Public Comment

Life in the Berkeley Buffer Zone

Toni Mester
Friday April 01, 2016 - 11:21:00 AM

The Mayor has placed a bundle of housing and zoning proposals on the action calendar of the Council meeting Tuesday April 5, calling it a comprehensive plan to address the housing shortage.

The response has been fast and furious with articles from Rob Wrenn and Steve Finacom in these pages, and the email networks ablaze with indignation. But nobody should be surprised, because developers have been advancing these ideas for years, most recently at the February 16th Council forum on housing.

The Mayor’s Recommendation #9, “Establish Buffer Zones around Priority Development Areas,” is clearly the most controversial item, which up-zones properties contiguous to the PDAs (priority development areas in ABAG-speak) within 200 feet. At the forum, Mark Rhoades advocated that the half blocks adjacent to commercial corridors be designated “transition zones.” 

Developers hope that owners of homes and underutilized properties will sell, so they can expand their projects on San Pablo Avenue and other arterials undergoing transformation. The impacts on the affected neighborhoods, however, would be devastating, resulting in social displacement and demolition of historic homes. By advancing the idea in his last year, Mayor Bates has nothing to lose, except an abject display of his inner broker. 

Property owners in the “buffer zones” and allies should write to the City Council. I have already informed them that if the developers’ intrusive proposals are not taken off the table, I will oppose any bonds or new taxes, and I suggest that other threatened homeowners do the same. 

The Mayor’s recommendation #7 to establish “by right” approval of buildings is every developer’s dream: cutting costs and red tape. It’s astonishing that the Mayor would advocate for less oversight after the Library Gardens tragedy. You and I can build a six foot fence without a use permit, but an apartment building? In the words of a neighbor, “it’s bonkers.” Such allowances would also obviate notices and public hearings required by zoning law 23B.32 on use permits, prescriptions that started as the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance of 1973

If floating these neighborhood-hostile ideas was intended as a red herring, the Mayor’s strategy has succeeded. Once given the politicians’ stamp of approval, ideas gain legitimacy. In this case, they have become distractions from considering the good proposals that have been prepared by staff and vetted in the community. An increase in the housing mitigation fee and expansion of inclusionary requirements are recommended by last year’s nexus study and deserve approval. Other proposals require more discussion and work, after a new Planning Director has been hired and a new Mayor and Council installed. 


Developers hate exactions on construction of housing, which they claim inhibit its creation. But somebody has to pay for what the City offers—from vetting permit applications to hooking up the sewers—and existing property owners are taxed to the max. Air rights are what we have left to trade, so when it comes to fees and benefits, everybody has a hand out: planning staff salaries, public works infrastructure, transportation, parks, and special projects. Even a theater company wanted money as a community benefit from the Harold Way project. For the City, a new building means annual tax revenues for the General Fund. 

But those most in need of help are people who cannot afford current market rate housing, which according to the City’s nexus study are people below the area average median income (AMI). Housing is considered “affordable” if it costs no more than 30 percent of the household’s gross income, including utilities. The affordability crisis is starkly depicted by the study’s figures condensed in the power point presentation at the end. The average market rent for a two bedroom apartment in Berkeley rose from $1,765 in 2010 to $2,171 in 2014, while the income required to afford market rent rose from 65% to 100% AMI, which is $79,650 for a family of three. More than 25% of renters would require assistance. 

In a review of regional housing development 2007-2014 progress report, ABAG shows that Berkeley has produced 93% of its allocation of market rate housing, but we’re not doing as well in building for lower incomes. 

The Nexus Study supports a raise in the housing mitigation fee to at least $34,000 with a maximum of $84,000; even the minimum would increase the housing trust fund by approximately $3 million. Restoring the inclusionary requirement to 20% would result in the creation of hundreds of affordable units. The Council should pass both of these proposals. 

How dense makes sense? 

Last month I invited a planner to a community meeting to explain the density bonus to the neighbors. She did her best, but after twenty minutes their eyes began to glaze over, and they started to drift out the door. Before the City tries to modify the density bonus, it would be wiser to bring us into compliance by passing an implementation ordinance as required by State law. 

Berkeley attempted this once before. Former Planning Director Eric Angstadt—with input from several commissions — drafted implementation procedures, which could form the basis of the ordinance. Other considerations might include how tenants for the below market rate units qualify and are selected, how the below market rates are determined and monitored, how much the program costs, and who pays these costs. A 2013 report from the housing director estimated the annual cost of monitoring 306 below market rate units at $226,248 of staff time. Do the math. 

Because they influence each other, the housing mitigation fee, the inclusionary % requirement, and the density bonus need to be brought into balance so that the result is creation of the most affordable units. 

Many of us have been clamoring for years to begin a San Pablo Avenue Plan, because the strip offers many good locations for affordable housing, but the City seems to have other priorities. The San Pablo Avenue zoning (C-W or commercial west) has not been fine-tuned like the University Avenue Strategic Plan that provides step-downs to the neighborhoods. The zoning on the transit corridors should be fairly uniform throughout the City. If step-downs are not guaranteed, bribery and blackmail can be used to divide the adjacent neighborhood, sowing seeds of resentment, erecting ugly walls, and degrading living conditions. 

In hiring a new Planning Director, the Council should look for a creative person who can bridge the gap between developers and neighbors. In the meantime, the Council should take threats to existing neighborhoods off the table. Developers and their allies should stop calling neighbors NIMBYs and neighbors should accept the fact that the scale of Berkeley is bound to change. Our common work is to make sure that happens in harmony, by preserving existing housing stock and supporting the best new architecture. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley