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SQUEAKY WHEEL: West Berkeley on the Chopping Block

Toni Mester
Friday May 12, 2017 - 12:30:00 PM
House Tower
Toni Mester
House Tower

The Planning Commission continues a public hearing on the R-1A zoning Wednesday May 17 at the North Berkeley Senior Center at Hearst and MLK at 7 pm.

On the surface the discussion is a numbers game: heights, setbacks, and building separation. But the deeper question is: who owns and controls West Berkeley?

The last time that West Berkeley was on the chopping block was the election of November 2012 when the Bates Council majority put the pumped-up master use permits on the ballot as Measure T, an invitation for the entire city to bully us. It didn’t work, but that’s another story.

This time around, local residents have been slow to grasp the crux of the matter: the survival of a diverse working class neighborhood. In the last few years, land prices have skyrocketed to over $600,000 for a parcel, even ones with derelict houses. In fact, the more decrepit the buildings the better, because developers want to demolish and replace them with two new houses, each 1500-2000 square feet, to be sold as condos. The rundown properties at 908 and 912 Cedar between 7th and 8th Streets are good examples of the trend. They sold for $608,000 and $678,000, respectively, and in both cases, the crumbling old houses will be torn down and replaced with spiffy new two- story homes on each lot, to be sold for over $1 million apiece.

It’s a lucrative business built on sloppy piecemeal zoning that allows the division of relatively small lots into stand alone single-family homes with one parking space each and minimal greenery or open-space. There’s nothing wrong with replacing derelict houses with new ones; the problem is that the zoning was not designed for the two-condo division. Without appropriate development standards, the big houses have crowded out potential for their own landscape and usable open space and intruded into the privacy and sunlight of the adjacent properties by violating the inner lot.

This is not the compact urban infill housing championed by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to minimize suburban sprawl. This is bringing the suburbs into the urban core. The condo divisions were not planned; some real estate investors saw the gaping holes in the code and seized the opportunity. 2213 Ninth Street was one of the first, two equally huge grey houses that are back-to-back, now numbered as 2209-2211 Ninth Street, across from the Rosa Parks schoolyard. The owners told me that the renters are graduate students. The development is over-sized and institutional looking, devoid of landscape and charm. 

Other followed, some designs better than others, There have been numerous appeals of the two-condo projects: 2421 Ninth Street, under construction; 1737 Tenth Street, approved with few changes despite an appeal; 1016-1018 Jones Street, approved after a rearrangement of the two houses so that the larger is in the front; and 2212 Tenth Street that will be heard in June. 

The last appeal is an omen of the displacement that can result if this trend continues. A small 900 square foot one-story house on a 5200 square foot lot was purchased last year for $645,000 and is slated for demolition. Far from derelict, the cottage is home to a family of four, headed by a couple of educators, who are being evicted. Taking its place will be two million dollar condos, each around 2,000 square feet. 

The planning staff, who are in the business of development, their “enterprise” department funded by permit fees, support the condo houses. In fact, the staff’s zoning proposal reflects suggestions by the developer of the 2212 Tenth Street project. The best thing about the staff proposal is that they eliminated the potential for a three-story house at the rear of a lot. Sounds absurd, but what the zoning code allows, some people will build, like the house tower shown. 

Our pattern language 

Can better zoning overcome market forces and is the current planning commission capable of substantive change? I’m not sanguine about either proposition, but we can try to keep West Berkeley affordable and green by showing up at the meeting and expressing concern and support for several innovations in the R-1A zoning. 

Changing the designation from “main buildings” to simply “front and rear buildings” includes accessory dwelling units, which are the most affordable housing units and can exceed the limit of 750 square feet with an administrative use permit. They cannot be sold separately, but they are allowed on lots of any size. A parking spot is not required, creating more space for children to play, gardens, and landscape. 

There is a growing need to house adult children who cannot afford rents elsewhere, as well as aging parents. Other homeowners need income to meet their mortgage payments. Granted, many homeowners do not want to be landlords but renting and managing an ADU can be an acquired skill that the City should assist by setting up an ADU central command. 

