A forum on Measure R, the controversial downtown high-rise development proposal on Berkeley’s November ballot, provoked a sharp exchange of views last Tuesday.
More than 50 people attended the event that was held in the Berkeley City College building on Center Street and was sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Mayor Tom Bates was originally billed as one of the “pro” Measure R speakers—his City Council majority put the measure on the ballot—but he was a no show for the event. “He is stuck in Seattle, apparently”, apologized Jane Coulter, who introduced things for the League.
The Bates seat at the debate table was taken instead by District 4 City Council candidate Jim Novosel, placing him next to City Council incumbent Jesse Arreguin who is one of his opponents in the November election.
The table was filled out by Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey on the No on R side, and environmental consultant and “smart growth” advocate Tim Frank as the second pro-R speaker.
Each speaker was given five minutes to provide a preamble of their views, before cross debate and audience questions.
Novosel, who spoke first, used his time “to set the foundations for my belief in why R is so important for my city.” He said that two circumstances have made the downtown “improve immensely” over the past 20 years. The first is historic preservation, with several key buildings renovated and restored. The second is “we’ve had a tremendous number of housing units built, thousands (sic) of housing units built.”
Those two interacting factors have brought the downtown “vitality that did not exist 20 years ago,” and “these two elements (preservation and new housing) go hand in hand in making a better city.”
Novosel said he had “tremendous admiration for the historic preservationists” who worked to save historic downtown buildings, as well as admiration for the owners and developers who had restored them.
“What Measure R does is a sense motion”, Novosel said. “We’ve had huge battles on the height of buildings over the last 5 years. So the Council said, let’s deal with the height. Let’s get the height out of the way.”
Novesel dismissed concerns about the changes Measure R would call for in Berkeley landmark protections, saying, “the only other substantial issue is the issue on landmarks. The only thing (on landmarks) in Measure R is that it expedites the processing” of landmark reviews. “You get three months to file a landmark application on a downtown building” under R, Novosel said. “What’s the big deal? I can do it in two months.”
Arreguin led off his comments by noting “Measure R is not a legal plan” according to the City attorney but is, instead, “largely non-binding and it doesn’t have measureable community benefits.”
“Measure R is not transparent and is not good government.” “It’s not a plan. It’s a plan to have a plan,” Arreguin said. “What Measure R does is throw out 5 years of progress in developing downtown plans, and starts over again.” He said, “You would need to amend the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance and the Zoning Ordinance” to implement the Measure, and “Measure R doesn’t require people to pass a downtown Plan.”
He argued that the proposal “does nothing to create a green and vibrant downtown” despite the repeated use of “green” references in the non-binding content. What it does do, Arreguin said, is dramatically increase allowable building heights downtown from current levels, without any guaranteed benefits, and weaken protections for historic buildings.
“Measure R includes the same controversial proposals that Berkeley voters rejected in 2008” when they turned down the Mayor’s proposed changes to the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance.
Novesel, Arreguin said, “is really obfuscating what’s in R.” He noted that the DAPAC (downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee) in which both of them participated had approved a top building height of 225 feet only for two possible hotels in the downtown. He added that R “substantially increases heights not just in the core (of downtown) but in the surrounding residential areas.”
Frank, who spoke next, agreed with Arreguin that “Measure R is an advisory measure”. He contended it was a natural follow-up to the Climate Action Plan the City had adopted. “One of the elements of a legitimate climate action plan has to be a land use element.”
“We really have to look at whether we’re housing the people who grew up here”, Frank said, noting Berkeley “hasn’t lost homes, but there’s been a significant change in demographics.”
He offered a standard argument in this context that “we’ve been pushing people out onto the farmland on the periphery of the Bay Area” and Measure R offered “an opportunity to bring more housing into the downtown.”
Frank argued that business interest support and endorsement from some environmental groups for R means “the combination of environmentalists and the Chamber (of Commerce) working together is evidence that this is a plan the works well for all.”
Dacey, during her introductory remarks, raised the issue of campaign donations to the “Yes on R” effort. Disclosures of campaign donations had been released earlier in the day and brought to the forum by “R” opponents.
