Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Berkeley Downtown Plan

The Berkeley Downtown Plan — the City Council/Planning Commission sell-out of Berkeley’s downtown — has been temporarily delayed, not stopped. While a direct vote on the plan would probably fail, a negotiated settlement between Mayor Tom Bates and the referendum organizers Patti Dacy and Jesse Arreguín could lead to badly compromised plan that improves a few inconsequential social amenities in exchange for giving developers carté blanche to build numerous enormous buildings, some likely to be over 20 stories tall. Alternatively the city come back with a substantially revised, but not necessarily improved, plan. I think it’s way past time to ask why are we here?

Is it to cure our downtown’s ills?
If we're trying to cure downtown’s ills is the reasonable prescription injecting a dozen or more 20 story buildings into the mix in hopes of bringing vitality back by the sheer number of bodies? OR is our downtown ill because the rents are just too high for anything but women’s clothing shops and fast food restaurants? At $3.50 a square foot, most of the retail shops that would bring vitality to the downtown can’t survive. Yet $3.50 a square foot is what Berkeley’s most visible retail Realtor/Developer, John Gordon, is telling landlords their property is worth. And yet there’s vacant retail property everywhere you look.

The 20,000 sq ft Tower Records Store on Durant off Telegraph has been vacant for almost ten years!
Radston’s Office Supply was driven out by increased rents after more than 60 years in Berkeley. We lost as much as $400,000 a year in sales tax from Radstons, and a dozen jobs, yet the building hasn’t been rented in two years.
Black Oak Books was paying $17,000 a month in rent to one of Berkeley biggest landlords (who also owns the Tower Records building on Durant) and now that space which was once a beacon is now a blight in my neighborhood, collecting graffiti and housing the homeless in it’s protected doorway.

Or maybe we’re trying to appease the University.
I ran into Mark McLeod on Shattuck Ave. last week. Mark used to own the now-closed restaurant that went by the name of Downtown. I’ve been told he lives in the city of San Pablo but he’s still president of the Downtown Business Improvement District board and he’s still a big proponent of more development in Berkeley’s downtown. As we walked down Shattuck, McLeod told me with a straight face that if we didn’t give the University what it wanted –a million square feet of development rights in our downtown – the University might pull up stakes and leave the city of Berkeley. PLEEEEEEEASE.

Just another developer/property-owner give-away.
I think we’re actually trying to appease property owners and developers and their enablers on the city payroll who would like to see those privately held lands hit the all-time jackpot, a once in a lifetime-payday as they turn our low-rise, people-friendly landscape into canyons of steel (allegedly ‘green’ steel, but theft none the less).

When I first came to California, in the very early 70s, there was a citizen’s effort to control high-rise development in San Francisco. The catch phrase was ‘Stop the Manhattanization of San Francisco.’ At that time the TransAmerica Pyramid was a skyline icon you could see for miles, from everywhere. Those people failed and today, you can barely see the once enormous, once iconic pyramid building now buried underneath San Francisco’s newer bigger, taller, less-human skyscape. This is where Berkeley’s headed if we don’t stand firm for the values that make Berkeley a beautiful, world-class town, a place you want to live.

Do you know WHAT is the most profitable crop in California? It’s not marijuana. It’s not strawberries. It’s not fancy arugula for restaurants like Chez Panisse. The most valuable crop in California, or any other place, is enormous buildings. I didn’t make that up, that’s a quote from Gray Brechin’s book Imperial San Francisco — like Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities — it’s a highly recommended read on urbanization.

I’ve spent nearly 30 years tracking development in the Bay Area. Trust me, if we allow one landowner, one developer to build a 20 story building on their property in the city of Berkeley, every landowner downtown will want the enormous monetary sums they can get for a building site that allows buildings 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 stories tall. The nature of development is to ask for more. If we give them 20 stories, they’ll want 30. If we give 30, they’ll ask for 40. The scales of economies will force them to ask for more. That’s why I say we have to Downzone the Whole Damn Downtown to four stories. That won’t stop developers from building 5 or 6 or even 8 story buildings, but it will slow them down and it will give us some control over our environment.

