The proposed downtown hotel and conference center poses an unprecedented risk to Berkeley’s unique character. This is not just another development fight, as the stakes are far greater. Defeating this project requires rare unity among longtime combatants in the city’s development wars.
The problems with the project are obvious. It would allow an architecturally dull high-rise hotel to loom over the heart of Berkeley. The project forever forestalls the use of the site for a more dynamic and creative space for attracting shoppers and residents. This is a proposal suited for homogenized Walnut Creek, not Berkeley. We have long refused to become yet another cookie-cutter city, and Berkeley must continue to oppose America’s march toward urban standardization.
Berkeley is often immersed in battles over proposed rental housing construction. The debate has pitted those focused on increasing the city’s rental housing supply against those who either oppose such housing altogether or seek smaller and less dense projects.
This battle over housing is often wrongly depicted as a battle over development itself. But there is a big difference between supporting a large-scale housing project like the Gaia building-which provided desperately needed new rental housing in an optimum location-and supporting a high-rise hotel project that does nothing to address the city’s housing shortage.
Over a decade ago, the City of Oakland was told that development of its downtown required a quality hotel in the area. The city then subsidized the construction of a Hyatt Hotel. But the hotel project failed to revitalize Downtown Oakland. Instead, millions of scarce Oakland economic development funds were squandered that could have been more productively spent by boosting neighborhood businesses.
The Hyatt boondoggle was subsequently eclipsed by the Raider travesty. The Raider deal required Alameda County taxpayers to guarantee team revenue, which the media claimed was no risk because the Raiders would always sell out. This reliance on future ticket sales has cost our county about $17 million annually, as Raiders sellouts are a rarity. Raider ticket sales, like hotel guests descending on downtown Berkeley, was said to be a sure thing.
The Oakland Coliseum was ruined as a baseball stadium in order to secure the Raiders deal; now folks are talking about destroying Downtown Berkeley for phantom hotel guests.
Let’s go beyond the hype and look at the potential hotel market. The proposed hotel is envisioned to attract visiting scholars, those attending campus conferences/meetings, and visitors to museum exhibits.
Few academic conferences will occur at UC Berkeley during December, January, June, July or August. May and September are also questionable, meaning that for most of the year there would be no need for visiting scholars to stay at the new hotel.
The UC Art Museum is a fine facility but it will not become a magnet for visitors who decide to spend the night in downtown Berkeley. Visitors to the Bay Area on museum tours are far more likely to stay in San Francisco. In addition, a downtown hotel that simply siphons business from the Berkeley Marriot or Hotel Durant provides no new hotel tax revenue to Berkeley.
Proponents of the hotel have claimed that Bay Area visitors who come to conferences in Berkeley will spend the night here if quality downtown lodgings were available. But nearly all of such visitors are here on expense accounts, and cash-strapped public entities and bottom-line focused businesses are unlikely to allow a Dublin or Livermore resident to stay overnight in Berkeley.
The need for new conference space in Downtown Berkeley is also doubtful. There are many buildings on the Berkeley campus regularly available for weekend conferences, and large conventions will continue to meet in San Francisco. The conference center part of this proposal seems to have been included to give the hotel project the aura of being only one part of a larger vision.
The economic benefits to surrounding businesses from the proposed hotel is also greatly exaggerated. During my 25 years working in San Francisco, I have seen time and time again how hotels fail to generate revenue for existing businesses. This is particularly true when hotels rely on large groups, the chief market for the proposed UC hotel.
Here’s how it works. The group usually has breakfast brought to its meeting site and has dinner at a prearranged restaurant with a separate dining space large enough to hold the big group. Lunch would be eaten on campus or at the conference site. While group members may purchase coffee or buy postcards at local businesses, the only real money goes to the large dinner site, which currently does not exist anywhere near the proposed hotel. Tourist hotels are like sports stadiums in that neither provides anywhere near the economic injection into local businesses provided by far less costly alternatives such as new housing. I have heard the complaints about lack of tourist revenue from merchants in the areas bordering Union Square and Powell Street, and the business failure rate in these areas is high.
Project boosters are so giddy with the prospect of new revenue streams coming to the city that they are accepting at face value the same baseless projections commonly seen with proposed taxpayer supported stadiums and other urban redevelopment schemes. Mayor Bates initially responded to the proposal by claiming it would bring Berkeley over $1 million annually in new revenues. But a failed project, like the Hyatt and Raider deals, will cost us funds.
Proponents also claim that the project will create badly needed living wage construction jobs, provide a long-overdue “focus” for Downtown Berkeley, and finally create the town-gown link that was always the ideal of the university’s founders.
But a hotel that sits semi-vacant for much of the year, like the Oakland Hyatt, becomes a symbol of a city’s decline. Anything built on the proposed site will create jobs, and even more jobs could have emerged had city officials solicited proposals for the site prior to the hotel plan’s emergence.
This whole deal smacks of the same backroom university process that I have long been dealing with in regard to Hastings Law School’s ambitious plans for the site diagonally across from the Federal Building in San Francisco. Every few years Hastings would ask a few of us to meet about their development plans, not caring that they had been created without community input.
In late 2001, Hastings told us of their plans to build an eight-story, 885-space parking garage on the site. The project was so far along that even the street trees had been selected. As the Hastings Board was set to approve the massive project in June 2002, I had to join with others in disrupting the final board meeting, which led State Senator John Burton to intervene to stop the project. We now get along better with Hastings as they develop new plans for the site, but it took Burton’s threat to rescind the school’s 2002-2003 budget before the school gave in.
The point is that UC is a very powerful adversary. UC cannot be “worked with” like private developers, because it always believes it has constitutional powers to do whatever it wants. When UC uses terms like “community input,” it means that it wants to hear how they can build support for their massive project. You can be sure that those who see the project as a terrible idea that merits no further discussion will not be welcome on the various “task forces” designed to expedite the project.
I know from two decades dealing with a succession of Hastings deans and legal counsel that its specific individuals that are the problem—rather it’s the sense of institutional prerogative held by all those filling top positions at UC. That’s why UC is falsely claiming it is not bound by local zoning laws in building the hotel—the institution knows how and when to powerfully assert its supremacy to get what it wants.
Our city leaders must not do anything to weaken our local barriers to the university’s downtown land-grab. I almost fell out of my chair when I read in the Feb. 20 Daily Planet that Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn is willing to change the zoning in exchange for the right “tradeoffs” and “mitigations.” This is the route to disaster, as there as nothing UC can do to “mitigate” its seizure of a downtown block for a 12-story hotel.
Once our city officials head down the road of deals and tradeoffs, the signal has been sent to UC that the hotel is a done deal and now its only about the terms. UC has used its educational exemption from local zoning laws to run amok over neighborhoods—but Berkeley has the leverage now and its time to just say no.
As Berkeley Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowan has correctly concluded, the hotel project violates local land use laws and does not constitute the “educational purpose” that triggers UC immunity. Current zoning laws are our only bulwark, and if our City Council stands firm the university will have to sponsor a ballot measure to rezone the site.
The university will spend lavishly to pass their initiative, but if those on both sides of the housing wars unite, we will prevail. By just saying no to UC’s plans, the stage will be set for inviting proposals for a use of the site that reflects Berkeley’s uniqueness.
Berkeley resident Randy Shaw is the director and supervising attorney of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and author of The Activist’s Handbook.