There’s been so much spin about the “Brower Center” that I assumed most people in Berkeley had heard about it. Those of us who watch local land use in stunned dismay certainly have.
While gathering signatures for a referendum of the giveaway of city land, I’m amazed at how few people actually have heard of this project. Even fewer know that it means the Oxford Street parking lot will soon disappear, to be replaced by fewer underground spaces two years hence. And almost no one seems to know that the land is being given away to developers.
In fact, it’s often difficult to convince people that the City Council is giving valuable land away—they simply cannot figure out why the Council would do something so stupid (their words, not mine).
I assumed that the local businesses had been carefully informed of the imminent loss of parking for their patrons, but many I’ve talked to hadn’t a clue. Patrons of the parking lot have, for the most part, been unaware—even passing pedestrians I’ve talked to were in the dark. And where’s the big yellow Planning Department sign to warn people what’s coming down the pike?
One avid proponent of the project asserts that “…it has undergone more public review than probably any housing/office project in recent memory.” Well, perhaps in some dark recess of City Hall where secret deals thrive, but the Berkeley public seems to have been left entirely out of the process.
No environmental impact report (EIR) was prepared for this project, a travesty of environmentalism given its proximity to Strawberry Creek, which ran down Allston Way in the early days of Berkeley. The land on either side of the original creek is a seismic liquefaction hazard zone. Underground parking a few feet from the creek bed might be a maintenance problem, and this part of the project alone—the underground garage—will revert to city ownership upon completion.
If an EIR had been performed, those who live or work nearby and the Berkeley community at large would have had the chance to comment on whether they thought this improbable project was a good idea.
The loss of at least $5,700,000 for the land—and this is a very low estimate of its value—is only the beginning. A report written by Housing Director Stephen Barton for the City Council meeting of December 12, 2006, reveals a history of shoveling city money into the project, including money from the general fund. A million here, a million there —eventually it starts to add up!
The Barton report says that because construction bids for the project were higher than expected, “value engineering” has been performed—that’s developer-speak for “make it cheaper.” What if the underground parking, for which we will be paying the future repair bills, gets “value engineered” a tad too much?
I do not think that anyone can read the Barton report in its entirety and still believe that this project is a good idea. The report is available on the City Council’s website for the meeting of that date.
Another cautionary voice comes from Christine Carr, a member of the City’s Housing Trust Fund Technical Advisory Committee and an expert in affordable housing finance. In a letter to the council dated November 9, 2006, she discussed the amount of money the City is putting into the project: “more than the City has ever expended on a site in the past…. The City’s total commitment is $9.7 million, without cost overruns.” She recommended in the letter that the City Council not move forward with the David Brower Center as currently structured.
How can citizens be heard when a project needs reconsideration? We have few remedies when our “leaders” run amok. But because the transfer of land was done by an ordinance, the citizens can attempt to “referend” that ordinance. If we can gather 4,073 valid signatures on the referendum petition, it would suspend the land transfer until the voters can decide whether to give their land away.
It’s no fun gathering signatures, and the disinformation campaign is in full swing. Even if we succeed, the City Council might find some other way to use this site for financial suicide. If the citizens were actually able to reconsider the use of the land, we might decide the lot is just fine as it is. After all, the “greenest” option might be to build nothing at all.
Gale Garcia is a Berkeley activist.