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.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Wine by the Generation

Originally published June 10, 2001

For more than five generations Jeff Bundschu’s family has farmed, harvested and created fine wines in Sonoma County. Is there anything left worth doing for a young-man in an old-wine family? Jeff thinks there's plenty and he's happy to be in charge of the family business.

Fred Dodsworth: Jeff, do you consider yourself a farmer, vintner or manager?
Jeff Bundschu: I don’t think you can run a winery or a vineyard without being a manager. My aspiration in life is to manage an entire cohesive unit from the time Jose Luis lays the cover crop, all the way to the time that vine is producing a berry, and makes it to the winery and then into a bottle. What we have that’s so unique is total control over the entire estate. You rarely see an operation owned by a single, focused owner without having to blend outside grapes or without the pressure of larger projects.

Dodsworth: One of the complaints I’ve heard about the wine industry is the use of pesticides.
Bundschu: The beautiful self protector when it coming to pesticide management is that anything you apply to those berries is going to show up in the wine, either in the way it tastes or in the way fermentation goes. There’s a natural barrier there that ensures that the fruit that ends up making wine is pretty much naturally produced. I can’t speak for the whole industry but I can say in the case of North Coast vineyards – Sonoma, Napa – there’s a huge effort to move away from unnecessary applications. Some wineries are going to the extreme level of organic certification. Others, like ourselves, are pursuing a program of integrated pest management. We don’t use any pesticides except in the case of very special outbreaks. We going to be responsible for pesticide use but we also have a responsibility to preserve our crops.

In California there’s always going to be a tenuous relationship between agriculture and developing communities. There are a lot of people that didn’t grow up around tractors disking in the middle of the night, or sulfuring in the middle of the night or fans going on and waking you up. It used to be that your neighbors all grew up in a farming community and understood that those noises were part of making a living. It’s definitely a big issue but I’m coming from a place where you’ve got to be respectful and respond to their legitimate concerns. That doesn’t mean we have to stop what we’re doing but it’s just being a responsible neighbor. You got to trust that the majority are going to respect what you’ve got to do to make a living.

Dodsworth: Who actually started this winery?
Bundschu: My great-great-great grandfather Jacob Gundlach bought this vineyard in 1858 and started his winery in San Francisco. The house was designed by the same architect that did Jack London’s “Wolfhouse” in Glen Ellen. My grandmother still lives in one section and the main offices are in the rest of the house. It’s still very much a family feel, too much so occasionally, given how close quarters are. There’re a little too many signs that it’s been here 140 years to my liking if you get my drift.

Dodsworth: Is your dad still involved?
Bundschu: He’s always been the farmer. The vineyard has always been his main focus.

Dodsworth: How has your family managed to keep the family farm?
Bundschu: I’m the sixth generation to be doing this. The way that the business has always been passed on is not in order of birth or anything like that, it’s been who’s been engaged in the business. There was never any pressure to come back, in fact it was the opposite. The encouragement was not to study viticulture, it was to go out and to make sure if you came back that the decision was your own. That’s the advice my grandfather gave to my father and my father gave to me.

The unspoken reality of inheriting a six-generational family business is you’re here to preserve it, you’re not here to grow it and sell it. There’s a definite understanding that you’re working in a place that will be around a long time and you want to do well while you’re here. The winery’s ability to stay intact is more important that who owns it. That’s the way it goes. I’m trying to build the place and ensure that once my time here is over that it stays alive and successful as the family goes on. The pressure has been more from me than anyone else.

I guess the thing that’s made it survivable was that I went into it thinking I could add value. I didn’t go into it thinking this was some crown jewel that had everything intact and my job was just to polish it. My perception was that I could take this to a whole new level. My own fear is that I could discover I’d not lived up to that.

I’m in this because what I’m doing here brings joy to my life. If I got so involved in the process of making the wine and I couldn’t enjoy what it’s intended to do, I have come too far. I’ve watched people of my dad’s generation come to terms with being in families while running companies. Too often I’ve seen cases where the companies succeeded but the families didn’t. That is one thing I’m striving to avoid. If I have to go broke but I get to see my daughter every night, that’s a price I’d gladly pay.

Dodsworth: Let’s talk about food and wine.
Bundschu: Genetically I’m pretty well disposed to be a food and wine lover. (Laughter.) Food in my family has been the focal point for our social gatherings. A good cook is not defined by doing back flips in the kitchen. It’s more somebody who understands what good ingredients are. I learned from my family that the quality of the ingredients impacts the taste of the most basic meal. We always lived with our wines as an accompaniment to great big family meals. Breaking down how our wines would go with different foods is not something we every made a practice of. Usually there’s way too much more fun things to talk about around our table.

Dodsworth: Do you ever send wines back?
Bundschu: Five percent of all wines are corked, and that’s going up. You can smell it as much as taste it – basically a musty, locker room smell. It’s common enough that you’ve probably tasted it if you buy wines in restaurants.
Generally speaking, if you send wine back you should never be embarrassed. I was always coming from a place were I wouldn’t want to make a big stink, but they’d much rather have you send stuff back than leave with a bad impression of the restaurant.

Dodsworth: I frequently feel stupid when ordering wine.
Bundschu: To be honest, if we’re not talking about Northern California wines, I pretty much have to throw my hands up and trust the server. I can either buy what I know or take advantage of the sommelier’s efforts in putting his wine list together and let him go to town for me. A good restaurant should have a good wine list and a great restaurant has a sommelier that knows each of those wines.

Dodsworth: Talk to me about alcohol and alcoholism.
Bundschu: There’s no question to me that alcohol is something you’ve got to be responsible with. I’m privileged that I can enjoy wine and lead a productive life but I respect that there are some people in our community that can’t. Fundamentally I hold those people responsible for their own actions. I think most producers of wine are very responsible in the way that they show it and live it, at least wine in our category. I think if you look around here you’re going to see a pretty healthful lifestyle.

Dodsworth: How much is appropriate to drink a day?
Bundschu: I think it’s completely up to the individual. For me a glass and a half or two glasses a night, occasional lunches, not a regular lunch. I’m not afraid to drink at any time but I definitely view it as a privilege that I respect. I never take it for granted.

E-mail Fred Dodsworth at

Monday, November 02, 2009

Gang rape is a spectator sport.

Watch almost any movie these days and you become the spectator in the sexual victimization of women. It ain't about the love, nor is it about honest sexual desire, it's all about objectification. 'Baby, You ain't come a long way, yet.'
This is a cultural phenomena we all play a role in creating. This attack was not sexual in nature, this was a violent hate-crime using female sexuality as a weapon to dehumanize a 'representative' of an oppressed class.

The first step is to addressing this issue is to acknowledge the underlying value choices we all make. The more folks talk about the commodification of sexuality, the more we will be able to consciously decide whether this is what we most value.
I carefully use the words 'commodification of sexuality' rather than 'objectification of women' because people of all genders suffer when we deny our humanity to focus so intensely on our sexuality. Make-up, 'fashion', 'sexy' lingerie are simply the American/Western version of the burka -- sexual signifiers that overwhelm the power and integrity of the person within.