Famously, Calvin Coolidge said in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, "After all, the chief business of the American people is business." He did qualify it a bit: "Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence." But the main theme of his speech was his attempt to refute a maxim from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem "The Deserted Village":
“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”
Making the accumulation of wealth possible, which Coolidge promoted, seems to have again become the chief function of government in the last couple of decades. It’s interesting that we’ve recently seen a crash rivaled only by the one which followed the accumulative period under Coolidge in the 1920s.The late and much lamented Tony Judt devoted his last book (title from Goldsmith: Ill Fares the Land) to examining how and why this has happened.
The people who run Berkeley these days are engaged in a major push to re-shape the zoning of West Berkeley and modify the West Berkeley Plan. A lot of politicians and professional planners who know very little about business, especially about science-based entrepreneurial ventures, are behind this effort, as are the corporate owners of big West Berkeley parcels who are eager to build big buildings on them, along with representatives of all levels of building trades from construction workers’ unions to architects.
It seems that one motivation behind the drive to re-zone West Berkeley is the desire to promote as many high-value enterprises there as possible. Some in Berkeley have always lusted after the entrepreneurial start-ups which changed the former Valley of Heart’s Delight into Silicon Valley. Those with a land-use background (Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, for example, had a brief fling as a developer before becoming a politician) are sure that land-use policy must be the reason Berkeley has never matched the area around Stanford University in numbers of high tech enterprises.
As it happens, at the tail end of the last Jerry Brown administration, I was co-author of a study commissioned by Grey Davis for the California Commission on Industrial Innovation, which he then headed. My collaborator was a social scientist with survey research experience, and our task was to find out exactly what the new biotechnology entrepreneurs wanted, so that the state of California (flush with money in those days) could give it to them. Much to the chagrin of our commission sponsors, we discovered that what scientific innovators wanted most was to be left alone: no redevelopment-funded office parks, no state grants, just peace and quiet while they did their research wherever they wanted.
The study was never released—I wonder why? Could it have been pressure from those who had invested heavily in land which they hoped to turn into industrial parks with state backing?
I learned a lot doing that study—enough, in fact, to launch a high-tech startup with my scientist husband with essentially no capital. It eventually turned into a profitable business, and we didn’t need anything re-zoned in order to do it. Our first office/laboratory, at a ridiculously low per-square-foot rent, was upstairs in the charming turn-of-the-century building which now houses Rasputin Records. Telegraph Avenue then (about 1980) as now was home to a variety of untidy street people, dope dealers and other diversions, but that just kept the rent down. Being near UC made it possible for us to attract top-notch grad-student talent, and since Telegraph was half-way between Berkeley High and our house the kids could come by to do their homework after school.
Right now there’s a whole lot of empty space in downtown Berkeley which is ideal for similar startups and even mature businesses. In fact, a hotshot ex-employee of ours is now happily ensconced in a think-tank for a cutting-edge company in a downtown building the Landmarks Preservation Commission rescued from demolition,.
We stayed on Teley until the 1989 earthquake caused us to worry about being in an unreinforced masonry building. Then we moved to West Berkeley, to another pleasant older building. This was the former Berkeley Pump Company which had been rehabbed for small businesses by the astute Denny Abrams, who also turned Fourth Street into shopping nirvana. Again, the rent was reasonable, though not super low like Telegraph.
Here’s the lesson I see in our experience: entrepreneurial startups absolutely don’t need fancy buildings. In fact, it’s just the reverse. What they need is low rent and pleasant surroundings.
So let’s return to the main theme: is the business of Berkeley business? Is it the responsibility of city government to re-zone West Berkeley in order to permit landowners to build out their sites to the max for maximum profit?
Probably not. And will turning West Berkeley into a mega-office-park be good for all the citizens of Berkeley? It now works well for homeowners, artists, artisans and small businesses. There’s little reason to expect that the big operations that the entrepreneur wanna-bes envision will do anything worthwhile for the city or its citizens.
