Public Comment

The "Missing Middle" Report and the Berkeley General Plan

Hon. Shirley Dean, former Berkeley Mayor
Saturday March 30, 2019 - 02:47:00 PM

Editor's Note: This open letter to the Berkeley City Council was originally submitted on March 24, 2019 before their March 26 meeting. Item 22 was postponed until 4/23, and Item 23 passed on consent.

Re: Council Agenda, March 26, 2019, Item 22, Missing Middle Report, and Item 23, Referral to the City Manager to Scope Process and Estimate Costs of a New General Plan

Since I will not be able to attend the Council Meeting to be held on this coming Wednesday, March 26, I am forwarding my thoughts on Item 22, the Missing Middle Report. I must say in the beginning that the four years I spent as a member of the Planning Commission and the then-named Board of Adjustments, 15 years as a member of the Berkeley City Council and eight years as Mayor, this item comes very close to being the most destructive of the quality of life for Berkeley residents that I have ever seen.

I well understand the need for housing in the East Bay and throughout all of California. However, those who seek to find a solution to the need for housing through a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not only fail in their quest to ‘fix’ the housing problem but also destroy existing livable communities. I believe a real solution can be found, but it must be carefully crafted to consider existing conditions and geography unique to a community and importantly, job availability in and near that community. Given recent scientific information that we have just 12 years before we face irreversible climate change, we must address land use with its closely related cousin, traffic congestion, immediately. 

I’ve lived in Berkeley for over 70 years and all during that time, Berkeley has had a “housing crisis.” The city’s response has been to allow small residential lot sizes as low as 2,000 ft, second units, ADUs, and increased density in our Downtown and along major commercial corridors – all of which have resulted in a city that is one of the most dense in the East Bay. Of course density isn’t the only factor that must be considered by planners, but it is interesting to note the following East Bay cities (with at least 50,000 in population) density numbers (people per sq mile) dating from 2016: 

Berkeley 11,580 

Alameda 7,437 

Hayward 3,507 

Oakland 7,528 

Fremont 3,010 

Richmond 3,652 

San Leandro 6,781 

And then the 2016 densities for the cities listed who are said to have initiated the missing middle approach: 

Minneapolis 7,664 

Houston, 3,842 

Chicago 11,883 

Portland 4,795 

And in six of the largest cities in the Silicon Valley area where most of jobs are: 

Cupertino 5,386 

Palo Alto 2807 

San Jose 5,808 

Mt. View 6704 

Santa Clara 6841 

Sunnyvale 6947 

Well, those are 2016 figures and there certainly have been some changes since then, but it gives one an idea of what is happening. Berkeley is already up there in density, but has it made any difference? People, particularly those with moderate and low incomes, throughout the region are driving long distances to their employment in the jobs being generated in the Silicon Valley increasing congestion and adding to the already high levels of greenhouse gasses, while cities like Cupertino joke about building a wall around their community. 

But existing density certainly isn’t the whole story by any means. Berkeley also has to consider that our city is bisected by the Hayward Fault that is predicted to be the most likely to have a 7.0 earthquake or over in the region. We also have National Geologic Survey mapped landslide and liquefaction areas, as well as CalFIRE designated high fire risk zones where homeowners are currently seeing their fire insurance policies cancelled. Most of the streets in the North Berkeley Hills are so narrow (less than 24 feet wide) that it currently is not possible at times for a fire engine to respond to a fire. Authorities are stating that The Big One or the predicted continuation of droughts will result not only in disastrous loss of life but the greatest losses to the local and regional economies ever experienced. 

With all of these conditions combined, it has not been denied that should Berkeley experience a fire fueled by the high loads of underbrush and trees that is currently expanding because of the recent rains, and driven by the easterly “Diablo Winds,” it will be near impossible to safely evacuate residents. Keep in mind that evacuation problems increase as the fire moves swiftly down the hills, more and more people must join the exodus. This is not just a problem with the hills – it’s a problem for all of Berkeley as the fires in the future will move more rapidly than ever before, and we know from recent years that most of the people who will die will be the elderly and disabled. 

So there needs to be a clear and convincing explanation given by each and every member of this City Council as to the specific reasons why each of you want to consider adding more and more density to Berkeley? 

Yes, we need to provide housing for the numbers of people that are here now. A good many of those people are students. It should be accepted that since the University invited them to attend this campus, the University should find a sufficient number of housing units that they can afford. I would strongly suggest the University consider the Chancellor’s House and surrounding land, all University parking lots (cutting down the number of faculty and staff cars entering the campus would be a plus in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions), increasing the density in Albany Village, using the Blake Estate, for student, faculty and lower income staff housing. If there isn’t enough available University land to accommodate the need, the University should adopt a policy to enroll and employ only the number for which they can provide the needed housing. Berkeley is the only campus in the UC system that is literally landlocked, the other campuses need to take up the slack, and yes, even create yet another campus. 

And while we are at it, how about those communities in Silicon Valley where the jobs are being required to provide the thousands of housing units that mesh with the numbers and types of jobs they are offering. Such a requirement would certainly tend to cut some of these long commutes that are generating the devastating climate changes we are all experiencing. The time has arrived for BOLD thinking that will actually make a positive difference in improving our lives and those of our children and grandchildren.  

As important as all of the above is to consider, it is equally important to understand that implementation of the “missing middle” will result in wholesale displacement of current affordable housing – both owners and renters. We talk about “Berkeley values” and certainly avoiding displacement and gentrification is high on that list. 

Developers are not all evil corporate types that want to build large apartment buildings. Many are ordinary people who want to make an investment for their future and turning a single family home into a duplex, triplex or fourplex is just the thing they want to do. You must know that is already happening. Currently elderly homeowners are being regularly approached by real estate people about selling their homes “as is.” We are seeing and experiencing more and more of that as many long-standing reputable real estate offices are being bought out by corporate interests, homeowners are aging and families are finding it harder and harder to live in congested, unfriendly cities. There is a constant drumbeat in the newspapers about the large numbers of people leaving the Bay Area for Colorado, Texas, Oregon and Nevada with some real estate offices actually specializing in helping people make such moves. We all know people who have left and as those properties are renovated, units expanded, some even become small condo complexes, the price goes up. I’ve never seen one go down, have you? And the face of Berkeley is changing as we lose our racial and economic diversitiy. This is happening and will accelerate and become the irreversible future forever if you pursue the proposed upzoning of our current R-1, R-1A, R-1 and R-2A areas. 

I’ve read the article written by Mayor Arreguin and Councilmembers Harrison and Hahn that was published in The Berkeley Daily Planet on March 22, 2019. I don’t disagree with their well-intentioned reasons why they want to amend Item 22. However, it seems to me that to carry out the process that they have outlined would be far, far better applied to Item 23, submitted by the Mayor to create a new General Plan.  

So, I wonder why not make the bold move to: dump Item 22; approve Item 23 to create a General Plan; hold the Regents’ and Chancellor’s feet to the fire on the current student housing issue by adopting and implementing policies to build student and other University related housing on campus land and curtail enrollment to match available affordable housing; persuade ABAG to allocate regional housing goals focused on those locations where jobs are being created; work to convince the State Legislature to change their one-fits-all approach to housing policies; create neighborhood compatible affordable housing on the North Berkeley and South Berkeley BART sites; and require affordable units within existing and proposed developments rather than paying in lieu fees. I urge the Council to consider taking these kinds of steps which will direct the City’s efforts to make Berkeley a livable community for everyone. That’s what good planning is all about, not just processing applications received from developers.  

Thank you for considering these views.