New: Development: Causes and Problems (News Analysis)

Steve Martinot
Thursday April 23, 2015 - 10:02:00 AM

We’re not against development. But it should be development in which people have a say, a voice in the process, more than having a minute to speak in a hearing. It should be development that doesn’t get imposed from above, that doesn’t destroy a community’s style of life.”

----A West Berkeley community member


Development means building new buildings. Berkeley is facing a wave of new buildings. That wave is starting with two really big new apartment buildings, standing 14 or 18 stories high, in downtown. The apartments will be fancy, and many will be condos, for people who earn above the median income. We know that because the city has given variances permitting violation of zoning height limits, in exchange for which it requires some units to be “affordable housing.” But that means that "affordable" housing was not part of the plan.

Five buildings in all are slated for downtown. One will be a hotel. The developers are going through the permit process at this very moment. Here is the list of sites: Bank of America on Shattuck and Center, Ace Hardware on University and Walnut, CIL between Telegraph and Regent, the corner of Telegraph and Blake, and the Shattuck movie theater building between Shattuck and Harold Way. This last one has spawned a social movement to stop or modify the plan. Its slogan is “Save the Shattuck Cinemas.”

It should also be: Save Water, don’t densify Berkeley. 

Unfortunately, that’s only the beginning. The next part of the plan establishes “Priority Development Areas” (PDAs). These are the main transit "corridors," slated for development by “Plan Bay Area,” which has been accepted for implementation. A transit corridor is a major avenue with a few buses on it. There are six PDAs in the plan: University Ave. from the university to the tracks, San Pablo Ave. from Oakland to Albany, Shattuck Ave. south of downtown, Adeline as its curves gently into North Oakland, and Gilman St. 

Development will occur along both sides of such avenues. The idea is that if hundreds of new residents are going to move in, there had better be room, like a four lane avenue, for all their cars. Plan Bay Area says that Berkeley will have to build 2959 new units by 2022. 

They are already building at the corner of University and 4th St. And the Grocery Outlet store there is going to close at the end of the year. 

But wait a minute. I just said, Berkeley will have to build 2959 new units by 2022. At ordinary reading speed, that number whizzes by. It is just another number. 

But think about the last time you saw a five story apartment building or condo. Let’s imagine an ordinary five story building, with five apartments per floor, and commercial establishments on the ground floor. That’s 20 units. To meet the plan’s requirement, that would mean 150 new large apartment buildings. They wouldn’t even fit on San Pablo Ave. It’s 20 blocks long. It could hold maybe 40 or 50 such buildings, sitting on both sides of the street. And this is what the plan says that Berkeley must do? 

Did anyone ask us whether we wanted that to happen to our city? 

Why is this happening?

Is it just that there is money lying around looking for something to do with itself? No, it is more than economic. There are political plans at work. There are government agencies that have made political decisions. One of them is called ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments). It has given each city in the Bay Area an allotment, an order to build a certain number of housing units. That is what Plan Bay Area represents. (And ABAG has various nefarious means of enforcing its allotments on cities. But that is a complicated subject, and needs a separate article to describe it. See www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2007-01-16/article/26118

Chances are, when the developers start building along these PDAs, they will be building structures a lot higher than 5 stories. The main reason is that they are corporate establishments, and they make more money building larger buildings. In fact, the developer for the building at Telegraph and Blake has said that a five story building would not be profitable, and would not be built. The building had to be at least 7 stories high to pay. 

This is called densification, and it results in traffic problems. 

To build a seven story building will break the rules. The city has height limits, and population density limits, and open space requirements for buildings. These rules do not constitute a style of life. 

They are there to preserve the ability of people to maintain a certain style of life, one that has space for itself to be creative, to not feel crowded, to not have obnoxious traffic problems inside the city (the expressway is bad enough), to have clean air (relatively), and to have places where one can congregate and hang out without spending a whole paycheck. 

