Berkeley Councilmembers Pat Themselves on Backs as They Pass Downtown Area Plan

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday March 22, 2012 - 09:08:00 PM

The Berkeley City Council in its infinite wisdom passed, on an 8-1 vote, a new Downtown Area Plan with attendant zoning changes which are supposed to facilitate its execution. Eight of the councilmembers voted for it, with Kriss Worthington, who's been around the block all too many times, the only no vote.

Arreguin and Anderson, who should know better, spoke enthusiastically of the "community benefits" the plan is supposed to provide, though Anderson, perhaps older and wiser, expressed some apprehension that they might get forgotten in the end. Since five skyscrapers downtown are the big ticket item, it might be appropriate to dub it the “pie in the sky” plan, in honor of Woody Guthrie ’s Joe Hill's famous ditty, invoked in this space more than once: “There’ll be pie in the sky bye and bye.” The modern refrain would be a sarcastic “oh sure.” 

John King, the Chronicle’s all too naïve planning and architecture critic, was wringing his hands on Monday about the loss of amenities originally touted for the possibly upcoming Transbay Terminal building in San Francisco. One of the first stories I ever wrote for print, in the late 1970s for the Bay Guardian, was about promises in that era for a rebuilt Transbay Terminal which never materialized. In the intervening years it’s become crystal clear to me that just about none of that good stuff, the icing on the development cake, so to speak, ever materializes as promised. Now the existing terminal has finally been torn down, but what exactly will fill the big hole it left behind is still, so to speak, up in the air. 

The Chron’s headline writer, almost certainly not King, got it right: 

“Transbay Tower revision downsizes public frills.” 

That’s all “community benefits” usually turn out to be: public frills, usually downsized in the end. 

They are seldom couched in enforceable language. Most often the provision of amenities is expressed as conditions on use permits, and almost always, such conditions are left to city governments, specifically planning departments, to monitor. 

In Berkeley the Planning Department is funded by development permit fees, so staff have little incentive to bite the hand that feeds them. And also, as documented here ad nauseam, the revolving door premise means that today’s planner is likely to be tomorrow’s developer. 

There are those who say that decisions under the California Environmental Quality Act, especially if there’s an Environmental Impact Report, are more likely to be enforced, because mitigations under CEQA can be enforced by members of the public, while conditions on city use permits are only enforceable by a city government which could care less about them. But enforcement in the courts, as required by CEQA, is so costly that citizens are seldom able to afford it. 

Berkeley’s shrinking coterie of planning mavens are indulging in a bit of handwringing themselves over the new downtown plan, which gives a lot away and gets few “public frills” in exchange, even theoretically. They could take comfort from the pronouncement I heard from the professor in my local government class in law school years ago: “Don’t worry too much about plans, because no one ever follows them anyhow.” 

At the time, still naïve myself, I was righteously indignant about her cynicism, but in the intervening years I’ve realized that she was right. I’ve followed with more or less interest one general plan, two downtown plans and two southside plans, some of which were passed and some not. They cheerfully contradicted each other, but as it happens it doesn’t matter because much of whatever they specified was soon forgotten by planners and elected officials. 

EIRs aren’t much better. It turns out that a few years later in most cities, probably including Berkeley, copies of EIRs aren’t even archived, so that if citizens wanted to check and see what was promised before a project was permitted, they’d have a hard time doing so. 

Now the focus of civic concern is what’s called “The West Berkeley Project”, which is actually thinly disguised wholesale revisions to the existing West Berkeley Plan for the benefit of big developers and major landowners. The Planning Commission, which is now dominated by people who work in the building industry, passed the draft at its last meeting on Wednesday. A sizable contingent of area residents and small businesspersons protested vigorously, but to no avail. Some of their concerns: it allows 75 foot building in the sensitive bay-side area, even 100 foot for some kinds of industrial buildings, on nine huge sites, with dire consequences. 

One particularly bad example: Urban Ore, Berkeley’s pathbreaking recycling and re-use business located at Ashby and Seventh, has been hoping to go completely solar. But one of the nine tall building sites would cast a large shadow on Urban Ore’s property, making it dark for the whole winter—so goodbye solar. 

Some observers speculate that if the Berkeley City Council ratifies the West Berkeley proposal as it comes from the Planning Commission, there will be a referendum spearheaded by outraged citizens. As far as the new DAP is concerned, that probably won’t happen, since it's been so successfully green-washed thanks, in part, to an odd collusion between the Sierra Club and Sam Zell’s Equity Residential, a major downtown landlord, which resulted in the passage of Measure R, the enabling initiative which launched the whole thing. The West Berkeley Project can’t boast of a similar blessing from confused voters, so it might be more vulnerable to citizen challenge. 

If you’d like to see the sausage being stuffed, take a look at how some of the councilmembers justified their vote on Tuesday, but parental discretion is advised: It ain’t purty. 

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Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the last man standing to vote against the DAP, told me he was “mystified” by Jesse Arreguin’s turnaround support for it. In his opinion, not only are its “public frills” unlikely to materialize, but despite the lavish greenwashing the plan will actually increase the city’s carbon footprint. He said that although sponsors touted it as “transit-oriented development” it was 99.5% development and less than .5% transit, and the public benefits would be of dubious value even if they all happened. 

Backers are anxious to get the West Berkeley Project approved by the City Council, so it will probably come up for a vote sometime this spring, certainly before the councilmembers take off on their long summer vacation. Anyone who thinks it would be a shame to shadow this thriving and successful mixed-use bayside district with skyscrapers should keep their eyes on the council agenda and express their opinion to their councilpersons, for all the good it might do. 

But since most councilmembers are elected with big buck contributions from developers, don’t expect them to pay much attention to you. There is supposed to be an election in November, but incumbents almost always win because of public ignorance or apathy. Money can't buy love, perhaps, but it sure can buy elections. Oh well... 

Thanks to reader Chris Darling for the correction about who wrote the song. I love to get corrections so I know someone is reading carefully.