Public Comment

The Theory of Urban (Un)Development

By Steve Martinot
Thursday January 28, 2010 - 08:38:00 AM

The idea of the Berkeley Downtown Plan was vetted last month by the ostensible representatives of the 5th and 6th districts. I call them “ostensible representatives” rather than “real” ones because they actively tried to stop the petition campaign to put this highly controversial Downtown Plan on the ballot. It was an overtly anti-democratic stance. The term “representative” needs to be reserved for those who foster as well as believe in democracy. But at their meeting, they spoke about their “dream” for downtown, I suppose in the hopes that we would represent them when it came time to vote. 

Their dream? That downtown would become a new neighborhood. Let’s look at this. 

To create a “new” neighborhood, you have to bring in people who then live there in a stable and attractive fashion. The first material requirement is apartment buildings. There are already stores, restaurants, parks, and a horrendous, irresolvable parking problem, as befits any stable, attractive dowtown area. Filling material requirements, however, is not enough. 

The Downtown Plan calls for high-rise buildings, which will significantly surpass local height limits, in order to house the stable, attractive humans who will populate this stable, attractive neighborhood by living there. In order to get an easement to surpass the city height limits, these buildings would have to offer what is called “social benefit.” When asked what would constitute “social benefit,” our dreamers mentioned wider sidewalks, parks, theaters, things like that, which already exist or which would make the parking problem worse. The major “social benefit,” however, was that more people would live in the area. 

Don’t you just love circles? These buildings can exceed height limits to bring in more people if they show an additional social benefit, and the social benefit they can show is bringing in more people. 

But circles come from somewhere. And indeed, one of our “ostensible representatives” actually admitted openly into the microphone that the 5,000 people they intended to shoehorn into downtown by building-height-violating buildings was not the city’s own idea but was mandated for Berkeley by ABAG, the Association of Bay Area Governments. (Hang in there; this isn’t the punch line.) ABAG is a stratum of government that is interposed between city and county councils and the state’s executive branch. It is not composed of representatives elected to it, and it is not accountable to any constituency (except corporate developers and financial interests). It takes its direction from the state and federal governments, and it “allocates” development norms and plans (for new housing) to the cities and counties in the bay area. It enforces its “allocations” by the power to blackmail any recalcitrant entity (city or county) by threatening to cut off state and federal funds for local operations, such as public transportation and education. ABAG has the power to do that by state statute. Again, we have non-representation, in which the people have to represent higher bodies of non-democratic government. 

Perhaps it was out of responsibility to ABAG that our ostensible representatives thought it more ethical to be undemocratic and oppose the petititon for a referendum on the Downtown Plan, rather than be democratic and let the people decide. 

But the kicker is the dynamic of “neighborhood building” itself. The 5,000 new people ABAG wants to bring into downtown Berkeley will mostly be people who fled to the suburbs during the era of white flight, and whom their corporate employers now want to bring back into town so that they don’t have to spend three hours a day sitting on expressways in their suburban commute. If middle-income people move in to a new area, in order to make it a “neighborhood,” the land values will rise, and commercial rents will go up. And so will the parking problem, since the middle-class people who would ideally move into the housing will have cars, as behooves their lifestyle, even living next to a BART station (unless they are mostly students, in which case you don’t get a neighborhood because the population remains unstable and transient). Out-of-downtowners will get squeezed out by a car population, and the existing stores’ custom will be shifted to local people. But the stores will face a squeeze by the increased rent. Many will close, and residents will move to more attractive areas. End of stability. 

One of the more perspicacious citizens at the meeting last month raised this question and drew its logical conclusion. Some form of commercial and residential rent stabilization will be essential for the area to become a “neighborhood.” She was careful not to use the “no-no phrase.” But I won’t. Without some form of rent control, an attempt to build a “new neighborhood” will implode. But rent control is illegal in California. And that’s the bind the dreamers are in. They need to be acting to change the law before imposing imploding dreams. 

Here we have the “cultural” requirements for a neighborhood. For urban development, certain infrastructural elements must be provided first. One is surface public transportation for people and not for rapidity. A second is laws that stabilize rent, so that commercial establishments can balance their books, and withstand the development of new housing. Third, the plans for development have to have input from those who will be affected by them. Input does not mean just running one’s mouth at a microphone in front of bored commissioners but participation in formulating plans and guiding ideas in dialogue, not monologue, and then getting to vote on it. A vote should be a ratification process of what the people have done and not a rubber stamp for what is handed down from on high. To dream of a neighborhood, you have to put people first, not developers and their Downtown Plans. 


Steve Martinot is a Berkeley resident.