To break the rules, a developer has to get a "variance" from the city. And to do that, he has to promise certain benefits. That is another complicated question, for another article. It is complicated because the city has never defined what it means by "benefits.” And it has no means of enforcing them. 

But why has ABAG made the allotments for new housing that it has? The explanation ABAG gives is twofold. First, there will be an influx of people into the area, who have to be accommodated. This is arrived at by “computer projection.” Second, housing people in the cities will cut down on the carbon footprint. That is, there will be less pollution, because the people who work in finance, information technology, and trans-oceanic shipping (high income jobs) won’t have to live in the suburbs. They will be closer to their jobs, and relieved of the need to commute. ABAG proclaims that the abatement of expressway traffic will be good for the air. Never mind that population density in a city unequipped to handle it will produce traffic jams. Think of New York or LA. Think of all those cars just standing still, emitting exhaust. 

The real reasons

The economy of the Bay Area is changing. The advent of a large financial industry, technology industries, Information Tech companies, all around a major port, have a political purpose. These industries are growing because the Bay Area is being groomed to play the role of a capitol city in the Pacific Rim economy. 

The real reason that ABAG has told Berkeley and all the other cities in the Bay Area to build new housing units is to enable the personnel of this capitol city industry and finance to move back from the suburbs, to eliminate the time they spend in highway traffic. There is an implicit intensification of high-paid white-collar labor in that. But ABAG says it is to cut down on highway pollution, by reducing the commute traffic. Unfortunately, the traffic jams that will result from city densification will cause as much or more CO2 pollution. In other words, the “carbon footprint” is simply being relocated to the city from the suburbs. It is a footprint that will now step on us instead. 

In effect, they are taking away our city in order to give it to people who work in those "capitol" industries. 

Of course, some development is needed, and some is desired. But we don’t know what that is. We cannot say that one project might be unwanted while another could be desirable, because we have played no role in defining or planning it. Nobody has asked us. 

What we can assume, with a fair degree of certainty, is that development will bring about a process of gentrification. 


When developers move into a neighborhood that lives at a certain income level, and start building housing for a higher income level, everything changes. We know the economics of it. 

Landlords sell or rent space to people who will pay more rather than to people who cannot pay more. The downtown high-rise buildings will be filled with higher income people, who will spend money there in businesses and theaters and so forth. And because they have higher incomes than the former downtown customers, prices will go up (what the market will bear). Commercial space will see its rents raised, forcing stores that benefit low income people to close (remember Ross’s?). And they will be replaced by stores that sell at higher prices, in order to pay the higher rent. At least, that is what the landlords will be betting on. And people will have to drive elsewhere to find stores at former price levels. Which means that they will be paying more anyway, since they will have to add the price of gas. 

Those of us who live in this city will see downtown taken away from us by those new high-rises. But it will just be the beginning. The PDAs are next. 

Rental buildings throughout the city, that today provide affordable housing, will be bought up from their present owners by developers, to be torn down. The 100 to 150 big apartment buildings that already have space marked out for them in the PDAs will mark the end of a whole lot of living space at the affordable end of the spectrum. Though the city says that it will get some affordable housing from these developments, it turns out that, among the 2959 that are ordered to be built in Berkeley, there are only 196 scheduled to be "affordable." We can expect Berkeley to lose, and lose big. 

As landlords rent or sell to wealthier people, the cost of living will go up fairly rapidly. Most lower income people (including middle income people) will have to move out to lower income areas, like Hayward or San Leandro or El Sobrante. As a result, it will be the low income people who will do the commuting to their jobs, and not the upper middle class people from the suburbs. So the pollution on the highways will stay the same. It will just have a different class character, like everything else. 

That is what gentrification means. 

There will be a Community Forum in West Berkeley, sponsored by the Berkeley Neighborhoods Council, on May 19, 2015, to discuss these and other issues. The Forum will take place at Finn Hall, 1819 10th Street, at 6:30 pm. It is open to all.