ABAG-MTC Merger Scheme Bodes Badly for Berkeley

Becky O'Malley
Friday February 26, 2016 - 04:10:00 PM

My first real beat assignment after I decided to try my hand at journalism while waiting to get into law school was covering regional planning for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The boss in those days, circa 1974, was Bruce Brugmann, a fire-breathing mudraker of the old school. He was roundly ridiculed in establishment quarters for a couple of hobbyhorses he was fond of riding.

One, PG&E, has turned out to be just about exactly as bad as Bruce thought it was, but sadly nothing much has been done about it. The once-mighty San Francisco Chronicle (transmogrified from the Hearst Examiner, a story too long to tell here) has been on the case for a couple of years after a pipeline blew up disastrously, but the long love affair between PG&E and the PUC continues. Brugmann was right all along. Now he’s retired and they’re still at it.

His other big bugaboo was his relentless opposition to what he labelled “the Manhattanization of San Francisco.” Despite his best efforts, the center of that city has gradually become a warren of dark concrete canyons, in a location where the Mediterranean climate depends on sunshine to be comfortable for the inhabitants. Manhattan itself, meanwhile, is gradually purging all inhabitants except international oligarchs who can go to one of their other homes when the gloom is too great. And now they’re colonizing San Francisco, and yes, even Berkeley.

Bruce knew something was up, even four decades ago. Regional planning in those days was being birthed in a few small offices on the basement level of the Claremont Hotel, walking distance from my house, which is probably why I got the assignment. It was mostly the Association of Bay Area Governments in those days, and there wasn’t much news coming out of the Claremont.

Fast forward to not too long in the past. Unbeknownst to almost everyone except a few hardcore planning groupies, regional planning has become the great big tail that wags the little dog. Its offspring in the California legislature, popularly known as SB375, is widely believed in some circles to be the devil’s spawn, engaged in taking over from our local governments with the goal of redesigning our home cities out from under us. A proposed ABAG-MTC merger could be the next step in the process. 

How do I know this? Like most Bay Area residents, I haven’t really been paying much attention to regional planning topics in the last 10 or 20 years. But I do sometimes take a look at the lineal descendant of the old SFBG, the 48 Hills blog, which was started by former Guardian editor Tim Redmond after he was fired by that paper’s corporate acquisitors, who shut it down not long afterwards. 

Now writing for 48 Hills, which is mostly if not exclusively about the city of San Francisco, is one of the Bay Area’s pre-eminent planning wonks, Zelda Bronstein. She was once the local Public Eye columnist for the Berkeley Daily Planet, also a member and chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission, and once even ran (unsuccessfully) for Mayor of Berkeley. She’s recognized that the discipline formerly known as regional planning has gotten its hooks deep into the city she’s supposed to be reporting on, and has documented what’s going on. Her focus is on SF, but much of what she writes about affects Berkeley too. 

And here’s where we do an unconventional segue into a reading list. If you want to know what’s been happening while you weren’t paying attention, you should really read all of the stories which Bronstein wrote for 48 Hills, listed at the end of this piece. 

But if that’s too much to read today, at least read the latest one, which reports on the current push to combine two regional planning agencies into one super-powerful entity. That’s the one that finally got my attention, because in watching Mayor Tom Bates’s drive to, yes, Manhattanize downtown Berkeley, I realized that the California Environmental Quality Act was gradually being gutted at the state level, stripping both San Francisco and Berkeley residents of local control over what happened in their cities. 

So when I got a press release announcing that our very own Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, who defeated the Bates candidate in the last election, had become chair of a newly-minted Assembly Select Committee on Regional Planning in the San Francisco Bay Area, and would hold a hearing in Oakland to “introduce his new select committee and its goals and invite legislators and the public to express their vision and priorities for regional planning in the SF Bay Area,” I decided to check it out. 

According to the press release, the committee and panelists would “evaluate the historical roles of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), their proposed merger, and discuss regional planning as it relates to public safety, transit planning, affordable housing, and climate change.” 

The panelists were listed as Supervisor Dave Cortese, President of the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors and Chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), Julie Pierce, City of Clayton Councilmember, ABAG President and ABAG Administrative Committee Chair, and Lynn Dantzker, Partner, Management Partners. 

By and large, nothing happened on that rainy February afternoon that wasn’t predicted in Zelda’s January account, including a plea by Novato Mayor Pat Ecklund in the short public comment window for an explanation of what problem, if any, the proposed merger was supposed to be solving. And no, she still didn’t get an answer from panel or committee. 

But for me, long absent from the regional scene, there was one Saul-on-the-road-Damascus moment. When I stopped paying attention, the buzz word for the activity in questions was the reasonable sounding “regional planning” tag, and indeed that’s what 48 Hills has started using for Zelda Bronstein’s stories. 

