Leading Berkeley Down the Primrose Pathway

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday February 18, 2010 - 08:54:00 AM

The results are in! The winner of this month’s Orwell Prize is……Tom Bates, for his brand shiny new Green Pathways program, announced this week at the City Council’s Hidden Agenda Committee.  

The Orwell Prize is awarded ad lib to the branding strategy which gives the most ironically incorrect name to the most unappealing enterprise. It is often won, for example, by subdivisions named by builders after the natural features they destroy (“Sheltering Oaks” for an area clear-cut to build tract houses.) A frequent apologist for the local building industry is in the branding trade, and it’s easy to imagine that he had a hand in naming the proposal. 

A better name for “Green Pathways” might be “Primrose Path,” since it’s designed to lead gullible councilmembers now, and gullible voters in November, to believe that turning areas like downtown Berkeley into concrete corridors will somehow prevent climate change, accumulating evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.  

Once more, folks, with feeling this time: We can’t just build our way out of global warming.  

Whether new buildings are claimed to be silver, gold, or platinum, they’re never as green as existing buildings. That’s because the building that’s already on site embodies a lot of sunk environmental costs. 

Here’s Richard Moe on the topic on the excellent Planetizen website: 


“Buildings are vast repositories of energy. It takes energy to manufacture or extract building materials, more energy to transport them to a construction site, still more energy to assemble them into a building. All of that energy is embodied in the finished structure, and if the structure is demolished and landfilled the energy locked up in it is totally wasted. What’s more, demolition uses still more energy, and, of course, the construction of a new building in its place uses even more.” 


Oh, you say, but building a whole bunch of new stuff in downtown Berkeley could get a whole bunch of people out of their cars because they’ll want to move there from their hills homes. Maybe, but: 


“The use of all of that energy releases tremendous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. For example, it is estimated that building a new 50,000-square-foot commercial building releases about the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere as driving a car 2.8 million miles.” 


It’s often contended by builders with corporate and/or union affiliations that construction near transit nodes will reduce greenhouse gasses. These folks have even successfully lobbied for state legislation to promote their agenda.  

But the science just isn’t there to support this urban legend. Planning commissioners at a recent Downtown Berkeley Association forum exhaustively discussed recent papers which disprove the theory that building near transit reduces auto use. Among other things, it seems that people who choose to live in such locations are already non-drivers, as you might expect, so few are lured out of cars. 

But at least the new buildings will be LEED-certified, won’t they? Yes, but: 


“Don’t assume that the energy efficient operations of that new green building will offset the environmental costs associated with demolishing and replacing an existing building. A recent study from the United Kingdom finds that it can take between 35-50 years for a new, energy efficient home to recover the carbon expended during the construction of the house.” 


And the mayor’s new scheme is all about demolition, of course, which has been a major theme of his administration. He’s tried and failed more times than we can count to make it possible to tear down old buildings in order to provide building sites for his cronies. 

First shot out of the barrel was his “Task Force on Permits and Development,” now six or seven years ago, which was shamelessly stacked with developers and their advocates. The bastard child of that effort was Measure LL, an attempted revision of the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance in which the “Request for Determination” ploy first surfaced. Measure LL was soundly defeated by the voters. 

Like The Undead in horror movies, the RFD survived the death of Measure LL. Now it’s back again in the Pathway Plan.  

Here’s how it works: If a wannabe builder found that a coveted site was encumbered by an existing building, he could pay an “expert” in historic preservation to produce a “study” to argue that the building had no historic merit. The Landmarks Preservation Commission (all volunteers with no dedicated fulltime staff member knowledgeable about preservation) would have a short three months to disagree, after which the building could be torn down.  

Anyone who’s ever been unfortunate enough to participate in a lawsuit claiming injury knows that “experts” in all fields are a dime a dozen. A quick phone call to “Hire-a-Hooker” produces someone to swear to almost any proposition. In almost eight years on the LPC I was unfortunate enough to see a number of sleazy “preservation experts” in action. 

There was a determined effort to demolish everything but the façade of the UC Theater on University in order to build condos. This was energetically supported by experts and by City of Berkeley staff, including Mark Rhoades, now a developer. It was brought before the LPC by citizen petition, landmarked against staff opposition and is now poised to become once again a major arts venue for the downtown. On the other hand, the now-empty building which housed the successive Eddie Bauer/Cody’s failures followed a stealth demolition, complete with “expert testimony”, of the historic building which was for many years the popular Edy’s ice cream parlor. 

The new proposal for the UC Art Museum promises to be another good example of the environmental benefits of creative re-use of a building once slated for demolition. Then there’s Iceland still hanging in the balance, coveted by condo builders, which might be even more at risk if the new plan passes, though it’s technically outside of the affected downtown area.  

And the most duplicitous aspect of the Primrose Pathway proposal is that it’s all voluntary. That’s right, the official title is the Voluntary Green Pathway. What that means, with the Newspeak deleted, is that builders will be able get their rewards front-loaded in the form of quick demolition, more height and other perks, without being required to come through with the public benefits they’ll promise to deliver at the end of the line. 

If you don’t believe this could happen, study the history of the Gaia Building in the archives of this paper. The scams it embodies are too many to recite in this space, but let’s just say that in return for promising to dedicate the first two floors for phony “cultural uses” that never materialized, the builder got a special dispensation to build two extra floors of apartments on top which are still there. And it could happen again: the same planners who engineered this shameless giveaway are alive and well and working in the city’s Planning Palace this very day. 

City councilmembers will be asked next week to vote to put this new plan on the ballot for November. That would be a foolish waste of money, since alert citizens are sure to defeat it just as handily as they did LL and the council’s most recent effort to fool them.  

A chart in the council packet compares the new plan with the losing one which preceded it, but that’s not the point, is it? A better comparison, sure to be used by opponents in their electoral literature, would be whether the Primrose Pathway is an improvement over the city’s long-existing and still in force Downtown Plan. 

This just in: It’s not.