President Lyndon Johnson once said that you can’t sell chicken poop as chicken soup. Only he didn’t say poop. New Yorker’s have a saying “money talks and bull manure walks” only they don’t say manure. I have found, especially over the last eight years, that both of these truisms are wrong. When you mix money with any kind of manure you can sell chicken poop as soup and money plus manure always rides in limousines. I am writing to counter the deep manure and the heavy money that is driving the changes to the West Berkeley Plan.
Point one. The current vibrant and resilient economy in West Berkeley is the result of the 20 plus year old West Berkeley Plan. Without the plan, West Berkeley would be a graveyard of overdevelopment from the latest dot-com or office building bust, two real estate busts—Savings and Loan and now Banking—the retail bust, and soon the genetic technology bust.
Point two. The citizens of West Berkeley are not incidental to the economy of West Berkeley, but central to it. I am as much a part of the economy as Bayer. Any change to the West Berkeley Plan should be for the general welfare and common good of the citizens of Berkeley and not mainly the benefit of large institutions or corporations.
Point three. The mosaic that is the West Berkeley Plan is a history of fads of development that have resulted in the large busts of the last 150 years. By preserving these designations, Berkeley will always have room to accommodate the starters of the next fad, but not face the worst of the downside—the busts—that always follows the fads.
Point four. Redefinition of the large industrial parcels will give huge, undeserved, windfalls to the current owners of these parcels and their replacements will add no more to the general welfare of West Berkeley than the current owners. The first negative impact of these proposed changes was the Bayer Corporation’s threat to depart Berkeley, which cost the city a loss in tax revenues, to prevent their departure. When Bayer realized that the property on which their plant exists will triple in value, it became a bottom line decision. They could relocate somewhere cheaper and take their profits in real estate and save millions in leasing costs.
Point five. Research and Development is not a money-making commercial venture it is a money risking venture with a risk of failure. The citizens of Berkeley should not be called upon to risk any part of their economy to aid large corporations with their risks.
Point six. West Berkeley is not underdeveloped, abandoned, living in the past, dirty, ugly, empty, crime-ridden, inhabited by criminals, an eyesore, a drain on the Berkeley economy or what ever bull manure pedaled by PR hacks funded by developer money. It is diverse, habitable, inhabited, constructive, creative, industrial, industrious, educational, educated, expanding, exciting, and ever-contributing to the great city of Berkeley. It does not need re-development, it is flexible, ever changing, and generates more than its share of revenue for the city.
Conclusion. Do not let money and bull manure sell the city chicken poop soup. The re-writing of the West Berkeley Plan through variances, exemptions, exceptions, and outright ignorance will kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Be exceptionally careful when thinking that future capitalist fads can be predicted by developers, politicians, or city planners. The West Berkeley Plan and its mosaic of uses ameliorate the dangers of over development, homogenization, and control of city resources brought on by the conflation of politics and money.
Harry Wiener is a resident of West Berkeley, and served as Margaret Breland’s appointee to the West Berkeley Planning Area Commission for eight years and served as the Commission’s Chair for two years.