Economics, not Aesthetics, Shape Berkeley's Downtown

By Becky O'Malley
Monday June 21, 2010 - 03:18:00 PM

It’s counter-productive to whine continuously about the inadequacies of the remnant metro dailies in the Bay Area, because they’re all we’ve got, so I try not to do so too often. I appreciate that the Hearst Corporation continues to allow John King to post occasional critiques of urban planning and architecture amid the welter of real estate puff pieces which he and others generate on a regular basis.

But his piece last week, in which he damned with faint praise the new University Avenue complex which houses Trader Joe’s, was below his usual standard, falling back all too easily on Bezerkeley clichés instead of relying on reported facts. Predictably, the crowd of illiterate yahoos who monopolize the Chronicle’s online comments were all over him as usual, but they weren’t completely wrong in every case. 

First fact-checking opportunity: 

“[Architect Kirk] Peterson's unrepentant historicism drives fans of contemporary architecture crazy, but it's in line with a city where many people bridle at anything that looks as though it was designed after Julia Morgan retired.” 

Well, no. The cloying false historicism of these buildings was not in response to any popular demand from Berkeleyans. (For a Hearst paper to invoke Julia Morgan in this disparaging context is particularly sad considering how Phoebe Hearst championed Morgan.) 

For an excellent discussion of what actually happened, we point with pride to the critique which appeared in these pages way back in April, written by architect, planner and Berkeley resident Christopher Adams. Though not a journalist by profession, he did his homework in the files of the planning department and the Planet archives, where he discovered that: 


“Opponents focused on traffic and parking impacts, on the shadows the building would cast on the adjacent neighbors, and on the high number of apartment units it would contain. After all was said and done, there are 37 more apartments than the developers would have been permitted under regular city zoning, had they not received special approvals from the Zoning Adjustments Board and, on appeal, from the City Council.”  

No one, ever, asked for higgly-piggly glued-on brick facing or phony brown shingles—almost no one ever does. The same Berkeleyans who lobby for preservation of Morgan’s historic buildings support preservation of mid-century modern buildings and also the construction of genuinely authentic contemporary buildings like Richard Fernau and Laura Hartman’s building at Shattuck and Hearst, described in the Chronicle as “Berkeley 's model mixed-use project.” 

Kirk Peterson is a nice guy, and with the right employer is capable of doing interesting buildings. But all too often his contribution to projects is limited to what I’ve called in the past “exterior decorating.” One observer compared this role to the “staging” that canny real estate sales people now do to make properties look better than they actually are. 

The modernist idea that form should follow function, and that function should be expressed on the surface of a building, has largely vanished from contemporary vernacular architecture. It’s been replaced by buildings designed by spreadsheets instead of by architects, and then gussied up in a futile attempt to please preservationists, who are not so easily fooled.“Like lipstick on a pig” is another simile that suggests itself. 

The Gaia building on Allston Way in downtown Berkeley, the exterior of which Peterson also designed, is a good example of an early instance of the developer’s technique of cramming in as many units as possible in order to maximize profits. The architect of record for such structures typically has little control over the interior design. 

It’s not the outsides of these buildings critics should be looking at, it’s the floor plans. When Zoning Commissioner Gene Poschman looked at plans for the Gaia, he called it a “rabbit warren”—he took a lot of flak for that comment, but he got it right. There are many more rabbit warrens in Berkeley’s future. 

And again, Chris Adams got it right about the TJ complex: 


“148 households will encounter the daily reality of these apartments. Thirty-six of them will live in apartments that face into the light wells which bisect the southern Spanish colonial style building. The light wells are 16 feet wide, a dimension such that 24 of these apartments will not be able to see anything except the wall on the other side, a view consisting of the windows of their neighbors but without the bas reliefs that decorate the street facades. From at least 18 of these apartments the tenants will not be able to see the sky, except by sticking their heads out a window.

“No apartments in the northern Craftsman-style building will have only a light well view, but nine bedrooms divided among six apartments will look out 10 feet to blank walls; the bedrooms of four other apartments will look upon a blank wall five and a half feet away. Because of the overhanging roof it is doubtful that any occupant of these rooms will ever see the sky, even by craning out the window. At no time, even at the summer solstice, will direct sun reach these windows. It is unlikely enough daylight will enter at any time of year to permit the occupants to read or perform most routine tasks without turning on the lights.”  

