Building Boom Will Turn Downtown Berkeley into East Frisco

By Becky O'Malley
Monday February 11, 2013 - 09:19:00 AM

In case you needed any more reasons to avoid Downtown Berkeley, Frances Dinkelspiel on the Berkeleyside website has provided a thorough tally of 1,000 more reasons why you’ll be shopping elsewhere in the future. She’s checked in with a bunch of commercial landlords, developers and developer-wannabes and documented their existing desires, including some actual entitlements, to add at least a thousand new apartments (with several thousand inhabitants and associated autos) to the area covered by Berkeley’s new Downtown Plan. The best thing you can say about this scenario is that it promises to create at least 2,000 SRO beds for the unemployed in a few years when the current high tech boom has gone bust as the dot.com boom did before it. 

My old boss Bruce Brugmann used to rail against the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco in his Bay Guardian, along with inveighing against the sins of PG&E. Turns out he was right about PG&E, so much so that the stodgy Chronicle took up the fight after the big pipeline explosion, but he lost the Manhattanization battle. 

San Francisco, formerly a diverse and colorful international hub, is now, like Manhattan, an insanely expensive perch for the over-paid, many of them perpetual juveniles who are bussed daily to Silicon Valley where they toil like indentured servants. 

The Irish, Italian and Pilipino families who gave San Francisco its distinctive flavor in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century were priced out of the housing market and have moved to the distant suburbs. The traditional artsy Bohemian contingents were chased away by high rents too: first the Beats from North Beach and then the hippies from the Haight. 

African-Americans were long ago evicted from the Western Addition by urban renewal, and not many are left in Bayview-Hunters Point, as the south-of-Market building boom spreads into their neighborhoods. A gentrification bulls-eye is now painted on the Mission, the last refuge of Spanish-speaking San Franciscans. More prosperous Asians, better positioned for techie jobs, do persist in some neighborhoods, but working people are moving to Oakland and elsewhere. 

And now the Manhattanization of Berkeley has begun, per developer shill Mark Rhoades, quoted by Dinkelspiel: 

“ ‘The number one investment region of the country… is the San Francisco Bay Area because of the incredibly robust job market fueled by the tech sector on the Peninsula’ , said Mark Rhoades, whose Rhoades Planning Group is advocating for two of the biggest projects proposed for Berkeley: Acheson Commons and The Residences at Berkeley Plaza. ‘And when the tech sector pushes into San Francisco and starts creating an enormous amount of demand, the bleed-off effect of that is a push into Oakland and Berkeley, which are just a few BART stops away. That changes the economics with regard to apartment financing. With the commensurate increase in rents, the lending institutions and equity investors have more confidence in the market and are willing to spend their money on new development.’ “ 

Yep. More precisely, it looks like we’ll be seeing the Brooklynization of Oakland alongside the Manhattanization of Berkeley. Like Brooklyn (and unlike Berkeley) today’s Oakland is edgy, interesting and multi-ethnic. It still has enough open industrial and warehouse space to host some artists as well as to allow manufacturing businesses to expand if they are able. 

Last week I got a lengthy tour of the Oakland landscape. When my stolen car was recovered in East Oakland last week, police had it towed to a garage on 86th Avenue. Since it turned up missing its catalytic converter, radio, rear windshield and one tire, I elected to drive it home on surface streets instead of on the freeways I take to get to my usual East Oakland destination, the airport. 

(By the way, this turned out to be prudent, since I later discovered that each of my remaining wheels was missing three of five lug nuts, which might have created a problem at freeway speeds.) 

My slow and careful trip via International Boulevard (formerly East 14th Street) gave me a good look at all the things Oakland has going for it, despite its manifest problems. For one thing, there’s space, plenty of space, and a good quantity of housing stock, modest sized houses surrounded by lots big enough for the kind of gardens which gave Fruitvale its name. And the weather is the best in the Bay Area. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that many of these homes are now in foreclosure, as evidenced by the for-sale-by-bank signs on many blocks. Construction by non-profit affordable housing entrepreneurs is visible on a few larger sites, but the big multiple-unit complexes with small apartments they’re building don’t look like good substitutes for the family homes with yards which have been seized by the big money boys. 

And the 1000 downtown apartments now on the drawing boards in Berkeley, though bigger, will be even less desirable for working families. If Rhoades and his speculator clients get their way, we’ll just become (thanks to “the commensurate increase in rents”) SF East: over-built, over-priced, dark and dull. Like family neighborhoods in San Francisco, Berkeley neighborhoods of family homes adjacent to Downtown will suffer the overflow impacts. 

