Public Comment

The Alchemy of Community Action: A report from South Berkeley

Steve Martinot
Saturday March 04, 2017 - 11:08:00 AM

A neighborhood speaks

On Feb. 27, 2017, about 25 people met in South Berkeley to figure out how to deal with a developer. The project in question is 2902 Adeline, at the corner of Russell St. In discussing the problem, these people were upholding an important democratic responsibility, that of attempting to participate in political decisions that would affect them.

They also expressed a high level of social responsibility insofar as they not only addressed community needs with respect to this specific development project. They also gave recognition and credence to the developer’s interests. These included the need to make a profit, as well as its (corporate) property rights. (I refer developers as "it," since they are generally LLCs, and not "he," which would be a silly personification).

The thinking of this community meeting rose above both considerations. The thought emerged, as conversation ensued, that if land and buildings have value (which developers count on), it is the surrounding society, the social environment, that gives it that value. A plot of land in Berkeley has a lot of value, whereas the same size plot of land southeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, would have very little. What makes the difference? The city of Berkeley, the Bay Area, and the people who live in it. That means that land value, and whatever benefit the developer gets from ownership, is linked to the community. To the extent that profit emerges from value that the surrounding society makes possible, the neighborhood should share in that benefit. 

Back in October of 2016, this community had proposed the following conditions for this project, given its position in the South Berkeley Adeline Corridor (a target area for city planning). 

  • building height no more than 4 stories, with 25 units.
  • 40% affordable housing units in the building – on site and not excused through fees
  • affordable units should be affordable for South Berkeley residents
  • 5% of the rent proceeds to go to community non-profits (servicing the needy)
  • Green and safe construction standards – no dust flying in residents’ kitchens
  • On-site parking for 85% of the building’s residents (i.e. no parking problems)
  • re-housing displaced South Berkeley residents as a priority
  • hire local labor for construction on the project.
This is really an advanced list of proposals, one that should form a firm basis of mutuality and shared benefit between the community and the developer. After all, the neighborhood is acceding to the developer’s desire to build a large apartment building from which to make a lot of money. It affirms that whereas property bestows rights, it also bestows responsibilities. And it asks the developer not to run roughshod over the community. 

The developer’s response is interesting. It proposes a building that is 6 stories, containing 50 units, four of which will be affordable, with only 18 on-site (off-street) parking, and a single payment of $100,000 to the community. The purpose of money was to hire personnel or attorneys whose role would be to assist those residents being displaced to find new housing. The contempt contained in this was mentioned by a few people at the meeting. 

Much of the discussion in the meeting concerned the role of the city. There is a city office called the “Adeline Corridor Planning Process” (ADPP). It has been holding meetings with the community to get input on planning the development of the Adeline Corridor. These get-togethers have been touted as the community’s chance to be involved in the planning process. It has been going on for a year and a half. One would have thought that the city office (ADPP) would play a role in mediating between this developer and the community. And that the city planners would be able to support the community’s proposals (at least in part). Unfortunately, the city agency has not done so. 

What then, it was asked, is the purpose of a plan if it does not affect the nature of developments in its planning area? Shouldn’t the city suggest that developers wait in order to see if their project corresponds with the eventual plan or not? This developer is jumping the gun, starting operations without waiting to see if it will accord with the plan or not. One would think the city would act responsibly toward the community and the plan. But its position is that if the law allows the developer to go ahead, then the developer can go according to the law. So much for a plan. 

There was a South Berkeley Plan developed in 1989 and 1990. This project doesn’t even honor that plan. If plans are useless for guiding how developers proceed, then their only use is to fool the community into thinking it is participating in something. 

A Zombie Zone of Undead meetings

There have been two other series of meetings concerning this project (beside those called by the ADPP). One series (of two meetings) was hosted by the developer, also to get neighborhood "input." At the first one, the developer presented its (corporate) plan, as outlined above (6 stories, 50 units, minimal on-site parking, etc.). Neighborhood residents raised objections concerning height, parking, open space, green-ness, and the inclusion of affordable units. Alternate suggestions and counter-proposals were offered – that is, the concept of "participation" was taken seriously. The feasibility for some proposed changes in the design were discussed. The developer’s architect said that some modifications were possible and would be made. 

In the second meeting, the same original proposal was presented, including none of the modifications that had been discussed in the first one. The same questions were raised, and they got the same answer. One person said, “We spoke to you last time; how come nothing we said appears in what you are presenting today?” At one point, the developer actually admitted, “We can’t do it with less than 6 stories.” 

That’s a terrible admission. Do you know what it really says? It has nothing to do with archetecture, since a building can be designed for any height and any number of units. It has nothing to do with construction, since that too can be anything. It has nothing to do with developer profits, since each unit will be providing its assigned part of the building’s income. It means that there is a hidden factor that puts unwarranted conditions on the project. It means that someone requires a certain quantity of profit, rather than a percentage of operating costs (with its amortizing of the original capital outlay). That "someone," that factor is the bank, the source of financing. And the developer is admitting that the bank will back the project only if it gets an expected return that somehow depends on six stories rather than four. Either the bank gets its expected return or it pulls out. It is hard to find any mutual responsibility, let alone democracy in that. 

