In the 30 years since I moved to West Berkeley, politics in this city have changed. After serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Bayer (then Miles Inc.) Development Agreement in 1991, I literally minded my own business and resurfaced in 2008 to find the political atmosphere even more toxic than I had remembered.
What has happened to our communal rhetoric is complex and troubling because a basic and necessary concern about property values has been displaced. Class differences are somewhat obscured in a city that has a dysfunctional approach to private property and does not seem to recognize the very existence of working-class owners. Blame it on the smart-growth ideology or district elections without term limits or regressive taxes or rent control or the welfare housing industry or all of the above—but an entire category of citizens has been marginalized. I’m talking about lower-income residential property owners who mostly live in south and west Berkeley.
The prevailing sentiment is summarized by this excerpt from a 2008 letter to the Planning Commission regarding the density bonus: “The transit corridors are where dense development should take place. The rest of Berkeley can maintain its semi-suburban character and will be just fine.”
In other words, to hell with those poor slobs who live along or between San Pablo Avenue and Sixth Street, near Ashby, Dwight, Cedar, or Gilman; their years of struggle to improve their neighborhoods and property values and to build equity do not deserve respect and protection.
As a result of such class prejudice, promoted by the planning staff and unfortunately shared by the City Council, none of whom live in far-west Berkeley, the well-considered recommendations of the Density Bonus Subcommittee were ignored, a strategic plan for San Pablo Avenue authorized in 2006 has been postponed, developers have been bankrupted to satisfy a grandiose vision, an unprofessional land-use chapter was added to an otherwise imaginative Climate Action Plan, and Carrison Street neighbors were insulted in the approval of 1200 Ashby Avenue, a misleading address for an oversized building with its entrance on Carrison Street. This integrated neighborhood was even denied a public hearing to protest a hulk that disregards street setbacks and presents a garage entry to their street and a five-story sheer wall to Ashby Avenue.
All of these outrages have been committed in the name of smart growth, which has become the municipal religion thanks to Mayor Tom Bates and the City Council and their eminence grise Dan Marks, who rakes in over $175,000 a year by sacrificing poor slobs like us as guinea-pigs to the new order and whose lofty job description doesn’t seem to include attending Planning Commission meetings.
West Berkeleyans understand the economic and cultural benefits of growth and increased density, but these benefits must be weighed against the moral and legal obligation that city government owes its current residents and taxpayers, regardless of income and ability to pay lawyers, and the importance of preserving our last affordable family-oriented neighborhoods. We expect and deserve protections equal to the setbacks and step-downs of the University Avenue Strategic Plan.
We’re tired of the absurd claim that urban density carries an environmental benefit because it prevents suburban sprawl and long commutes. That argument is sixty years too late. History shows that cities and their suburbs grow in tandem, not in opposition. Families want to live in homes with yards, not in small apartments over MacDonald’s or Safeway. If more people are to live in Berkeley, especially our first-responders, then we should build dwellings that are suitable for families and preserving those we have.
By creating more small apartments for students and singles, we actually promote sprawl because these young people establish careers in the urban core but must find family homes elsewhere to raise their children. If the city wants a coherent housing policy, then we must think and speak in rational language, not in cant and not in worship of sacred cows. We’ve had enough faith-based planning.
The city should adopt a density bonus ordinance in compliance with state law and in recognition of the rights and needs of residents in affected neighborhoods. The design guidelines for San Pablo Avenue should be discussed and refined, and zoning that is scaled towards existing homes, that incorporates standards consistent with family housing, and that promotes handsome, functional architecture should be adopted as part of a San Pablo Avenue Strategic Plan.
And now we have the West Berkeley Project that promises to transform the manufacturing zones to the higher purpose of R&D job creation by allowing an unspecified number of buildings to 75 feet with an FAR of 3, promoting demolition, and increasing the net floor space by almost 2 million square feet over the next 20 years. The draft environmental impact report (DEIR) runs well over 500 pages but ignores both the adjacent residential neighborhood, known by its zoning as the R-1A, and the inhabitants of the MULI and MUR zones. The consultants did not even enumerate the living beings who would be most affected by the proposed development. They talk about impacts as if effects were free-floating and forget that to impact is primarily a transitive verb.
The DEIR shows significant and unavoidable traffic impacts from massive development in West Berkeley, but no doubt the smart-growth true believers will insist that the magic of density, less parking, and a few shuttle buses will insure the withering away of the automobile in an area that is located at the center of Bay Area roadways.
The deadline for responses to the West Berkeley Project DEIR is March 25. See you on-line.
Toni Mester can be contacted at email@example.com