Determining What Berkeley Really Needs Is a Complicated Process

Becky O'Malley
Friday April 17, 2015 - 12:50:00 PM

You’ve got to admire Berkeley’s District 4 Councilmember Jesse Arreguin and Zoning Adjustment Board members Sophie Hahn and Shoshana O’Keefe. They courageously hosted a Wednesday workshop to allow community discussion of what the City of Berkeley should ask from developers to fulfill the vague “significant community benefits” requirement for extra-tall buildings in the city’s zoning code.

Their show-and-tell played to a full house—standing room only –in the Live Oak Theater building in North Berkeley. And most of the participants showed up loaded for bear.

I was there, as I have been lately, both to report what went on and to contribute my own opinion to the discussion. In my later middle age I experimented with passively watching local political events unfold from the wings, as I’d done in my forties when I wrote for magazines and weeklies. But now that I’ve passed another age milestone, I find I’m no longer content to be just a spectator when there’s a bear in the room. 

The first part of the evening was devoted to an explanation of exactly what we were talking about. The code language was posted in massive magnification, with relevant passages highlighted in red. Arreguin first walked the audience through the statutory language, and then Hahn and O’Keefe—both trained as lawyers—explained what the words would mean if applied to hypothetical projects. 

As ZAB and City Council members who would eventually vote on them, these speakers couldn’t discuss real live potential buildings. But the biggest elephant in the room was 2211 Harold Way, which would among other things demolish the Shattuck Avenue block which houses the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas. Devoted film fans were out in force. 

The main thrust of the presentation was that significant community benefits (let’s say SCBs from now on) could not be features otherwise required by law or custom in order to earn brownie points toward extra stories. One example: no extra credit for replacing the sidewalks destroyed by construction. Also, none for the kind of perks which would enhance the marketability of the luxury apartments in a building, e.g. free electric car chargers. 

After the lesson, it was Question Time. The idea was that anyone could ask for clarification of anything they didn’t understand. Only a few questions were expected, but it immediately became clear that attendees understood the situation only too well. 

First shot out of the barrel was fired by Rob Wrenn, former Planning Commission chair and former Downtown Area Plan Committee member (and occasional Planet content contributor). He pointed out the SCBs were supposed to be recompense for the extra profit generated by the extra stories in the limited number of new tall buildings which could be authorized. He asked exactly how the city intended to calculate what was owed, and called for decision-makers to demand verifiable figures: a pro forma reviewed by an independent economic expert, not just informal estimates provided by the applicant developer or the city’s planning department. 

The speakers’ response, approximately: That’s a good question, and we don’t quite know yet. 

Instead of a couple of questions there were maybe a dozen well-informed ones, which took the better part of an hour. 

Last on the program was the kind of faux-scientific exercise all too familiar to anyone who has participated in what’s lately been called community engagement (formerly public participation). It involved letting audience members list topics which they thought might constitute SCBs, which were then posted as headings on separate sheets of colored construction paper. 

After that everyone still in the audience (they’d started wandering off by that time) got ten sticky dots to divide among the sheets headed by benefits they liked. There were lots of choices profered by this time: senior housing, parks, shuttle buses and the like. 

I was told that several people were cheating, but oh well...I didn’t see them myself. One of the very few speakers who had spoken enthusiastically about the tall buildings already in the pipeline was observed sticking more than his allotted 10 stickers on the sheet headed “project labor agreements”. There had been some earlier discussion about whether these should count as benefits for the general community or just for union members. A woman who’d identified herself as a building trades union official had already gone home, so perhaps he used hers. At least as far as 2211 Harold Way is concerned, a project labor agreement has already been verbally promised or at least offered by the developers’ spokesman, so it probably doesn’t qualify for extra credit as an SCB for that building, but it might. 

By the time it was over, this exercise had turned into a kind of feeding frenzy, not exactly the basis of intelligent planning. I’ll repeat here what I said about this process at the workshop: significant community benefits shouldn’t be treated like a grocery list. It’s a poor idea to just name everything nice you can think of and then try to pick one or two by popular vote. Planning should be more thoughtful and systematic. 

The organizers referred approvingly to Berkeley’s Streets and Open Space Improvement Plan (SOSIP), the 2010 draft of which can be found on the Planning Department website. From the draft: 

“The SOSIP presents schematic designs, design guidelines, and a financing strategy for improvements to make Downtown more pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly, livable, and attractive.” 

There’s just one problem: the City Council adopted the plan, but the financing strategy has never materialized—so the plan has never been funded. But at least it’s a plan, late and lamented though it might be. 

