Public Comment

The Iron Fist Behind the Humor:Will Travis on Democracy

By Claire Pierce
Wednesday March 03, 2010 - 07:04:00 PM

Every once in a while, a member of the local Berkeley elite will reveal some useful information about his or her true character. We were treated to just such a moment in the publication of Will Travis’ letter about the mayor’s latest plan to help developers speed up the planning process (“New Downtown Plan,” February 18, 2010). While Mr. Travis couches his remarks in ironic humor, the arrogance of his attitude nevertheless shines through. 

Of course, as he always does, Mr. Travis sides with the mayor and the developers over the neighbors regarding development proposals. That’s nothing new. But he is not content merely to express his views; instead, he proceeds to unfairly demean the informed and active citizenry in our community. 

In his letter, Mr. Travis tars local activists by completely mischaracterizing their concerns. For example, Mr. Travis contends that "community activists" typically want developers to “make design compromises” for trivial reasons, such as satisfying their personal “urban design and aesthetic tastes.”  

First of all, far and away the most important concerns of Berkeley community activists are significant quality of life issues, such as noise problems; traffic congestion; air pollution; increased truck traffic; blocked views; loss of open space; parking scarcity; removal of mature trees; increasing numbers of transient residents; construction impacts that last for months or years; and other issues. These issues are the primary factors that determine the comfort of one’s home and the livability of one’s neighborhood—they are not the superficial concerns that Mr. Travis implies they are. As seasoned Berkeley activists know, people typically become politically involved regarding development issues because they are desperate to try to protect their neighborhoods—not on a whim, as Mr. Travis suggests. 

One of the most useful phrases in politics is this: “Tell me where you live, and I’ll tell you what you believe.” Mr. Travis can happily play a role in cheerleading for development in Berkeley, because he, like most of his cohorts, lives in a home safely ensconced in R-1 single-family zoning that is not threatened in the slightest bit by his political advocacy. Good for you and your neighbors, Mr. Travis! But what about the rest of us? It obviously irritates him that we want to have any say at all about the quality of life in our own neighborhoods. 

In his letter, Mr. Travis also implies that the intervention of community activists is the primary reason why “architectural excellence” has not bloomed in Berkeley. What nonsense! 

If one wants to address the question of architectural excellence properly, one might start with the fact that our local developers are far more interested in erecting buildings as large as they can to maximize their profits, rather than creating graceful and harmonious structures. This inevitably results in massive, view-blocking structures that are built right up to the very edge of the sidewalks, leaving no room for trees or other landscaping. One look at the hulking brown monstrosity known as the Brower Center on Oxford Street will serve to illustrate my point; rather than architectural excellence, we have architectural flatulence. This intrusive and greenery-free development has made the whole area unpleasant to be around, particularly for pedestrians. As I recall, the Brower Center project was praised by Mr. Travis and other "smart" growth advocates as being exemplary. Oh, please. 

Another reason for the significant architectural failings in Berkeley is the fact that many local developers are associated with UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. The home of this college on the Berkeley campus is Wurster Hall, widely acclaimed to be the ugliest building on campus, which tells you a lot right away. The instructors at this school are virtually unanimous in their enthusiasm for high-density, high-rise growth at the expense of beautiful design. A review of the many unattractive projects developed by associates of this school indicates the magnitude of their failure to adequately consider human interaction with their works. The huge eyesores they erect survive for decades and visually pollute the community. 

Mr. Travis concludes his letter with a particularly pernicious statement: his claim that community activists are people who have “never seen…a public hearing they aren’t dying to attend.” This damaging falsehood is continually trumpeted by the developers and their enablers, including Mayor Bates, Mr. Travis, and others. 

On the contrary, people do not attend public meetings in this town for their own entertainment. Far from it. That’s because the conditions of most of the meeting rooms make attending meetings physically uncomfortable; the time they take up is interminable; and the respect shown to members of the public is abysmal. The democratic process is so corrupted in this town that the members of the city council and their appointed commissioners barely even listen to the public anymore—they can hardly wait for the citizens to shut up so they can go ahead and do whatever they planned to do anyway. 

And that is the main point. When you read Mr. Travis’ letter carefully, you realize that what he actually doesn’t like is democracy. Thanks for making that clear, Mr. Travis. I hope people will keep that in mind when they interact with you regarding public issues in the future.