Public Comment

A Frightful Decision for Downtown

By Dave Blake
Thursday June 11, 2009 - 06:57:00 PM

Tuesday night the City Council, led by Councilmember Maio and Mayor Bates, adopted guidance for staff to craft a Downtown Area Plan that will open the downtown up to the hugest extensive expansion, both up to the sky (and a bit beyond), and outward into the neighborhoods, in the city’s history. The plan, proposed by Councilmember Maio (District 1), creates incentives for two 225-foot (20-story-plus) hotels and a 180-foot office or residential structure, and extends the downtown area buildable to 85 feet to Dwight to the south, MLK to the west, and north to Hearst. UC, which isn’t technically bound by the city’s zoning, has always agreed to adhere to the city’s zoning limits in principle, and by this plan will be free to build any additional buildings that fit those general guidelines (that is, hotels to 225 feet and office or residential buildings to 180 feet.) 

More than two years ago, the council, amid much fanfare and self-congratulation, established the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Commission (DAPAC), whose 21 members were charged with finding consensus on the downtown’s future. The commission spent two years hashing out exactly that asked-for consensus, hammering together a broad compromise that doubled the size of the largest permissible buildings to 10 stories, as well as separately allowing for two 22-story hotels. That compromise plan, accepted by 17 of the 21 members, was ignored by the council, to the dismay of the citizen-advocate minority, Councilmembers Arreguin (Dist. 4), Anderson (Dist. 3), and councilmember Worthington District 7 . 

Why does the council insist that we need to remake our downtown in the image of a huge metropolis, and surrender all but a perfunctory nod to our beautiful, sustainable neo-classical and art-deco architectural context? They claim that we need dramatic incentives to convince developers to build  sustainable housing, and they do so on the basis of a feasibility study based on construction costs and housing prices from the height of the boom. (A similar such feasibility study 13 years ago established conclusively that no grocery store could stand a chance of surviving at the present Berkeley Bowl site down Shattuck.) It doesn’t matter: these are not the real reasons. 

The council needs money. Seven years ago, political factions on the council competed to see who could grant city employees more extravagant pay raises and pension hikes, in the mistaken belief that the upcoming election would hang in some way on the support of our employees. That decision has had drastic consequences, including swiftly stripping us of a huge number of our most experienced employees, and leading directly to the cost-saving Friday city-office closings. The 12 percent hotel tax is the fastest lane on the road to pseudo-solvency. 

More importantly, Maio and Bates are in debt to downtown property interests. Bates has worked hard to help UC expand massively into the downtown. He led the council in a suit against UC that in essence preempted private suits, and then settled that suit precipitously in a matter dramatically favorable to the university. Had he let the suit run its course, subsequent case law would have required a settlement massively in the city’s favor. 

DAPAC members, who argued ferociously for the council to at least consider their plan, were utterly dismayed, not only by the council’s litany of excesses, but by the way they were used to create the impression that the council sincerely sought guidance from its citizens. 

Something has gone terribly wrong in the city. Our council pays consistent lip service to sustainability, progressive politics, and residential quality of life, but when they act, serve only the interests of powerful developers and property owners. In the Obama age, when Berkeley of all cities should come into its own as an iconic example of government that exists for the benefit of its citizens, we are instead ruled by councilmembers devoted to the usual power brokers that quietly run most small towns. I don’t know how we let it happen; I do know that it’s time to put an end to it. This frightful decision in particular must not stand.  


Dave Blake is a former chair of the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board.