This might suggest that when the community speaks to the developer, it is speaking to the wrong corporation. It needs to be speaking to the developer’s financial backing, that is, to people who don’t own the land, don’t hire labor, don’t live in the area, and don’t even vote in Berkeley. They are the undead behind gentrification. They are the ones who will insist on a certain size of development, with all its implicit detriment and destruction of local economic infrastructure. 

The second set of meetings were those of city commissions. The building went first to the Design Review Commission (DRC). The community showed up at the hearing, spoke about its needs and the project’s detriments, and asked for smaller design. The DRC agreed, and referred the proposal to the Zoning Adjustment Board with a modification in height. At the ZAB, the modifications suggested by the DRC were ignored. It affirmed the original plan. 

Another community effort relegated to the graveyard. The neighborhood is appealing the ZAB decision to the City Council, March 7, 2017. 

Witchcraft and the Law

In light of all this, the discussion on Feb. 27 was edifying. In their attempt to defend their neighborhood against what is called gentrification, the people fell back on how zoning standards established certain minimal aspects of the building. According to zoning law, there should be 4 stories, with 25 housing units. The developer had been able to supersede those standards using the state’s “density bonus” law. This is a law that allows a developer to ignore local zoning standards by putting in a certain number of affordable units, for which the developer can get a bonus of increased numbers of market rate units. One very low income unit will get a developer a 35% increase in the number of market rate units, like magic. 

The density bonus law is one of 4 state laws that operate to make local democracy at the city level difficult if not impossible (the others being the Costa-Hawkins Act, the Housing Accountability Act, and the “by-right” condition). Since two-thirds of all Berkeley residents are renters, the effect of these laws is that the city is powerless to defend the majority of its own constituency against greedy and unscrupulous landlords and developers. 

Against these laws and the culture of corporate domination they represent, the recent February meeting came up with a very interesting proposal (or counter-proposal to the developer’s contempt). After discussing the past vicissitudes of the project, one person made a motion that the community support a 4 story building, with 25 units (as per zoning regulations), and that anything built in excess of that be affordable housing – and specifically affordable for people in the immediate community – that is, low and very low income housing. If the developer persisted in demanding 50 units, then 25 of them should be low income affordable. 

Side-Note: an affordable unit, according to HUD standards (by which HUD provides subsidies) is one in which the tenant family pays no more than 30% of its income for rent. HUD divides the category of affordability into income levels calibrated according to the Area Median Income (AMI). These levels are moderate (80-120% of AMI), low (50-80%), very low (30-50%), and extremely low (<30%). The AMI for Alameda County is $93,000. For Berkeley, it is $65,000, which is 70% of the county AMI. The means that all moderate income residents in Berkeley are really low income on the county scale. And all low income residents in Berkeley are really very low income on the county scale. To include moderate income units in a Berkeley development (on the county scale, i.e. $93,000 AMI) would be to include units only available to high income families on the city scale (over 120% of city AMI) – in other words, it would do nothing for those in the city who need affordable housing. 

That is why the proviso in the community’s demands (no longer proposals, but now demands, since no steps toward dialogue have been honored) that the affordable units be affordable to people in that neighborhood, is so important. It is sidesteps the slight of hand that introduces an easy bias into developer calculations by playing county against city AMI. 

A neighborhood assembly

What this meeting really represented is an embryonic neighborhood assembly. It was people getting together to make political decisions for themselves about issues that affect their lives. Many different opinions were expressed in the conversation. Some proposed ways of pacifying the developer, others offered reasons to oppose it; still others suggested strategies for bringing the developer to the negotiation table, and some offered alternatives to development altogether. Thus, the issue of development, and the problem of gentrification’s detriments were looked at from many angles. But when the motion was made to the assembled people that the meeting support 4 stories, 25 units, and all construction over that being affordable, everyone came together, and voted for it unanimously. Democracy means that those who will be affected by a policy are involved in making that policy. 

The meeting was only an embryonic neighborhood assembly, since it didn’t establish a continuity or regularity for itself. And it didn’t define its boundaries with respect to who lived in the neighborhood it represented. But it was a first step toward that (see 

It will be a long struggle. Even if the neighborhood loses, it won’t be the end, because the arrival of these large apartment buildings will begin to change the economic character of the neighborhood unignorably. Already, the local hardware store on Russell has announced it is closing because its building has been bought. A hardware store is an important part of a low income neighborhood’s economic infrastructure. 

This struggle is a test case, and it will set a precedent. If the developer gets his way, then the next one has a better chance (and two more large market rate apartment building are on the horizon, to be built within three blocks of this one). If the neighborhood can be included in the project through compromise, then that will set a precedent for the next two. 

It could be that developers might induce so much antagonism in communities toward market rate developments that the noise of objection raised by these communities becomes loud enough to scare the banks, and they think twice. You never know. (See 

For those who wish to make common cause with this neighborhood, the best thing to do is organize your own neighborhood, form your own neighborhood assembly, and add that to the network.