Another zoning strategy is to raise the required area for a second unit from 4500 to 5000 square feet to prevent detrimental overbuilding on the narrowest lots. No other California city of comparable size allows two houses on such small lots, and even a single duplex house usually requires 5000 to 6000 square feet of lot area. Most require minimum lot width. 

Any second detached house should be limited to one story and 14 feet in height, just like an ADU. That’s a matter of basic equity. If the City thinks that having two big houses on one lot is a desirable way to increase the housing stock, I suggest that we abolish the R-1 so that all neighborhoods can enjoy such benefits. 

Proper duplex zoning is the urban model of one building with two units, not a suburban model of two separate houses. San Francisco’s duplex zones require the building to occupy the front of the lot with 45% of the depth reserved for the backyard. The cars go into a front garage or driveway, so the inner block is car-free and serene. 

Every city I’ve lived in applied this paradigm. My first apartment on Western Avenue in Albany, New York was the basement of a 19th century brownstone. The entire block, all four streets, surrounded a jungle of gardens and greenery. My room at the back overlooked this park-like setting, a haven for a college student. We were living in the downtown of a capital city, and the nights were quiet as the country. 

We should not be afraid of urban models of development. Properly designed, they can preserve gardens, play space for children, and sunny outdoor gathering places. 

There are reasons we haven’t moved the flatlands towards the “new urbanism” and form-based zoning that would allow denser housing models like duplexes, multiple buildings, and cluster types like bungalow courts and townhouses. True, we are hung-up on the single-family house as the ideal, but also to blame are those whose sole measure of scale is height, not form and pattern. There’s a tug of war between those who want more height and those who want less, and that dominates the conversation. 

In May 1991, the City Council adopted a uniform height of 28-35 feet for all buildings, including those at the rear of lots, without thought of how this would affect design of the low to medium multi-unit zones of the flatlands: the R-1A, R-2, and R-2A. This failure of foresight has resulted in grotesque building additions and envelopes that look like Stonehenge, so obvious in the Haskell Street appeal, where a developer wanted to create a row of three two-story condos with a driveway and parking on a lot that had formerly held one bungalow. No wonder the neighbors rebelled. They may not have appealed one or two buildings with as many dwelling units or more if their placement honored the sanctity of their inner block, especially if they had been consulted about options. But a developer would not build an affordable triplex or three attached townhouses when he can rake in profits from three separate condo houses. If we want affordable and harmonious development, the zoning needs to advantage the multiplex, attached townhouses, and communal open space enabled by compact design. 

In the R-1A, limited to two dwelling units, the zoning should advantage the most affordable building forms: the duplex and the ADU. The details of my modest proposal, composed with a little help from my friends, are contained in the planning commission packet. Please attend the meeting and support these options as well as innovations like floor-area ratio, design standards, and solar rights that other cities have utilized for years. Berkeley is so behind the times. 

Medicare for All 

I know it’s hard to keep our minds on local land-use when the federal government is tottering on the edge of a constitutional crisis, one Trump engendered shock after another. Goodbye Obamacare. Hello human suffering. Everyday I am so grateful for Kaiser Oakland, my health-care center for forty-five years. During my career at CCSF, I was covered by the City of San Francisco, thanks to my union contract. Now that I’m retired, I have Medicare with an affordable monthly fee and co-pays. My recent hand operation, almost two hours of microscopic surgery under general anesthesia, cost me $250. I am so blessed to have affordable care. But why should I consider this a privilege when other countries offer such care as a right? Somehow we need to create a healthcare system that works for everybody. 

My brother lives in Denmark, where the tax supported universal health care system is rationed but available to all. Last year, he had heart surgery, the best doctors, all paid by a system that per capita is half the cost of ours. At 76 he’s still working as a computer engineer because he’s creative, not because he’s worried. 

We, on the other hand, have become a worried people, losing our small sense of security that is draining away into chaos. 


Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.