Public Comment

The Real Games of Berkeley, Part I

By Doug Buckwald
Thursday October 29, 2009 - 09:31:00 AM

There used to be stacks of a board game called “Calopoly”—a local version of Monopoly—in souvenir shops and toy stores near the UC campus. It’s not available any longer; the manufacturers apparently lost their license to market it. But don’t worry, in case you missed it the first time, you’re going to get a second chance to play—or, more accurately, watch a game being played—this time in real life on a giant gameboard that some Berkeley citizens quaintly refer to as our “downtown.” UC and the City Council will be the only real players at the table. However, this being Berkeley, it’s important to preserve the illusion of democratic participation, so local residents will be allowed to place a token historic property on the board from time to time, or sneak in a few little trees and a bench—just as long as they do not impede any major development plans. 

The funny thing is, there is no real reason for UC Berkeley to participate in the game at all. I mean, they’ve already won before the first roll of the dice. They can always outmuscle the market to buy any property they want, and then can literally build whatever they want on it—however tall or out-of-character or detrimental—because they have sovereign immunity and do not have to obey any Berkeley zoning laws at all. They are playing along simply to provide a veneer of cooperation to their schemes, the illusion of community participation—to perpetuate the myth that we are all playing on a level playing field. This is the primary purpose of any interaction that UC has with the Berkeley community. It’s all theater, meant to manipulate the opinions of those who aren’t paying attention to the details. It’s all part of the game. 

But wait, you may say, we have players at the table, too—our elected representatives. Surely they are fighting for us! Sadly, our Mayor and City Councilmembers are almost always willing to assist the university in whatever it wants to do—raising on their hind legs every once in a while, pan- 

ting, to receive the scraps that are tossed their way. It is always refreshing to see which side our elected representatives are really on—honesty is, at least, cathartic—after all the lip service they pay to “protecting the interests of the community” and “standing up to the university.” Humor, as you can see, is also part of this game. 

Some of you might be thinking that I’m being a little harsh on our city officials and university neighbors. You might think that there isn’t even any official rule book for the real-life “Calopoly” game going on right now. If you think that, you are wrong. The Official Rulebook of Calopoly (ORC) is usually referred to by its other name: “The 2020 Long Range Development Plan Litigation Settlement Agreement made by and among the University of California, Berkeley and the Regents of the University of California and the City of Berkeley, May 25, 2005.” It’s a lot easier to call it the Official Rulebook of Calopoly, though. 

Are there any special rules that spectators should be aware of to help them understand and appreciate the game more? You bet there are! On the very first page of the ORC, we learn that the University of California is a “California corporation,” and so it has all the expansive rights and minimal responsibilities that all corporations have. That is certainly a big advantage to bring to the game. Also, because it is a state organization, the university does not have to pay any local property taxes when it lands on any property on the board, no matter how long it stays. And, it does not have to obey any local laws at all regarding zoning, land use, construction, or environmental protection, among other things. That’s like having a permanent “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Sweet! 

Free parking? That can’t exist anywhere on the Berkeley gameboard, can it? Well, it certainly does. Whenever the university holds a large special event—and there are more and more of them all the time—they count on their attendees being able to park in all the residential neighborhoods around the campus. Our neighborhood streets are the free parking lots for the university—what a great deal for them! 

Recently, the university decided it didn’t like the size of the original gameboard for Calopoly. So, they arranged to make it twice as big—creating twice as much room to build bigger buildings—and, coincidentally, giving them twice as many neighborhood residents who will be forced to deal with UC’s hellish Capital Projects department for decades to come. What fun! The rule allowing that change is found on page 5 of the ORC, if you are a true fan and want to study the game stats. 

While the university will participate fully in the formulation of the rules and regulations regarding construction projects downtown that will legally apply to everybody else—they do not have to follow them! The rule making that clear is found on page 7: “The Regents will reserve their autonomy from local land use regulation.” That simple, unassuming statement is breathtaking in its scope and significance. The university can actually create the rules that others will be compelled to follow, and then can ignore them with abandon. Build hotels before building four houses? Sure! Build five hotels on one property? Why not? Build hotels on Water Works or Community Chest? No reason not to! Anything goes if you are the university. What a great game. 

Now, the goal of this particular round of Calopoly, which I forgot to mention, is to develop a new plan for development in downtown Berkeley, which would be called the Downtown Area Plan. But, believe it or not, after the plan is completed, the university can then decide that it can ignore the whole thing if the plan “does not accommodate UC Berkeley development in a manner satisfactory to the Regents.” (ORC, page 9). Not only that, if there are any problems with the downtown plan it helps produce, the university does not have to defend it against legal action. No, the generous citizens of the City of Berkeley will do that, as stated in the ORC on page 10. (Warning: Some of these citizens may not have read the ORC yet, and so might be surprised about this particular rule.) 

Before I conclude this first installment of “The Real Games of Berkeley,” I have to give credit to those who designed this new real-life version of Calopoly: Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates; City Manager Phil Kamlarz; former City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque; UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau; UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor Edward J. Denton; UC Regents General Counsel James E. Holst; and UC Regents General Counsel Joseph E. Jaramillo, (ORC, page 21). 

What a great design team. I’ve heard that the San Francisco Chronicle has nominated them for Gamers of the Year. Bravo! 


Doug Buckwald is a civic activist and long-time Berkeley resident. He enjoys playing board games that are not directly detrimental to Berkeley citizens.