UC expansion engulfs Berkeley

Becky O'Malley
Friday July 07, 2017 - 01:08:00 PM

Just in case you were wondering why it seems to take you 40 minutes to drive across Berkeley, when 20 minutes used to be plenty, why there’s no real point in trying to shop in downtown because it’s totally impossible to park there, why you can’t seem to find a place to rent that you can afford, despite the readily visible building boom….look no farther than the adjacent article from Bay City News: UC Berkeley admissions up again since last year.

Don’t get me wrong. I was infuriated when my granddaughter’s best friend didn’t make the cut at UC Berkeley despite high grades and test scores. I’m a proud Cal graduate myself, and can’t imagine why anyone would want to go anywhere else. But the town is jammed already, and it’s not getting any better. Where will we put them all?

The old dorms, forced by state policy to be financially self-sustaining, are already insanely expensive. And now, with UC Berkeley pitching itself to wealthy out-of-state students who pay high fees , with an emphasis on the privileged offspring of well-off foreigners, even pricier alternatives are on offer, under the rubric of “Affiliated Properties.” 

What does this mean? If you click under this heading on the UC Housing website, you see these three buildings: 

Garden Village Apartments 

New Sequoia Apartments
Panoramic Residences 

The first two were originally permitted by the city of Berkeley as tax-paying private rental development, the kind marketed as “luxury apartments. Presumably the third, developed in San Francisco by Patrick Kennedy, who made his original fortune in Berkeley, is in the same category. Now, however, they seem to have been subsumed into UCB’s housing schemes. Are they consequently off the tax rolls? Unless the parties would show me their contracts (ha!) I’ll assume so. 

The Garden Village apartments were approved with maximum flackery as a creative solution to the region’s shortage of affordable housing, featuring mini-farms on the roof and all manner of other trendy amenities, adding up to a cool $1,699.50 per month per single bedroom, adding up to $17,000 a year. Says the pitch “These spaces will be assigned to students according to eligibility and lottery number….Garden Village Apartments are considered on-campus apartments for budgetary purposes with the Financial Aid office.” 

The original developer was one Anthony Levandowski. Yes, that Levandowski, now under investigation for stealing trade secrets from Google, including code, regarding his work on self-driving vehicles, and delivering them to Uber. He’s also in the middle of a lawsuit on the same matter.  

Who owns the Village now, and do they pay property taxes? I’ll leave it to someone else to sort through the usual nest of embedded LLCs and REITs to figure that out, but it’s conceivable that Mr. L. would have unloaded them by now, given that he’s in a world of trouble.  

The New Sequoia Apartments are the happy outcome of a previous world of grief. They replace a previous rent-controlled and relatively inexpensive building which mysteriously burned down. Who owns them now, and are they paying Berkeley taxes? Who knows, and probably not. 

Luxury Dorm #3, Panoramic Residences , is linked to a storied Berkeley name, one that’s cropped up more than a few times in local scandales. That would be Patrick Kennedy, whose company Panoramic Interests is famous among other escapades for suckering the City of Berkeley into approving the Fine Arts building on the basis of a replacement movie theater that never materialized, our very own mini-Potemkin. This one’s in San Francisco, marketed for BART commuters, so with UCB as an Affiliate, does anyone pay SF property taxes? Maybe the crack investigative reporters at the SF Chronicle can figure that out.  

These special domiciles for special snowflakes, or at least the Berkeley ones, went through the whole civic approval process with little criticism of the fact they were actually fancy-schmancy dormitories for select students who could afford the best. They will do nothing to add to the stock of affordable housing desperately needed by Berkeley residents.  

Among the many things I don’t know about these deals is what becomes of the conditions on the use permits which typically accompany such developments. It is fervently to be hoped that some provision has been made for very low income residents, for example, but are there any in these?  

This is a new extension of a long-time UCB practice of extending its tax-free tentacles off campus without any public process. They’re done this stealth development to expand their offices for years: viz the Golden Bear building, now the home of UC Extension.  

Thanks to a long, long ago Memorandum of Understanding, a sweetheart deal executed after a lawsuit over UC’s long range development plan with the aid of Berkeley’s favorite power couple, Hancock and Bates, the university contributes approximately bupkes to the city’s infrastructure: roads, sewers, parks, fire services, all the stuff that makes Berkeley a good place to be, or at least used to when we could afford them. The school has always gotten a free ride. 

One of my knowledgeable secret sources happened to pass by a Chamber of Commerce brunch at the Bancroft hotel a few weeks ago. He told me that he recognized many of the attendees as developers, but he also spotted new UCB Chancellor Carol Christ. He was not surprised, he said, to see Patrick Kennedy ensconced right up close to Ms. Christ and avidly conversing with her. 

Are we surprised that avaricious entrepreneurs are prone to cozying up with UC poohbahs? No, we’re not. If asked why, they’d probably give the same answer that Willie Sutton gave when asked why he robbed banks: That’s where the money is.  

Nobody loses in these deals but us taxpayers.