Public Comment

“Beware the Jabberwock”

Steve Martinot
Thursday January 17, 2019 - 02:49:00 PM

Remember the parable of the five blind men trying to describe an elephant? Each man touches a different part of the elephant, and then expands his single perception to the whole. The five of them variously describe the elephant as like a snake, a rope, a tree, a wall, and a palm frond. We recognize the trunk, the tail, the leg, the side, and the ear, but the real animal is missing.

At a recent meeting of the Berkeley Neighborhoods Council, five reports were given about housing developments, and the problems encountered in each. In each case, there was a different problem, and it played a different role. These problems represented complications caused by dissonance between developer desires and the neighborhood people affected by the project. While neighborhoods have been clear about the need for low income affordable housing, ignoring such needs, or even pandering to them through the use of legalities create confused approaches. Each problem becomes a kind of roadblock to being responsive to people’s concerns.

And by "problem," I do not mean the background noise from the troll claque that accompanies each proposed project, and chants things like “build build build” (as if supply and demand were operative), or “densification is good for the planet” (as an alternative to what?), or “affordable for whom” (as if that wasn’t known).

The problems these five "cases" revealed, however, were real. 

One project was a proposal to condo-ize some rent controlled homes at the corner of Hearst and Curtis. Some of the tenants there were low income. Their units, 7 in all, would be updated to market rate conditions. And 6 new units would be built, all market rate. Those now living there would get first chance to buy. But if they couldn’t afford it, they were, as the developer’s agent put it, “out of luck.” The neighborhood however testified in significant numbers at the ZAB (Zoning Adjustment Board) that flooding occurred in that area whenever there was heavy rain. Nevertheless, the developer asked to waive a CEQA review, and the ZAB approved the project. It will be appealed at City Council on Jan 29. 

Another project was on the corner of Allston and Shattuck, where Walgreen’s now is. It will be a 19 story building, and will obstruct the view of the Golden Gate from Campanile Way, up on campus. Campanile Way has been granted landmark status. That means the building should not be higher than 6 stories. 

The third project is on the corner of Ashby and Shattuck. The ZAB denied the project because of inadequate parking, inadequate access (loading and unloading), and an internal design that violated zoning codes. Units were to be multifamily, with six bedrooms in each, rented singly by the housing administration. The developer and the staff colluded in appealing the project to City Council, which granted the appeal, against the city’s own Zoning Ordinance. 

The fourth project is a plan to build housing on the North Berkeley BART parking lot. At a meeting of North Berkeley resident about this proposal, some 400 people showed up, mostly to argue against it. 

The fifth project was one proposed by the Credit Union on the corner of Ashby and Adeline. Its lot will be given to a 6 story building, with 100% affordable units (the Credit Union moving to a different location), built by a non-profit developer to provide housing for low and very income families. The problem they confront is how to determine the best income levels for the building’s purposes. 


Each of these projects raises a different issue, with all apparently separate from each other. 

The issue for the first is the land itself. There are floods at that corner because a creek runs under it. Originally, the creeks in this area ran above ground. As the city developed, it built pipes and culverts for the water to run underground, to free that land for development. These pipes form an extensive infrastructure for that purpose. The fact that there is flooding at that corner means that the infrastructure there is insufficient for its purpose. The responsibility for that infrastructure is the same as that for all infrastructure in the city, viz. City Council and its staff. Though the land has been subdivided, and thus turned into commodities, it is still land, and the city that governs its parceling and commodification has that responsibility. 

The issue raised about the second project (Shattuck and Allston) is that of the view from another location. This issue of views of the bay and of the golden gate occurs in this area with respect to any elevated place. These views are a highlight of the area, an attraction, and a value for life here. When a development or even an unpruned tree obstruct the view of the bay for another homeowner, there can be suits and fights and City Council resolutions. In this case, the location to which the view attaches is the walkway up the hill from Fulton to the Campanile. It has been landmarked as a special place. It is not the view that has been landmarked (we refrain from such absurdities). It is a location or a building that can be landmarked, and the view attaches to that. The view (from Campanile Way) is being used to oppose this particular downtown building. Is that a forced argument? The esthetic that thinks that a 19 story building will be monstrous in downtown Berkeley is the same esthetic that would seek to preserve the qualities of the land, and the character of neighborhoods. The city has recognized this need to preserve the esthetics of the city by having commissioned a Landmarks Preservation Commission, whose job is to preserve both historicity and beauty as meaningful. 

The issue for the third project (Ashby and Shattuck) is not one of esthetics, but rather one of ethics. The ZAB, a board commissioned by the City Council, saw fit to deny the project. Never before had the ZAB refused to approve a large project. In the past, when it has granted a permit, and there had been an appeal, the appeal has always been on the grounds that the ZAB failed to take an important consideration into account. That wasn’t the case here. The only reason to overturn the ZAB decision was "to build." In granting the developer’s appeal of that ZAB decision, the City Council in effect violated its own zoning codes and ordinances, evaluation of which was the job given the ZAB. Thus, City Council betrayed its trust in own creation. What City Council should have done was send the project back to ZAB with instructions to review its decision or order the project modified. To simply overturn the ZAB decision, with the connivance of the city staff itself, is to stab the ZAB in the back, throwing one part of the city machine against another part. 