Unfortunately, the applicants for two tall buildings now in the pipeline have blithely proposed redesigning the downtown streetscape for their own use while ignoring the SOSIP recommendations, and even had the chutzpah to claim their designs were Community Benefits. 

Let’s just examine one example of how a sensible process could work: for the Proposal for a Performing Arts Center in Harold Way Plaza, which was handed out at the last City Council meeting. 

It was submitted by three groups who probably do want better digs, probably in fact need them, and who included a list of other companies who might also be interested. 

But just plopping a performing arts space in the middle of a building in progress is not the way to do it. As I used to say when managing a software development company, problems first, solutions second. 

Here’s how decisions like this are made in the business world, and how they should be made in public policy as well: 

First, a need can be identified. That’s where we are so far. 

But next, and this is crucial, there needs to be a systematic, well-documented many-faceted needs assessment. How many performing arts organizations are there in Berkeley? Where are they playing now? What other spaces are available to them, and what barriers are there to using such spaces? Whom do they primarily serve? What physical design features do they need? Where do customers park? Etc. etc. etc. 

Next: what’s the budget? In this case, what extra profit has up-zoning the parcel at 2211 Harold Way provided for the project’s financiers? Have their pro formas been reviewed by independent experts? How much money are they likely to put in the pot for community benefits? 

Third, are there alternative ways to accomplish the same goal? Steve Finacom (former President of the Berkeley Historical Society, former LPC commissioner, occasional Planet content contributor) has pointed out that Berkeley already has many spaces which could be and have been used for performing arts. 

At the workshop he gave as just one example the Veterans’ Building on Center Street, where the Historical Society is currently housed. The theater there has been divided up into office cubicles and the building needs to be made earthquake safe, but it’s very usable space. 

More examples abound: the beautiful Beaux Arts Old City Hall, the Maudelle Shirek building, is currently being allowed to disintegrate before our eyes—why? What’s going on with the Berkeley Community Theater, jointly owned by BUSD and the city but now largely unavailable for public use? There used to be an auditorium on the second floor of the building at Bancroft and Shattuck, a former fraternal lodge—is it still there? And there are many, many more. 

Why not do a quick inventory of what exists (and can be fixed if needed) before expending energy in the form of rebar and concrete on a new structure? 

That would be the green solution. 

There seems to be no room in the SCB process to honestly assess from an environmental perspective both the detriments and the benefits of tearing down a functional building. A building which already exists is almost always greener than new construction, since it’s embodied energy

Which brings us to the answer which a couple of the participants were honest enough to express: Why do we need these tall buildings anyhow? There’s no way a steel-and-concrete building above 5-6 stories can meet the Zero Net Energy standard (producing onsite all the energy it uses) which will be the law in just five years, in 2020. 

The original rationale for allowing these highrises was that it would be good to make areas served by transit even denser to minimize auto use. But recently it’s been reported that BART is vastly overcrowded, and AC Transit bus service in Berkeley has been getting steadily worse instead of better. Downtown is only apparently served by transit—it’s actually underserved at this point even for the needs of current residents. 

It’s most unlikely that occupants of fancy new view apartments will eschew automobiles, even if we had functional public transit, which we don't. Also, there’s absolutely no proof, and a lot of reason for doubt, that luxury apartments like those proposed will do anything to relieve the need for affordable and low-priced workforce housing. 

The most reality-based audience comment came from a woman who asked urgently, what can we do to stop this bad building now, instead of fooling around with ephemeral benefits to come? While it’s true that the current zoning law says that a number variously stated as five to seven high-rises may be permitted, it by no means requires that they must be. The law certainly doesn’t say that any particular project must be allowed if the City Council can’t find that it provides real Significant Community Benefits. 

Sadly, the answer to her question might nevertheless be that we citizens can do nothing to stop them now. Not specifying beforehand what constitutes an SCB might mean that in the last analysis anything goes, and City Councilmembers can follow wherever their campaign contributors lead them. 

At the annual recent meeting of the Downtown Berkeley Association which I attended, the DBA’s CEO included 2211 Harold way in his list of this year’s faits accomplis in his domain, as if it’s already a done deal. The fix might indeed already be in—too bad for Berkeley. 

But it’s not too late for public-spirited citizens to tackle the question of how we might get a performing arts center if we need one. There’s no need to displace vital film venues to create one—let’s form a civic committee to do a proper needs assessment, to be followed by a requirements document, a feasibility study and only then a plan for a center that has some chance of serving all our citizens. 

It’s even possible that some of the funding for such an endeavor might eventually come from SCBs, but in a city that’s increasingly a bedroom community for the rich and famous, private contributions should be available and solicited. 

(Anyone who wants to work on this can contact me at editor@berkeleydailyplanet.com. )