Plain and simple lies.
I’m not going to call anyone a liar, but it’s reasonable to challenge a lie.

If the University doesn’t get carte blanche to build a million square feet of in our downtown, Cal isn’t going to pull up roots and roll down the road to Fremont. Remember, it’s not just in the downtown that Cal is expanding. Cal has an on-campus building program scheduled to add nearly a million square feet the next ten years. And that’s not all. The National Laboratory — which has already added hundreds of thousands of square feet to their facilities in the recent past – also plans to add about a million square feet of development in the next ten years. Between just those two programs that’s another 6,000 cars minimum, parking, speeding, in a hurry to get through your neighborhoods because they’re late for work, late for picking up the kids, late for a very important date. Like it? If we shoehorn more oversized office buildings into our downtown and that’s what you in the surrounding neighborhoods like this one are going to see.

We’re also been told by ABAG (the Association of Bay Area Governments) that we have a moral obligation to add housing in Berkeley to absorb California’s ever-increasing population.
Of course, Albany, Walnut Creek, Palo Alto and many of the other surrounding communities ignore ABAG. Of course the affordable housing we’ve added is anything but affordable. But ABAG threatens to restrict some federal funding options if Berkeley does not add approximately 387 new units of housing PER YEAR!!!!! Put in perspective, the enormous oversized, inappropriate, sore-thumb in our downtown known as the Gaia Building has only 91 apartments. ABAG is saying that we need to add MORE THAN FOUR Gaia Buildings a year –each year -- for the indefinite future! And that would still be 23 units short of ABAG's mandated ANNUAL minimum! There’s another thousand new bodies every year and an approximate equal number of vehicles. Like that picture?

Please note that at this time, California is actually losing population because there aren’t enough decent paying jobs in California and living expenses are just too high. In other words ABAG’s rationale for insisting on more housing has disappeared but it’s mandate hasn’t.
While we’re talking about resources we need to acknowledge that most of California is basically an arid desert. Look at pictures of Berkeley before the Great Earthquake and you’ll see scrub brush and grasslands because that’s all that could naturally grow here. We’re using far more water in California, than we have. Our current 37 million population is drinking and flushing the toilet because we’re stealing water from neighboring states and Mexico and from the Native People of California who have rights to water by treaty that we have ignored to this point in time. That party is over. Recent Congressional and judicial actions have affirmed those Native rights and the cost of flushing your toilet, the cost of boiling your tea, is going to skyrocket just like the cost of gasoline and power have because there isn’t enough water for the people who are here now, let alone millions more who are allegedly coming in the future.

Don’t get me started on how we’re going to take care of those additional people in our already over crowded schools and hospitals, with our over extended fire and police and social services. AND DON’T tell how the new development is going to pay for these necessary service increases because every case study I’m aware of says the exact opposite.

Threatening our way of life
The political and financial pressures being brought to bear on our community are powerful, well-connected, well-financed, relentless, and ruthless. If we don’t say NO to the Manhattanization of Berkeley, if we allow our city council to give away that which makes this a wonderful place to raise children and grow old, we will have given away the best of Berkeley for nothing. Somewhere in Berkeley at some point in the near future, the people of this wonderful community are going to draw a line in the sand and say that enough is enough, that we’re not willing to surrender the quality of life we love for some developer’s second or third home. The town we love is under attack and it will not survive in anything like it’s current form if we don’t defend it. It’s time for the citizens of Berkeley to talk to their neighbors about more traffic, more speeding cars, more people, and more giant ugly buildings. Write letters and make phone calls: Tell your council member to Downzone the whole damn Downtown. Let San Franciso or Oakland be Manhattan. Let Berkeley be Paris.

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