Should Berkeley Exclude Citizens from Land Use Decisions?

Becky O'Malley
Saturday December 09, 2017 - 11:23:00 AM

Do the residents of Berkeley’s District 8 know that their Councilmember Lori Droste is positioning herself as the Joan of Arc of unrestrained development density?

Last Tuesday Droste spearheaded the ill-conceived crusade by some Berkeley City Council members to prevent current residents from commenting on developers’ plans to build semi-affordable housing projects. The goal is to allow planning department staff to approve projects which claim a high percentage (~50%) of affordable units without the approval of those annoying citizens’ land use regulatory commissions (not the Zoning Adjustment Board, nor its Design Review Committee, nor the Landmark Preservation Commission). Eager sponsors (Droste, Bartlett, Arreguin, Worthington) characterized this truncated process as “ministerial” rather than “discretionary” approval. They proudly claimed that there would be no opportunity for citizens to appeal such decisions if their proposal should become Berkeley zoning law. Swell.

District 6 Councilmember Sophie Hahn (who is among other achievements a graduate of Stanford Law School though she no longer practices law) tried patiently and even eloquently to explain the many, many legal problems with a plan like this, but she got exactly nowhere with the gung-ho proponents.

Instead, they spoke in glowing terms of their desire to create a bulletproof set of simple-minded standards which could be easily enforced by staff without messy citizen input which would magically produce affordable housing very very soon. This, remember, is the same Berkeley Planning Department staff which permitted the approval and construction of the Library Gardens apartments with resulting fatalities. 

District 5 Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who expressed a number of reservations from the beginning of the discussion, showed unfeigned shock when she learned that one goal of the scheme was to prevent citizen input. 

The public comment period on this idea turned out to be the obvious parade of pre-programmed Yimbys, mostly whiteboys from elsewhere, developer-funded stooges whose simplistic neoliberal economic analysis comes straight from Econ 101: The Market Will Decide. It was clear that they’d missed the upper division courses where knotty questions of elasticity and efficacy of markets are debated. 

My big faves in this crowd were a couple of these guys who used “aesthetics” as a shock-and-awe pejorative, as in “people even want to consider aesthetics! OMG!” Their parent organization, headed by one self-styled Victoria Fierce, who used to live in Oakland and probably still does, has been renamed East Bay For Everyone (formerly East Bay Forward). . Victoria herself even showed up. 

This name change, at least, is truth in packaging. These people do appear to believe that everyone in the world who wants to live in the East Bay can be enabled to do so. 

Guess what? Sooner or later we’re going to run out of land in the East Bay, and even in the whole Bay Area. Details, details. 

Councilmember Droste, the main proponent of the zoning law changes which would be needed to advance Yimby schemes, has shown herself to be dedicated to the proposition that it’s Berkeley’s destiny to make sure that everyone who’d like to live here is shoehorned in somehow. Perhaps she was elected to make sure that happened, but looking at District 8 I kind of doubt it. 

This is the district which was severely gerrymandered by the previous Council majority to make it possible to create a student-only enclave as District 7. District 8 contains the Claremont and Elmwood single-family neighborhoods, which have gotten very pricey, and the multiple-unit areas on its north and west edges which can roughly be characterized as South of Campus. The latter (parts of the old Bateman and LeConte neighborhoods) are an uneasy juxtaposition of crammed-in students and long-term UCB-oriented families who have periodic culture clashes over things like loud parties and end-of-semester dumping. 

My poll-free guess is that if asked a large number of Droste’s District 8 constituents would say that they moved to the area because they wanted to be able to walk to UCB for classes or work. The hillier Claremont and Elmwood (where Droste lives) neighborhoods were built in the first part of the 20th century as streetcar suburbs, convenient for those who wanted to commute to San Francisco via public transit, an option which BART and AC Transit’s E bus still make possible, though the original Key System train tracks were removed in the 1960s. 

Though I have no data which proves my point, I seriously doubt that a large percentage of District 8 voters, either in flats or hills, would voice enthusiasm for the aesthetics-be-damned big ugly box market-rate rental and condo buildings which have gone up in Berkeley in the last ten years. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that the majority would say that they’d like Berkeley to remain a diverse community, and would gladly support appropriate buildings to ensure housing for lower-income tenants 

But that doesn’t mean that anything goes. 

I remember the big billboards which were all over St. Louis when I was a child: “Progress or decay? St. Louis must choose.” They represented the marketing of that city’s well-intention but disastrous Urban Renewal plan. The professional planners behind that scheme produced the infamous Pruitt-Igoe high-rise projects which were completed in 1954 and demolished in the 1970s as a spectacular failure. 

Design matters. Most of Berkeley’s existing low-rise scattered-site public housing units went through a seemingly laborious public process which was so successful that many citizens don’t even know where they are located. Truncating that successful process will not produce better results. 

Or—and this is the crucial part—faster results. The problem, as astute Councilmember Kate Harrison tried to explain to her gung-ho colleagues with little success, is the current shortage of funding and land, not the length of the permitting process, which plays a relatively minor role in slowing down development of housing for low-income tenants. 

The unending attempt of some of the current councilmembers, including Droste, to fast-track approval of Yimby-backed expensive developments in prime transit-friendly locations will only exacerbate the problem, because of course market-rate units in a bull market are exponentially more profitable to financial backers than less pricey inclusionary units. The trickle-down theory which is being used to promote constructing luxury buildings on transit corridors in Berkeley is just the same voodoo economics advanced by Republicans who say that tax cuts for the rich will somehow help the poor. 

But there’s no real reason to be concerned about the measure which the council passed on Tuesday with Droste’s leadership. It simply, in lay terms, referred the matter to the City Manager and her staff for study and recommendations. 

In the end, councilmembers voted for it unanimously, even the ones who knew it was a do-nothing deal. Since there’s no money and no land, and since it’s almost certainly impossible for the Berkeley Planning Department staff to create a one-size-fits-all set of standards which will speed up affordable housing production sans civic approval, no harm will be done, in all probability. 

That doesn’t mean you won’t hear claims to the contrary. On Friday, for example, District 3 Councilmember Ben Bartlett, who has chosen to run for State Assembly before he’s even finished the first year of his first term in Berkeley, sent me three or four copies of a commercial-type email blast which says in large bold-face: 

I am proud to announce that I helped pass a groundbreaking law to streamline affordable housing production. This will dramatically increase our ability to create affordable housing.


I emailed him (or his consultant) back to ask what he was talking about—I do hope it wasn’t Tuesday’s meaningless enactment, which is nothing but a tin fiddle, and will dramatically do exactly zilch, nada, to create housing. I’ll let you know if he gets back to me on this. 

And as far as Councilmember Lori Droste is concerned, if you’re in her district you might want to start tracking her votes on the never-ending stream of developer variances which end up at the City Council these days. She’s up for re-election in 2018, and if you don’t agree with her positions on this crucial issue, you might want to look for someone to replace her. Or, even, you might be able to change her mind, but don’t hold your breath.