King’s best observation is that the TJ building is “like too many similar efforts in too many other locales, it's a box dropped onto the landscape, rather than something that looks at home.” 

It wouldn’t have looked any more at home if it had been an unashamed unadorned box, however—take a look about a block to the west. Only the cheery window displays of the Talavera Tiles store on the first floor relieve the utilitarian ugliness of the rest of this boxy structure. 

And for a relatively more expensive and even more politically pretentious effort, consider the aesthetics of the blasphemously named David Brower Center and its accompanying public housing project. At least it’s not a box, but it still manages to be ugly, PC though it might be. Overheard comments more than once have included the architectural term of art “penitentiary”. 

But it’s the most distinguished part of a wall of breathtakingly undistinguished structures growing apace along Oxford Street just west of the UC Berkeley campus edge, anchored by the disgraceful UC office building with earthquake bracing on the outside. The grandiose plans for an expensive new UC Berkeley art museum, now off for cost reasons, might have added some entertainment to the area, but the restoration of the old Moderne printing plant instead is a better environmental choice, and could even be handsome if done well. 

It’s all too easy for critics like John King to blame the public process for architectural fiascos, but it’s inaccurate. Bad buildings don’t just land on their sites like spaceships from Mars—they have pedigrees linked primarily to economics. The just-ended, or at least just-paused, period of go-go development expansion accompanied by visions of insane profits found many would-be developers in over their heads in debt to high-rollers like Davld Teece. Chanting their mantra, “it doesn’t pencil out”, they were forced to lobby zoning boards for enormous exemptions to prudent planning regulations—most of which they actually received in Berkeley, just exactly as they did most other places. 

Citizens in general are the ones who want to play by the rules—speculators are the ones who try to get the rules changed. All of this as it applies to Berkeley has been exhaustively documented in these pages over the last 10 years. The late 20th and early 21st century quasi- religious belief in the efficacy of self-regulating markets has not proved any truer for city planning and urban architecture than it has for the energy industry. Rules, rules, rules—often derided, especially by teabaggers, but even more needed now. 

Here in Berkeley, our Mayor has recently put forward yet another version of his Faux Downtown Plan Lite which he hopes to put to a popular vote in November. Roughly, his pitch seems to be: Just Trust Me, road map to follow after you give me the keys to the car and a tank full of gas. 

Only a few pesky rules are specified in his smoothly branded Green Vision scheme, but those few are cleverly calculated to make it even easier to get entitlements to tear down old buildings, throw out the embodied energy they contain, and create many more “cash register multiples” when the construction loan market finally loosens up. There’s still more money to be made off of Berkeley in the development game, if you play it smart. 

The Daily Cal has a great story this week about the pending foreclosure on a big ugly downtown office building whose owners don’t want to make payments on a loser any more. Reporter Matt Burns does a killer job of nailing the irrationality of planning to build ever-taller buildings when the existing ones are going belly up: 


“Mayor Tom Bates said the foreclosure is ‘not a good sign’ for the city, but comes as no surprise given the vacancies in the building. ‘It's a sign of the downturn in the economy,’ Bates said. But, he added, the foreclosure ‘won't have long-term impacts’ on the Downtown Area Plan, an ongoing, controversial plan aimed at revitalizing the Downtown atmosphere and stimulating business… ‘(The Berkeley Tower) is not housing, it's a commercial property,’ he said. ‘The Downtown plan's mission is to bring more people Downtown. It doesn't really affect our vision at all.’ … 

At the State of the City luncheon Tuesday, Bates said the plan to improve Downtown allows for five buildings higher than 75 feet, two of which would be up to 120 feet tall and most likely be used for new office spaces.” 


So there. 

It’s the economics, stupid. We get buildings which are both tacky and dysfunctional because speculators (and the politicians they fund} make their profits on the building process and have little or no stake in whether the final product sells or even if it works. 

Meanwhile, some optimistic public-spirited Berkeley citizens, former members of the late lamented DAPAC (Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee) are still working on the draft of a real, enforceable downtown plan which they hope to put on the ballot eventually. Let’s hope they get it done before the next boom starts. 


[Corrections: David, not Donald, Teece. Laura Hartman's name added to Richard Fernau's.]