Public Comment

Back to Downtown Plan Drawing Board

By Thomas Lord
Wednesday November 25, 2009 - 08:55:00 AM

After years of highly contentious and difficult work, we have before us some possible Downtown Plans—not all that much different from one another. We’ve learned a lot and many good ideas have been put forward. Expertise in various areas is far more widespread than when the process started. And yet, who today, in the current economic situation, can believe in any variation of the plans before us? It is, sadly, time to go back to the drawing board. 

Here is a case for “starting over” on the Downtown Plan and on economic and infrastructure development in Berkeley generally. My case comes in three parts: (1) The Downtown Plan is based on assumptions that have proved false. (2) We are better off encouraging development in other parts of the flats and lower foothills, if we are careful about it. (3) There are positive steps we can take, starting tomorrow. 


Part one: Downtown planning is based on false assumptions 

The Downtown Plan assumed that higher-income families could be attracted to downtown Berkeley, and yet downtown households remain below the Berkeley median income, with families under-represented. 

There is no evidence of pent-up demand from higher-income families to settle downtown. The Downtown Plan elements such as the ambitious Cal museum and UC-backed hotel on Oxford and Center streets have failed; the museum plan has been significantly scaled back and, in the words of our mayor, the hotel plan “has no prospect.”  

The Downtown Plan is predicated on an assumption of rising commercial real estate values, and yet it is widely believed that commercial real estate values are a bubble on the verge of bursting. Attracting ultimately doomed development projects may have the net effect of disrupting existing businesses and increasing the city’s operational and infrastructure costs, resulting in a net decrease in city revenue from downtown. As the foreclosure crisis and unemployment crisis continue to unfold, and as UC scales back and cancels its plans, it is clear that assumptions need to be rethought. 


Part two: We are better off developing elsewhere in Berkeley and developing more intelligently 

If one travels along the major corridors of Southwest, Northwest, and Northeast Berkeley one can find long stretches of under-utilized land adjoining residential areas that are under-served by retail. These areas are prime targets for mixed-use development. 

What of our industrial infrastructure? 

If one examines the industrial parts of West Berkeley one finds Bayer—our largest private employer—who has deigned to stay only after bending Berkeley over a barrel for tax breaks. As well Bayer should, for their presence here is in support of a single product, with a limited patent lifetime, that could as well be manufactured in Detroit. One also finds, for example, some office space dedicated largely in support of the BP/LBL/Cal energy research initiative. 

What we’ve learned since those guests were invited in is that (a) Berkeley proper has no special attraction to those institutions; (b) most of their revenues are “pass through money” that fails to recirculate in Berkeley; (c) the built environment they will leave behind is almost useless for any other purpose; (d) these firms harm rather than hurt Berkeley’s export/import ratio; (e) these firms don’t do a good job of creating jobs for Berkeley residents. 

If West Berkeley is to be our light industrial zone, we should be draconian in mandating that new construction is highly flexible, suitable for inexpensive reconfiguration for the needs of anything from a machine shop or speaker manufacturer to an Internet start-up, to a live-work artistic space, to a live-event venue. On the grey market, truly flexible light industrial spaces are thriving elsewhere in the East Bay. Berkeley has an opportunity to build a lasting infrastructure for such economic uses on a legitimate basis. 


Part three: There are positive steps we can take 

The city should make a priority of improving its export/import ratio, and the first step is to measure it more carefully. I recommend Jane Jacobs’ The Life and Death of Great American Cities to all participants in the debate. 

The city should make a priority of enabling or running intra-city public transportation without reliance on AC Transit. Technologically and economically, there is a wealth of options to be explored with basic trade-offs such as public vs. private operation, particular vehicle types, route management tactics, fee collection integration, etc. The goal should be to make public transporation the most attractive option for intra-city travel, even when carrying a bi-cycle or other light cargo. In addition, if we hope to bring in many workers or shoppers from outside the city we should encourage arrival at peripheral hubs followed by intra-city transport to and from destinations. We’ve an amazingly small geographic area to cover and a unique economically and intellectually advantaged position; it can’t be that hard to get it right. 

The city should begin studying how to zone for a flexible-use light industrial space for West Berkeley. If a Bayer-type operation wants to come in, and new buildings will be built in connetion to this, we should ensure that the buildings are flexible enough to accomodate anything that might follow that corporation. 

They city should begin to explore development options for the neglected regions of the flats more eagerly than downtown options. 

That ends the case I promised to make. I have one last thing before I sign off, if you can forgive a folksy take: 

One view is that Berkeley’s troubles are like an apple rotten at the core. If downtown is the core and fails, greater Berkeley fails. Berkeley rots from inside out. 

Perhaps a better analogy is that downtown Berkeley is the crown of a tree whose roots reach out to all the other parts of Berkeley. In this view, it is a disease of the roots—the flatlands and the non-central foothills especially—that are producing symptoms of disease in the crown. Berkeley is rotting from the periphery to the core, in this view. 



Thomas Lord is a Berkeley resident.