Full disclosure: I go to downtown Berkeley, a lot. Last year I spent about $4,000 on downtown enterprises, including gym memberships, pharmacy items, photocopying, movies, plays, restaurants, stationery, computer repairs, hardware, and, not least, the Saturday Farmers Market. For me downtown is a place to shop, a place for entertainment, (and a place to hunt for parking, more on that later).
Tuesday night I went to a meeting sponsored by the Downtown Berkeley Association. Three people, a city councilmember and two architect/planner consultants, gave arguments about higher density and taller buildings in downtown. Three people including a city councilmember, a planning commissioner, and a neighborhood acti-vist, gave arguments on the opposite side or maybe on the same side but with caveats. We in the audience looked at mysterious PowerPoint pie charts that purportedly showed that high-rises downtown were good for reducing the “carbon footprint” (the term was not explained) and unreadable graphs purportedly showing that only very tall buildings make low-cost housing possible. We heard about alphabet soup rules and mandates (ABAG, SB375) which were sort of, kind of, explained, once audience participation was allowed. We heard a few arguments about the questionable value of increasing downtown density from the National Research Council (bad report, because it was done under Bush) and UC Irvine (good report because it was done at a UC campus).
What nobody talked about was my downtown: its shops, its cafes, or its institutions. I never heard the word “retail” or “restaurant.” We saw artists’ renderings of wider sidewalks with lots of trees (which we were told could only come with the fees generated by high-rise buildings). But we never saw a picture of a commercial sign, except for one from a historic postcard, which was pointed out as demonstrating that buildings are even taller with signs on top. The words “public library” or “YMCA” were never mentioned. While there was lots (and lots) of talk about UC, which borders downtown, there was, at most, one mention of Berkeley City College, which sits in the center (on Center Street) and no mention of Berkeley High School, whose 2,000 students visit downtown everyday on their noon recess.
I walk to downtown when I have the time, the weather is mild, and my purchases are small (i.e., not on Farmers Market days). I drive other times and share the frustration of trying to find a parking space. Nobody on the panel ever discussed parking in connection with downtown visitors. It was mentioned, only as a bad thing, for downtown workers and downtown residents. Since my two favorite small town downtowns, Santa Monica and San Luis Obispo, both have lots of cafes, shops, and lots of parking but not a lot of housing, I would have liked some comment on this. There was no mention of what the downtown merchants think about parking or what downtown professional firms think about parking for their employees and clients. I began to wonder about the sponsors of the meeting. What is the Downtown Berkeley Association? It doesn’t seem to be concerned about downtown shopkeepers, or employers, or cultural institutions, except for UC. Having once in my long job history worked on high-rise building projects for real estate development I know that developers usually hate parking because it never “pencils out” (word from the Tuesday meeting), i.e., makes a profit. So I began to wonder if the DBA is primarily made up of developers. What about the rest of downtown? What about the really smart guy who fixes my Mac and the really nice manager at the copy center who got my Christmas cards printed in just the right shade of blue? What about the helpful man at Peets who let me go in front of the line to pick up my coffee order to take to an early morning meeting for library fundraising? What about Tim Mueller of Riverdog Farms, who didn’t get my business the Saturday that the City gave its parking structure to UC for a football game? And what about me?
Christopher Adams is a retired architect and city planner and long-time Berkeley resident.