Updated: Welcome to Speculation City (Formerly Known as Berkeley)

Becky O'Malley
Sunday January 17, 2016 - 01:38:00 PM

Welcome to Speculation City. Berkeley has bullseyes painted all over it, and it’s only just begun. Today’s Chron has a front page story about how priced-out San Franciscans are moving to the East Bay, and while it spotlights Oakland, you can be sure that wannabe developers and their faceless LLCs are gobbling up Berkeley properties as we speak. Berkeley's become another one of those great places to drop in, make a buck and leave town.

An eagle-eyed reader has directed my attention to an under-the-radar Christmas Eve submission by something called Mill Street Residential. This seems to be an enterprise which hopes to erect yet another building of at least 18 stories, cheek-by-jowl with the impending Colossus of Rhoades, the hideous Residences at Berkeley Plaza, which is slated to be right across the street on the site of the Shattuck Hotel. Read all about their plans here.

And soon, when these twin towers and their inevitable successors are lined up on Shattuck, it will be Welcome to the Concrete Canyon, the new normal for what we used to call Downtown Berkeley. 

Why should you care? 

Well, first of all, why should I care? 

Lucky me, it’s not in my backyard. Actually, I don’t have a backyard at my house, but anyhow, I live pretty far away. 

It’s not in my front yard either. My home has never had a view of the bay or of anything except Ashby Avenue traffic, so Whatever Happens Downtown Stays Downtown, as far as I’m concerned . 

Some say it will completely block the view of the Golden Gate from the Campanile on the UC campus. 

So? I don’t go up to the Campanile very often anymore. In fact, I tend to avoid my alma mater, because its continued uglification is painful to watch. I lost interest in the corporation formerly known as Cal when they built that gymnasium- cum-hideous-parking-garage at Memorial Stadium. 

But this week I devoted way too many hours to reading the Petitions for a Writ of Mandate which a couple of heroic Berkeley citizens have submitted in an attempt to persuade the City of Berkeley to do an adequate environmental review of 2211 Harold Way. Now I have a pretty good idea of why we should all care about the mess that either incompetence or corruption is making of our hometown’s downtown. If like me you settled in Berkeley because you wanted to live in an interesting diverse town, it’s goodbye to all that. 

Just for today, I’m going to put aside the new proposal for the “Shattuck Terrace Green Apartments”. I must say that these days when I hear the word “Green” I reach for my air freshener, because it’s a pretty good indication that a bullshit vendor has come to town, aimed squarely at one of those bullseyes. There’s nary a new cash-register-multiple proposal that isn’t greenwashed, it seems, and this one is no different. As it glides through the city’s rigged permitting process, we can just sit back and smell the compost. 

The most striking new information I gleaned from reading the petitions for a better CEQA review of 2211 Harold Way which were filed this week was the expert delineation of what could be called the gentrification of mass transit. Economist James Hendry pointed out in the petition he authored that the main argument for allowing 300+ expensive units to be plopped down on the site of a historic building was the site’s proximity to mass transit, especially BART, and yet BART is maxed out. (He should know, since he rides it to work in San Francisco every day.) 

Does anyone seriously believe that occupants of these high-rent apartments won’t own cars, won’t store them on adjacent residential streets, won’t use them every time they want get out of town? They’ll only use BART to commute to work, if at all, and as it gets more jammed they’re likely to be able to afford to drive. 

Meanwhile, the legions of service workers who are needed by a town increasingly dominated by two industries, education and food, will be forced to drive long distances from cheaper towns not served by BART. There will soon be no place for poorly paid restaurant and administrative workers to live in Berkeley. Every expensive unit that we build downtown displaces a potential working family which could be housed on that same site. 

And yet Berkeley is reserving the best sites near BART for the rich, who don’t need them. Makes no sense. Goodbye diversity, hello oligarchy. 

CEQA requires the City of Berkeley to study the impact this building will have on the environment, but that’s exactly what its EIR didn’t do where the reality of existing mass transit is concerned. Hendry documents the facts and figures to support his contention in exquisite detail. Read it by clicking here

Meanwhile, the other petition, signed by Kelly Hammargren, a registered nurse with an MBA who did health care management at Kaiser, does a great job of documenting a dizzying variety of problems with the city’s EIR, a report which, while lengthy and expensive to produce, contains some major mistakes. The biggest bomb (which Hendry also covers) is that better alternative designs, including one which might have protected the historic hotel, were never studied because city staff claimed they would be too expensive to guarantee the developer’s desired level of profits. That conclusion was based on faulty figures supplied by the developer and never vetted by city staff, especially the backers’ claim that the purchase price of the site was less than half of more than twice what it really was. 

Another important argument is that this project is significantly different from what the 2010 Measure R plus Berkeley’s Downtown Plan and its supporting zoning authorized. In fact, it’s a classic Bait and Switch scam in a sizeable number of ways too numerous to list, but to get the gory details you’ll just have to read the whole petition yourself by clicking here

Why did these two intelligent citizens do all the work of producing these legal petitions all by themselves, without any help? The short answer is that they didn’t. 

Well over a hundred citizens who spotted the huge holes in the process contributed many hours of testimony and many pages of exhibits to the discussion process, all of which were largely ignored by the Berkeley City Council and its appointees to the Zoning and Landmarks commissions. Now all this information forms a great record for the trial judge to use in evaluating whether the Environmental Impact Report should be revised. And many of those who testified at city meetings helped formulate the appeals. 

Why didn’t the citizens’ groups have a law firm do the work for them? Well, in a trick which has become all too familiar, the ultimate council decision on this project just happened to be scheduled right before the winter holidays. Backers, which include the City’s Planning Department, were betting, correctly, that it would be hard for working attorneys to launch a major new case at a time when they were busy with family matters and end-of-the-year business. But by submitting these petitions pro per, these two heroic plaintiffs were able to get the public’s foot in the door before the January 14 deadline for filing appeals, and it will now be possible to engage one of California’s excellent environmental firms to carry the ball. 

And this is where we get to the public participation part of the program. Public interest environmental law firms traditionally work at a sizeable discount from their corporate opponents, and they usually hope to recoup their fees by winning cases. But everything else about exercising the constitutional right to pursue legal remedies is expensive, almost prohibitively expensive. Copying costs alone can add up to tens of thousands of dollars. 

A group is now forming to support what Kelly and Jim have started. [Full disclosure: We intend to be part of it.] There are two ways to help: work and money. You can contribute either or both. Plaintiffs want to compile the administrative record themselves, which will save lots of money but need lots of work from volunteers. And if you can’t contribute money you can work to raise it from those who can. 

There is research underway to determine what the best legal format for such a support group should be. To find out how to help: Watch This Space.