, in person, online, or in print, without someone telling you how Manhattanites don’t own cars, have wee little carbon footprints, can’t contemplate living anywhere else, and generally enjoy a style of living all Americans should seek to emulate. 

Comparisons are odious, the proverb runs. I don’t think it’s strictly true. This Sunday’s New York Times had an article in which a doctor said that patients regularly described the progress of E.coli poisoning as “worse than childbirth,” and that was pretty illuminating, even for a guy. But when comparisons are used in public debate, it’s almost always an attempt to replace real discussion with soundbites. 

Berkeley is not Manhattan. Move the financial center of America here, open a few hundred museums, give us a half dozen intensive ethnic neighborhoods with great cuisines, surround us on all sides with huge waterways to forever constrict the available real estate, and wait a few decades until that stew creates a private-car–less infrastructure; then we’ll talk. 

Berkeley citizens interested in the fate of our downtown have some real questions that call for some real old-fashioned answering:  

How carbon-friendly is it to tear down usable buildings and replace them with the much higher ones called for in the City Council’s plan? For buildings higher than six stories, developers have to abandon wood-supported construction and go to a totally different and much more intensive structural system that requires steel throughout.  

All the new residence buildings in downtown—The Berkeleyan, the Fine Arts, Gaia, the Bachenheimer, even the much-touted Library Gardens—are populated by students. Who are the people who are actually going to want to—or could afford to—live in downtown 20-plus-story towers?  

What is the council majority’s evidence that tall buildings are the sine qua non of fabulous nightlife? And how will we get downtown to enjoy it without using our cars? 

Where will we get the money for the tens of millions of dollars in downtown improvements called for in their plan if the instructions to staff for determining fees is to first of all protect the developers’ profits?  Land-Use Policy 8.3: “When establishing provisions for new fees and financing strategies, consider how fees and extractions may discourage development, so as to make these provisions consistent with the intent of this plan.” 

That’s the kind of information we need; everything else pales in comparison.  


Dave Blake is former chair of the Zoning Adjustments Board.