Dance with the One
That Brought You

Becky O'Malley
Saturday February 10, 2018 - 04:26:00 PM

So, it’s been a bit over a year since the more-progressive-than-thou majority assumed their seats on the Berkeley City Council. District 4 Councilmember Jesse Arreguin became mayor, and shortly thereafter Kate Harrison was elected to fill the last months of his council term. This might be a good time to remind all of these well-meaning folks about how they got where they are today, just in case they’re tempted to attribute their electoral victories exclusively to their personal charms.

First and foremost, what brought together a remarkable coalition of unlikely bedfellows to form their electoral majority was general distaste for the way the previous majority, headed by former mayor Tom Bates, had sold out Berkeley to rapacious for-profit developers.

Several “it’s time for a change” groups coalesced around the 2016 Berkeley election: 

  • the Sustainable Berkeley Coalition, people who first met because of their opposition to a project to demolish the home of the beloved Shattuck Cinemas in order to build a luxury high-rise at 2211 Harold Way, and went on to question the planning policies which produced that monstrosity ;
  • the Progressive Berkeley Alliance, mostly people who had previously been active in electoral campaigns, among others of Councilmembers Arreguin and Worthington, and more recently of Assemblymember Tony Thurmond and Bernie Sanders;
  • the Berkeley Tenants’ Union, supporters of Berkeley’s rent control and of candidates for the city’s elected Rent Board;
  • Berkeley Citizens’ Action, inheritors of the name and what was left of the organization that originally backed progressives way back in the early seventies;
  • and the Wellstone Democratic Club, with many members who were Berkeley and Oakland veterans of historic left movements of various kinds, formed to engage de novo in electoral politics, especially by endorsing and supporting primary candidates within the Democratic Party.

Many Berkeley activists are members of more than one of these groups and several others whose principles overlap though their tactics differ. A recent comment on the Sustainable Berkeley list-serv stated the perceived problem which united them succinctly: “…we’re giving up good sites to for-profit developers to build the market rate housing we don’t need and making it even harder to provide the low and middle income housing we urgently need.” 

The overarching issue in Berkeley, then and now, can be viewed as the trailing edge of the controversy over the 2211 Harold Way project which was the first test of the Downtown Plan which the developer-backed Bates organization, with collusion of the city’s Planning Department, sold to the then Berkeley City Council. Key to this plan was allowing “up to” five extra-tall buildings in the center of the city, if (and that was supposed to be IF) they provided “significant community benefits” in return for the variance needed for the added height above standard zoning allowances . 

The catch, of course, is that exactly what constitutes such “benefits” was essentially undefined, except for some loosey-goosey “guidelines”. 

In the last few years Berkeley has been experiencing a boom in the construction of clunky mid-rise faceless “luxury” apartments, transparently designed to attract well-off commuters to San Francisco tech jobs. The Harold Way project , fronted by a former City of Berkeley planning director who had obviously tailored the city’s regulations to his own specs before he joined the for-profit building industry, was seen by its numerous vociferous opponents as more of the same and worse. 

After a year or more of Sturm und Drang, the building was approved by the Bates-majority council with minimal community benefits and maximal public outrage at a December 2015 meeting which was marked by procedural shenanigans of all kinds on the part of the majority. 

The fallout from this excitement was that the Bates-backed candidates, including mayoral candidate Laurie Capitelli, lost in November of 2016. The broad-based coalition which supported their opponents was unprecedented. It included two former mayors, Gus Newport and Shirley Dean, previously viewed as the opposite ends of the political spectrum. 

Recently Councilmember Kate Harrison, an articulate Harold Way opponent who’ll need to run again in November to secure a full term in District 4, has been trying to get a clear, comprehensive description of what exactly constitutes “significant community benefits” into a council resolution with at least a modest number of teeth to avoid a re-run of that debacle. To that end an ad-hoc committee of the council (Arreguin, Harrison, Worthington, Droste) has been convened to produce a draft for council consideration. 

I attended the committee’s first meeting last week, and was mordantly amused to see that the usual building industry lobbyists, both management and union, showed up in force. Even Laurie Capitelli, the former District 5 councilmember who lost to Arreguin, was there with his wish list. It looked like a reprise of The Alligators’ Ball, with developers’ shills licking their lips at the prospect of swallowing up even more of Berkeley’s housing opportunities. 

Noteworthy updates on the despised Harold Way project emerged during the meeting. As predicted by opponents, the putative developer is now trying to sell the entitled project to another developer instead of building it, so nothing’s happened yet. 

Now it turns out that the City of Berkeley’s last Planning Department head, on her way out the door, extended the expiration date for the entitlements, which were supposed to expire if unused by December of 2017, by a full two years. And also, there’s been a request from the entitlement holder to ditch movie theaters in the new building, contrary to conditions on the use permit requiring them to be re-built. That outrageously presumptive demand was turned down by the current planning staff, at least for now. 

The crux of the matter: the so-called “community benefits” and the conditions on the use permit exist at the whim of Berkeley Planning Department staff after the deal goes down. And from very modest boons they can quickly turn into bupkes

This topic is again current because now there’s a big push to build a second over-height building, eighteen stories, at 2190 Shattuck. It would replace a nondescript mid-century structure which now houses a Walgreens and some offices. Some opponents complain that such a tall building would block the view of the Golden Gate from the U.C. Berkeley Campanile, but a new housing/commercial development at a height consistent with existing downtown zoning providing a decent number of inclusionary units has been generally welcomed by those who understand Berkeley’s need for affordable housing . 

One complicating factor for this project in particular is that the spokesperson for the would-be developer, present at the Ad-Hoc Committee Meeting and at ZAB discussions, is Jason Overman, Mayor Arreguin’s UCB roommate and one-time District 8 council candidate. It’s possible that the Mayor would be asked to recuse himself if the Zoning Adjustment Board approves the project with a benefit list for a height variance and then it’s appealed to the council. 

Better to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. The wise course for progressive councilmembers (and their ZAB appointees) might be to permit this particular structure without any extra stories, and wait until there’s a robust, articulated policy on what exactly might qualify as real community benefits before approving a second tall building so the city can get a deal with real enforceable benefits. 

It’s crucial that the Mayor and councilmembers in the current majority remember that what united their supporters in the first place was opposition to inappropriate development. 

They might want to remember an old saying which is still good political advice: Dance with the One That Brought You. 


P.S.Just in: some news from the Twitterverse: 

"Stay tuned for a town hall meeting with BART on development of the North Berkeley BART parking lot. I am commited to starting the process of building housing there."  

Committed already? Really? Has he checked with his constituents about that? 

Action Item:Anyone who wants a chance to weigh in on the substantial community benefits question should come to the second meeting of the ad-hoc committee of the council, which will take place on Tuesday morning at 9:30 in the council chambers in the Maudelle Shirek Old City Hall building, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.