Public Comment

ABAG and Downtown Development

By Revan Tranter
Thursday February 04, 2010 - 08:51:00 AM

Steve Martinot’s Jan. 28 article, “The Theory of Urban (Un)Development” was disappointing in many respects, but I’ll confine myself to one of them. It concerns ABAG, the Association of Bay Area Governments, for which I served as executive director for 22 years before retiring 15 years ago. During these 37 years, my family and I have been Berkeley residents. 

  Mr. Martinot alludes to “5,000 people ABAG wants to bring into downtown Berkeley.” He describes ABAG as “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 is not accountable to any constituency (except corporate developers and financial interests.” From this one would have no idea that: 

1. For the last half-century or so, regional councils of governments (usually known as COGs), composed of city and county elected officials, have been the norm across the United States, in urban areas large and small, as the way most metro areas deal with problems and challenges that cross local boundaries. With several hundred across the country and 25 in California, they undertake activities from regional land use and transportation planning, to financial services, risk management, public safety coordination, seismic safety research and preparation, and so on. Next time you’re on the Bay Trail, look for the small logo on the signs, and you’ll see it’s the ABAG Bay trail. 

  2. By law, the Calif. Dept. of Housing & Community Development allocates, every seven years, to metropolitan areas throughout the state its calculation of the number of housing units needed by four different levels of income-earners. It is then the responsibility of the regional council of governments (Southern Calif. Assn. of Govts., San Diego Assn. of Govts, Sacramento Area Council of Govts., and so on) to take that figure and allocate it throughout the region’s communities as fairly as possible. 

  3. ABAG could hardly have undertaken its responsibility (to allocate 214,500 housing units for the years 2007-2014) more thoroughly, thoughtfully and openly. For many months, a volunteer group of elected officials and city and county staff from throughout the Bay Area worked hard, with a lot of give-and-take along the way, to devise a methodology that would be accepted as widely as possible. The criteria that had to be balanced included water and sewer capacity, expected household and employment growth, protected open space, land barriers (e.g. steep slopes and environmental hazards), proximity to transit, homeless population, etc. Once ABAG’s Executive Board had approved the methodology, meetings were held throughout the Bay Area. Everything was publicly noticed, agendas and minutes were published promptly, and, after the plan’s adoption, an appeals process took place before the plan became final and was submitted to the state.  

  4. Mr. Martinot’s statement that “5,000 people ABAG wants to bring into downtown Berkeley” is totally inaccurate. First of all, Berkeley’s allocation for 2007-14 isn’t even half that figure. It’s 2,431. Second, ABAG isn’t bringing anyone into downtown Berkeley, or to any particular location in any city. Not only would it not have the time, resources or knowledge to do so, but it would fly in the face of each jurisdiction’s responsibility to plan within its own boundaries as its own elected officials determine.  

  5. To say that ABAG is “a stratum of government that is interposed between city and county councils and the state’s executive branch,” as though it is something sinister and unique, completely ignores the fact that this is how all our key nine-county regional agencies function (other than: the the Air Quality Management District, the Bay Conservation & Development Commission, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, as well as ABAG. They are composed of county supervisors and city council mayors and members, chosen by their colleagues. They undertake complex tasks to guide the future of this immense metro area of over seven million people (in addition, of course, to their local responsibilities) with scarce reward and little thanks.   

  6. Mr. Martinot laments that ABAG “is not composed of representatives elected to it.” In dashing off this sardonic comment, he seems to ignore the fact that an elected body for a growing population of seven million people, unless it were to have a governing body so unwieldy as to be useless, would involve constituencies approaching half a million residents. And if you don’t think that would keep out the little guy and place everything in the hands of fat-cat contributors, the U.S. Supreme Court has news for you. 

  As I said at the start, the Jan. 28 article was disappointing. Not least, I guess, because it’s not necessary for those of us on the political left to demonize in the fashion of the Tea Party brigades. Sarah Palin has her Death Panels, Mr. Martinot chooses ABAG’s supposed effect on Berkeley. Both are fictitious. 


Revan Tranter is a former executive director of ABAG.