However, at this hearing, ABAG President (and Clayton Councilmember) Julie Pierce described the goal as creating “a model for regional governance”. Say what? Folks, there’s a big difference between “planning” and “governance”, at least if words still have any meaning. 

So I did what I usually do to track trends these days: asked Wikipedia. The Wikipedia section on “governance” is a fantastic meander through a lot of different connotations, starting with “all processes of governing.” Bottom line: now ABAG and MTC are angling to govern Berkeley, not just to help us plan. I know, I know, excessively literal, but that’s what’s been happening. 

That’s why we’ve been ordered by ABAG, MTC and allies to turn our comfortable human-scale city into “Speculation City”, a profitable warehouse for everyone who won’t fit in San Francisco and doesn’t want to live in Silicon Valley, a concept successfully branded by development interests as “smart growth”. The goal, poorly hidden, is to keep all these bodies out of lovely places like, unh-huh, Clayton

“Regional governance” is how already developed streetcar suburbs like Berkeley, one of the original transit-friendly areas, will be forced to jam many more people into an already super-dense urban environment, just to Keep Clayton Bucolic. 

If you doubt me, oh ye of little faith, take a look at Clayton’s civic web page. Some excerpts: 

Nestled at the bucolic base of picturesque Mt. Diablo, Clayton is in close proximity to the greater San Francisco Bay Area with all the amenities, sports and cultural opportunities offered by that choice location…Clayton is a safe residential community of around 11,288 people…. In Clayton, everyone is family. And families are most important. Clayton is simply a great place to live, work and play for people who cherish small-town living and traditional American values… In this community, crime is low and police are respected. High-quality public and private schools are plentiful. Trails for pedestrians, equestrians and bicyclists meander through the City connecting one with another.  

Eleven thousand two hundred eighty-eight people in the whole durn town? And they want to govern Berkeley?  

That’s smaller than one Berkeley council district. The Harold Way monstrosity, the Colossus of Rhoades, alone, could add about ten percent of the population of Clayton to our Berkeley city streets. If the Bates faction gets its way in the future, we have at least five more of these coming down the pike, a half-Clayton for sure. 

If you don’t believe me, just hop on your bicycle and tour an outer suburbs this weekend. I’ve never been to Clayton, but I did go to Fairfield a couple of weeks ago, to see an opera in their very nice “downtown” performing arts center. There I saw numerous one-story strip malls surrounded by acres of parking, with a reasonable number of three story apartments surrounded by more acres of parking lots and many one-story single family homes. 

There’s plenty of room there for more homes of all kinds in the not-pristine developed areas, so why do we have to Manhattanize Berkeley, which is already a dense though human-scale city? And don’t tell me it’s because BART comes to Berkeley—it goes to Concord too, just a short bus ride from Clayton. 

Based on my two-hour sample of who said what to whom at the Select Committee meeting, I’d say that Supervisor Dave Cortese (President of the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors and Chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and also former ABAG President and unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of San Jose) is the big macher among the visible electeds who are involved in this merger push. Another member of the MTC board is (quelle surprise!) Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, appointed (by whom?) to represent Alameda County. 

What we have here seems to me to be a shadow government in formation, to be run behind the scenes by planning professionals like Lynn Dantzker, and beholden to bigtime urban property owners looking for an inside track on development opportunities in areas near BART. That’s just speculation on my part, of course, and I no longer consider myself a reporter, but I’ve been around this block more than once. 

If you really want to know what’s going on, don’t count on your print press to inform you any more--not that it ever did. The big newsies are too busy with important topics like what the Warriors are up to. 

Just to get you started, read Zelda’s stories below, and take a look at 48 Hills from time to time, even if you don’t live in The City. 

Those of us in Berkeley who worked hard to elect Tony Thurmond are lucky that he’s gotten this committee chairmanship. Now we need to make sure he knows what’s going on in this merger scheme. 


"The regional government merger: is anyone asking why?," January 21, 2016

"Displacement policy at risk in quiet power struggle," July 21, 2015

"Secrecy rules in regional planning power struggle," August 31, 2015

"Should the regional transit agency be elected?," September 17, 2015

"A pricey palace, huge losses in risky investments, a busted bridge--and now the agency responsible wants more power," October 11, 2015

"The strange and telling story behind the regional planning merger deal," November 12, 2015


"The attack on local zoning control," December 8, 2015 



"Prosperity, poverty, and really bad planning," April 14, 2015 



"The false promise of regional governance," May 12, 2015 



"The attack on SoMa: city wants to create a new downtown, wiping out culture and thousands of blue-collar jobs," January 30, 2014 



"The attack on SoMa: why is this happening anyway?" March 3, 2014