The main problem with what the pols and their hired planners would like to call the West Berkeley Project is that it would surely jack up land prices, at least for a while. Far from helping start-up businesses, even if that’s the goal, it would price them out of the market.
And there’s been a lot of whining about high tech businesses moving elsewhere when they grow. Well, why shouldn’t they? West Berkeley already has one huge business, formerly a factory but increasingly a laboratory, on the Bayer Corporation’s “campus", despite Bayer’s self-serving denials. Union workers there are now threatened with layoffs, because it’s clear that Bayer values the space much more for R&D, with highly educated researchers, than for manufacturing.
What’s already working in West Berkeley, and would be endangered by the new zoning scheme, is small enterprises of all kinds. The city of Berkeley planning staff’s proposal which is on the table has been widely criticized by currently successful groups because it offers them inadequate protection from builder-speculators’ whims. The Berkeley Planning Commission has undergone what’s known as “regulatory capture”—it’s now dominated by people from the building industry, so it rubber-stamped the scheme. A city government which likes to call itself progressive should not be working overtime to facilitate unrestrained market capitalism, but should make sure that local regulatory powers are exercised as needed to provide what’s best for all of Berkeley, not just for the big property owners.
Another example: Last week we learned that some developers have discovered a lucrative new market: big-time marijuana dispensaries. One unfortunate feature of the way government has gone about promoting use of marijuana for medical purposes is the creation of defacto monopolies for favored vendors.
Our story was followed later in the week by a feature on the Berkeleyside website profiling the newest drugsellers, real estate developers who have been quick to seize the opportunity to profit from addressing patients’ needs. One is a former Berkeley Planning Department manager who also sat for while on Berkeley’s Medical Cannabis Commission—regulatory capture at work again. It’s all too reminiscent of Tom Lehrer’s immortal song about the Old Dope Peddler “doing well by doing good”.
Not, of course, that anyone who’s been around the block believes that most of the cannabis sold in Berkeley or anywhere else is used for medical purposes only. High school kids are well aware that anyone of any age who wants one can acquire a medical marijuana card with no trouble.
Some innocents have suggested that cannabis for pharmaceutical use should be sold in pharmacies like other medical drugs—but where’s the profit for developers in that? If it’s approved for recreational use, it could be sold in liquor stores like that other recreational drug, but again, how can local property owners make money? Consumers could grow it for personal use just as they can make a small amount of beer or wine at home, but that really cuts into profits.
The central question raised by the West Berkeley proposals, all joking aside, is whether or not the business of Berkeley is business. Is governmental action supposed to optimize profits for greedy corporate landowners, or is promoting the common good more complicated than that? As my old high school buddy Cicero used to say, “Cui bono?” Who profits?
Would it be better for all of us to preserve the stunning and unexpected views of the Golden Gate and the Bay which the low buildings in West Berkeley now permit? Would Aquatic Park continue to be a haven for shorebirds if it were surrounded on three sides by office buildings? Do we really want Berkeley to become Emeryville North, with a wall of 75 foot towers stretching to the Albany border?
Anyone who cares about what happens should  watch the segment (Item 12) of last week’s city council video which covers these proposals, especially Mayor Bates’ closing peroration on what he thinks is going on. His signature quote, twice repeated: “If you don’t change, you die.”
But change for the sake of change is pointless. It’s true that if you don’t change, you die, but it’s also true that if you do change you die anyway. The salient question is how you spend your life.
The citizens of Berkeley should make darn sure that the changes proposed for West Berkeley, which is working pretty well already, are for the benefit of all of us, not just to satisfy what Councilmember Kriss Worthington characterized as “corporate greed”. A maxim in the high tech world when I was in it was “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Still a smart idea.
And if you do care what becomes of Berkeley, you should  go to next week’s city council meeting for the conclusion of the public hearing on the West Berkeley proposals and speak your piece. As we’ve seen from this week’s events in the Middle East, sometimes citizens’ voices can be heard, sometimes even in Berkeley.