Public Comment

New: Parker Place — Shame on Everyone (except the Neighbors)

Peter Schorer
Tuesday October 14, 2014 - 12:15:00 PM

Parker Place is the name of a monstrous residential/commercial development planned for the corner of Shattuck and Parker Street, extending to Carleton Street, in South Berkeley. From its birth some six years ago, it was almost universally opposed by neighbors because of the excessive traffic it would bring onto already overcrowded streets, the known toxic materials in the soil that would be spewed into the air by excavations, and many other reasons. 

Some neighbors sued over the lack of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for this shockingly impactful project. The legal proceedings were conducted by judges who behaved as though developers must be favored. Many locals who support the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) believe that the judge who was chosen to handle CEQA cases for Alameda County a couple years ago, was appointed expressly to rule against petitioners (those who exercise their right to pursue EIRs for projects with detrimental impacts.) 

The neighbors' lawsuits were eventually defeated. With the entitlements in place to build the monstrous project, the owners of the site then sold it to a big, wealthy company – the Lennar Corporation. But that wasn't sufficient corporate influence inflicted on South Berkeley. According to a July Wall Street Journal press release, a division of Deutsche Bank has acquired the site and formed a "venture partnership" (vulture partnership?) with Lennar to build the project. What's wrong with this picture? 

The Lennar/Deutsche Bank team wasn’t satisfied with building the already-awful project; they sought approvals from the City to make it worse. The new project they wish to build is six stories above ground and two stories below ground, with 286 parking spaces.  

Now you might think the neighbors would be happy that the project will have abundant parking for the residents, but that extra parking isn't for the residents. It's for the business Lennar/Deutsche is planning for the now two floors of commercial space, replacing the "neighborhood-serving retail" in the original approvals. They're not telling what kind of business they are seeking for the space (well, I bet the Mayor knows), but Lennar representative Peter Schellinger did mention technology and biotechnology companies as possibilities. Several business options were listed in their application — but they're not revealing which option they're pursuing. 

Oh, and they want to cheapen the windows from the high-quality ones that were previously approved to — painted vinyl! Schellinger stated in a recorded hearing that the reason for ditching quality windows was that "we just can't afford it." 

Approval of the more awful project was whisked through the Design Review and Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) process at record speed, aided by an obviously compliant Planning staff. The Planner assigned to assist the project was overheard saying to the Lennar honchos in the hall after one of the hearings, that he couldn't walk out with them and he couldn't be seen in a huddle with them. (Why not? We all know they're your buddies and that you're working for them.

Neighbors kept up their fight and appealed the ZAB approval to the City Council. On Tuesday, Oct. 7, the Council heard the appeal of the approval of the new, worse project. In the public comment period, one attorney and one retired attorney pointed out factual errors in the developers' report of anticipated carcinogen levels, and outright violations of zoning requirements for such a structure. Several neighbors spoke at the City Council meeting – all were opposed to the project, and most received vigorous applause from the audience. 

Only one citizen spoke on behalf of the project, a member of the developer advocacy group called, risibly, "Livable Berkeley" and spokesperson for the "no on Measure R" campaign, Tim Frank. He claimed that because he bicycles past the site frequently, he feels like a neighbor. I subsequently learned that his actual place of residence is a development-free area of North Berkeley near Solono Avenue. 

The efforts of citizens who care about their neighbors and who resist the corporate takeover of Berkeley were to no avail. The Council voted — for approval. 

Our City government's favoritism toward developers is by now well known. Mayor Tom Bates has been at the center of the drive for bigger, uglier buildings not only in the downtown, but in neighborhoods like mine where Parker Place will be built. But at the October 7 Council meeting, the city's decision sent a new message to developers: "Don't worry about revealing the plans for your commercial space. We'll pre-approve everything, and you can let us know what you choose later. We trust you!" 

Wake up, Berkeleyans! It's no longer just carpetbaggers from Piedmont inflicting injury on our town for profit; it's multi-billion dollar national and international corporations. We could send a loud and clear message to the City Council members: favor the developers and we will vote you out of office at the next election, but sadly, the electorate doesn't seem to be paying attention. Let the tragedy of Parker Place be the wake-up call, and it will be tragic for our South Berkeley neighborhood. 

P.S. During this sordid tale, there was one official who did speak up for the citizens. At the October 7 hearing, our District 3 Councilman, Max Anderson, said that when ownership changes on a project like this, "there are certain deals that are made and certain agreements reached that are outside the public view." He then moved to remand the project back to the ZAB for further consideration. Unfortunately no vote was taken on his motion because Laurie Capitelli made a substitute motion to approve the project, which promptly won. Max Anderson was the lone vote against the illegitimate approval of this corporate coup. 

P.P.S For a good laugh, plug "Deutsche Bank" and "scandal" into your favorite search engine and prepare to chuckle. My favorite quote from one of the thousands of hits that crop up: "is there any scandal that Deutsche bank is not involved in?"