The move to Manhattanize older cities like Berkeley has been in the works for a while now. Way back more than a decade ago, in 1999, E.J. Dionne wrote a column for the Washington Post entitled “Smart Growth May Be Gore's Winning Issue “. 

He said that “Spotting the next big issue that will move people is one of the essential political arts. Vice President Gore placed a large bet this week on the idea that Americans are tired of wasting time in their cars on clogged highways. 

“He's gambling that they want more green space near their homes and more growth in developed but economically lagging inner cities. They want suburbs that create the sense of community we associate with old urban neighborhoods. 

“The issue he's latched on to is ‘livability’ created by ‘smart growth.’ It's taking off all over the country, and Gore would like to ride it to the White House.” 

Well, that’s a horse that failed. (Though you could argue that Gore actually won the 2000 election…) But somewhere along the way those buzzwords have morphed into yet another of America’s money-making bubbles, once again enriching the few at the expense of the many. The oxymoronic but cleverly branded Livable Berkeley developers’ lobbying group (fronted by Erin (Mrs. Mark) Rhoades) is heavily pitching the proposed high rises, but announced plans don’t seem to show that “livability” will be a big component. 

Robbie Burns (whose birthday has just passed) taught us: 

"The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy..."

What's going agley with the "smart growth" scheme for Downtown Berkeley? 

“More green space near their homes” ? 

Hmm, no. Most of those targeted to live in Berkeley’s 1K proposed units will have little or no green space near their new apartment homes, unlike the Oakland families who are being foreclosed out of their houses. At most, there might be a rooftop terrace or a few trees on the street or a courtyard, but urban gardening will be out of the question. 

”… more growth in developed but economically lagging inner cities”? 

Here in the East Bay, as in many other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and California, urban development has historically been spread thinly over a large geographic area, but the economy that produced the existing infrastructure is now lagging. That’s why great swathes of Oakland and Richmond have wide paved boulevards serving semi-deserted one-story strip malls and enormous parking lots. 

There’s some good news in this phenomenon. Judging by the multilingual and often hand-lettered signs I saw on E. 14th St. between 85th Avenue and Lake Merritt, vacant storefronts provide opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs to start restaurants and grocery stores to serve their communities. But small local businesses like these need stable residents with dependable jobs to patronize them, and those good jobs have moved out of Oakland, often out of the country. 

No amount of apartment construction, even near BART stations, will stabilize such areas, and BART won’t take the remaining residents to where the jobs are now, whether that’s Silicon Valley or China. What’s needed is reinvestment in the available manufacturing sites in places like Oakland, Richmond, Vallejo…and even a few in West Berkeley. But that’s doesn’t look to be on the immediate horizon. Speculators instead are trying to have West Berkeley rezoned, a la the failed Measure T, for office towers to house high tech ventures with a small number of highly educated and well-paid employees but few working class opportunities. 

“[Americans] want suburbs that create the sense of community we associate with old urban neighborhoods” ?  

Instead, luxury high-rises have been multiplying first in San Francisco, then in downtown Oakland under Jerry Brown, and are now planned for downtown Berkeley. They’re just waystations for the affluent unattached young on their way to Woodside and Ross and Lamorinda and Danville , or perhaps for the comfortably retired old, but they will never create that sense of community. 

Dionne foresaw the problem in 1999: 

“Smart growth won't work if it's designed simply to preserve the good life for those who already have it. Its power will come from linking the desire for more agreeable suburban communities with the need to expand economic activity in decaying city neighborhoods. If Gore forges this bond, he may have a lot to say to a lot of people.” 

Sadly, whatever populist vision Gore might have had fourteen years ago seems to have been sacrificed, as happens all too often in this country and others, to the goal of making the good life even better for the haves at the expense of the have-nots. It’s growth, sure, but it’s not nearly as “smart” as it’s been advertised to be. 

Taxes on new residents seldom pay the cost of the services they will need. Adding 1K apartment units for the affluent here in Berkeley to Jerry Brown’s fabled 10k new Oakland residents and San Francisco’s Manhattan-by-the-Bay explosion of pricey pads for high-techies won’t make any of these cities better for working families. Pushing families out to the distant ‘burbs could even make their lives a whole lot worse.