New: An open letter to the Berkeley City Council regarding gentrification (PUBLIC COMMENT)

Charlene M. Woodcock
Friday May 19, 2017 - 08:20:00 AM

As the 2016 city election demonstrated, rapid gentrification bred by housing speculation and loss of diversity are unacceptable to the majority of residents in Berkeley. I’ve been thinking, as I know the council has too, of how we can reverse this process. 

We're seeing the damaging consequences to Berkeley's highly-valued cultural, economic, and racial diversity as well as to city infrastructure of the previous council majority’s permitting of many large new market-rate residential buildings to be built simultaneously. New units are selling to foreign investors and being used for short-term rentals. We need to slow this escalation of housing rates and at the same time provide incentives for non-profit developers. That these buildings were permitted in spite of their lack of much-needed inclusionary low-income and family housing or the highest level of green design, energy efficiency, and distinctive architectural merit has angered many Berkeley voters. We believe our city deserves much better than to be given over to for-profit developers to change its character.  

Some possible ways to address our needs and values and to discourage excessive market rate projects: 

1. Require LEED Platinum for all for-profit projects, including those permitted but not yet begun, and encourage it for non-profit buildings. California law permits reasonable new requirements on any project where no construction has begun and especially when no building permit has yet been issued (from a conversation with land use attorney Tony Rossman).  

2. Require 30% or 40% inclusionary low-income and family units. The 2211 Harold Way project would be less detrimental were it to meet serious green standards and include 40% inclusionary low-income/family units. If that is unacceptable to the developer, so much the better for Berkeley. We don’t need what he wants to build here, to profit himself and his investors. 

3. Require Significant Community Benefits for all for-profit projects 

4. Require Significant Community Benefits to be complete before awarding occupancy permits 

While these may seem radical suggestions, given the quota figures from the 12/16 updated ABAG 2012-2020 housing report they are both responsible and appropriate. Berkeley has met 278% of quota for “above moderate” housing, but a pitiful 3% for low-income and 4% for moderate-income housing. The above actions should be taken on not-yet-begun projects. 

One way to provide for addressing our infrastructure needs, and retrofitting of Old City Hall, the Veterans Building, the Berkeley Pier, the city pools, is to increase the Real Property Transfer Tax from 1.5% to 5% on all transfers, residential and commercial, of more than $750,000. This would not affect the buyers of family homes, nor would it make much difference to the wealthy speculators who are buying up Berkeley properties as investments, but it would allow us to avoid taking out a $100,000,000 bond to pay for infrastructure improvements, saddling Berkeley with repayments including very large interest costs for years to come. It would also have the effect of dampening speculation in Berkeley real estate which is driving costs too high for most Berkeley families to meet.  

For many of us, the previous council majority's sacrifice of the Shattuck Cinemas, a model of very successful adaptive reuse, to the 2211 Harold Way highrise was inexcusable. Public protests drove the developer to offer replacement theaters and, absurdly, his claim of the replacements as a Significant Community Benefit was accepted. It is not a net benefit to destroy a cultural and financial treasure and provide a second-rate replacement. We need a third-party feasibility study for the under-ground theaters, which weren’t in the original plans, before demolition of the existing theaters. We also need, for all projects with Significant Community Benefits agreements, a mechanism for consistent enforcement of the agreement. What a tragedy it would be should the Penner project go forward and demolish our theaters, were he to fail to provide replacement theaters. We have the Gaia Building bookstore and Fine Arts Cinema building named for benefits the community never received.