An ethics referee, perhaps in the form of an Ethics Commission, or perhaps an ombudsman, would be called for here. 

The issue for the fourth project (housing projects on North Berkeley BART parking lot) was neighborhood integrity. The neighborhood, when asked about its feelings in March, 2018, spoke energetically against it, saying that such a project would be out of character with the neighborhood. It had a history, a life style, and a sense of stability that the proposed buildings would disrupt or even destroy. People had bought houses in that area for the very reason that densification was not being planned. Oddly, these were the very same arguments that neighborhood people had been voicing for years in South Berkeley with respect to development in the Adeline Corridor. In the area of Adeline and Ashby, there are four densifying highrise buildings on deck, already approved by ZAB. The reason the city had permitted projects in South Berkeley rather than North Berkeley was that South Berkeley was lower income and diverse, as opposed to the white middle class character of North Berkeley. It was looking at North Berkeley now only because of loud complaints about bias, racism, and white supremeacy from the people of South Berkeley – though without having developed any specific plans yet. In other words, the specific ethics practiced by the city and its City Council had been both racist and opportunist in allowing developers to profit from the lower priced real estate in the lower income area of South Berkeley, using the neighborhood as a commodified resource or raw material for production. 

The issue involved in the fifth project is one of rent levels. It stems from a half-hearted attempt by the city and federal government to overcome the institutional racism from which real estate capital had previously benefitted. HUD established standards for affordability, one being that maximum rent should be no more than 30% of the tenant’s income. To assure that all different income levels would get a chance at affordability, income levels are divided into strata by percentage of the area median income (AMI). The AMI for Alameda County is roughly $94,000 per year. Housing for low and very low income levels (below 80% AMI and below 50% AMI respectively) would roughly be between $75,000 and $28,000 a year. The non-profit developer actually projected housing for incomes between $22,000 and $68,000. 

The problem is that, in Berkeley, the actual AMI for the city (different from the county) is around $65,000. So in Berkeley, units renting for $68,000 would be nowhere near low income. To fit such a building into Berkeley’s specific conditions, ab akternate standard should be used, one that would set rent levels in ranges that would approximate the real income levels of those living in the vicinity of the development. That would insure that a neighborhood family that got displaced by greedy-landlord rent increases could theoretically find a new home in the new building. This disparity between county AMI and city AMI is a carry-over from the institutional racism that created black and brown ghettos in Berkeley and Oakland before the 1960s. 

Each of these projects touches on a different aspect of development as a monstrous entity for which we do not have a name. It is like a Jabberwock, jabbering away endlessly. We have described it as an infrastructure, or as land and city preservation, or government ethics, or as income disparities, or as a racism problem. The monster these aspects frame is the problem of housing for the people of Berkeley (not “the problem of housing in Berkeley” – which would simply change the subject). 

For each of these to be considered a separate problem would mean we were all blind, and simply touching different parts of this socio-economic animal. 


When we put these factors together, however, as a Jabberwock, we find there is a symbiosis of various forms of unethical behavior that spank of both corruption and extreme irresponsibility. The irresponsibility extends from ignoring the needs of city infrastructure (dire these days with the increase in summer fire danger) to ignoring the plight of low income families faced with dislocation at the hands of greedy landlords. This is what created an affordable housing crisis. The corruption (the political kind) extends from unethical passivity toward (and in violation of) both the letter and the intent of the zoning ordinance, to institutional racist attitudes toward different communities resulting in betrayal of their cultural sense of belonging (a possession of communal space rather than of things). Betrayal means trading their sense of belonging for rank commodification and possession of things and land. It destroys not only neighborhoods but the very principles of democracy. 

What should people do when betrayed by those they trusted, those who came to them and said, “trust us, we will look out for your welfare and for the cultural richness of this community”? Well, there are a number of possibilties. I will list four. 

1- We can pray to Jesus Christ that he please come back to earth and save us from the destructive venality of a commodified life. 

2- We can sit home watching television, hoping that the financial economy tanks and all these development plans then get put on indefinite hold because funding is not available, thus saving the city. 

3- We can pay increased dues to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, pretending that they are not organizations of the for-profit developers and construction industries, and thus (please please) not in collusion with the high cost of living and the high cost of maintenance of the city. 

4- We can organize our own grassroots neighborhood councils that make policy for each neighborhood autonomously (as they are doing in Jackson, Mississippi), write those policies into local neighborhood Zoning Overlay ordinances and by plebecite make those Zoning Overlays the law of each neighborhood, to be policed locally, and on the basis of which City Council gets restructured to be more responsive to and responsible to the real needs of the people.