“There’s an old saying ‘Follow the Money’, Dacey said. Of about $32,000 given to the “Yes on R” campaign, she noted, “$25,000 comes from Sam Zell of Equity Residential.” Equity Residential owns several properties and hundreds of apartment units in the downtown and is on the verge of submitting to the city plans for new development that would cover 2/3s of a block on University Avenue in the downtown.
Dacey called Zell “one of those right wing billionaires”, and said “I can pretty much guarantee you Sam isn’t funding this because he wants a great, green, downtown.”
“The disagreements I have with the Measure R people are really fundamental over what is green and what is affordable housing”, Dacey said. “If you plan to do luxury condos, you’re probably out of luck in terms of environmental benefits.”
Dacey criticized Frank for consulting for large developers, including one proposing a large Bay fill housing project in the South Bay. “I serve as a design professional”, Frank said. “I work on Smart Growth. I’m proud to do that work because it helps make the world a better place.”
Frank emphasized the local Sierra Club and Greenbelt Alliance endorsements for Measure R, returning again to his theme that “this is a critically important task, helping to protect farmland by encouraging development where it should be.”
As the question and answer period began, Dacey and Novosel clashed over the heights allowed in Measure R and the Mayor’s proposed “green pathway” which would allow developers additional height if they included certain benefits in their proposed projects.
“Almost none of Measure R is legally binding”, Dacey said, arguing that the “green pathway” benefits would not be guaranteed even if developers were awarded additional height. And “people who don’t follow the ‘green pathway’ can still take the State density bonus (for housing) and take the 180 foot height (allowed under R) and go to 240 feet” with some new buildings, taller than the existing high rises downtown.
“I believe it is an absolute height”, Novosel countered. “If the Council were to go against it (the 180 foot limit) they would go against the citizenry. It’s very simple”, he argued. “I see nothing wrong with going to 180 feet and I’m absolutely sure we won’t go over that.”
Novesel added, in response to a question about what the University might do with his properties in Berkeley, that “the University has approved both the downtown Area Plan and the DAPAC Plan.” “They will adhere to the rules. That’s what they said to us.”
Arreguin responded that although the University had supported the other two plans, Measure R “isn’t the DAPAC. It isn’t the DAP.” He noted on building heights that “in this proposal (Measure R) there’s no limit on the number of 100 foot buildings the University could build in the downtown”.
“A lot of this ‘plan’ is the ‘Trust me, I’m a politician’ plan”, Dacey said.
A question from the audience asked whether the measure would help create housing that young people with new families could afford.
“As an affordable housing advocate, one of my concerns is that Measure R has no guarantees we’ll get affordable housing downtown”, Arreguin said. The Measure simply states, he said, that developers would be asked to pay an unspecified amount in a fee for affordable housing.
“There’s a reason why the real affordable housing advocates in this town are supporting this plan” said Frank. “ ‘Green pathways’ actually provides a mechanism for incentivizing affordable housing.” He argued that the Measure represented a way to get around recent court decisions that have been invalidating parts of inclusionary housing ordinances in California.
“What we’re going to get is mostly students”, said Dacey to answer the housing question. “The other thing we’ll get is million dollar condos” in the downtown.
“We’ll have more students, and maybe million dollar condos. That sure doesn’t sound like workforce housing to me.”
The next question asked what historic buildings might be endangered if the Measure passes?
“I am not aware of any historic buildings that are in danger” Novosel contended. “I am not aware of any historical buildings being threatened.” He added that he supported creating a historic district in the downtown.
“I’m a strong supporter of creating a historic district”, Arreguin said. But “we don’t need Measure R to create a historic district.”
Dacey warned that the abbreviated timeline for reviewing the historic status of buildings could endanger undesignated historic structures in the downtown. “It takes huge amounts of time to work on landmarking”, she said. “We don’t have the City doing the landmark” applications, so the work is left up to citizens.
“The City has been hell-bent to change the landmarks ordinance for six years at least”, she said. “They want to make it easier to tear down historic buildings.”
The next question was addressed to Frank, asking him to expand on his argument that Measure R would reduce pressures for housing development on farmland, and noting that those who move to the suburbs tend to want single-family homes.
“You don’t build single family homes in an environment like this” in the downtown Frank clarified. But “there are lots of folks living in the hills who would live close by if appropriate housing would be available.” “By building these homes in the downtown area, there’s a demographic that would like to live in this very, very, green setting.”
“Berkeley is already an incredibly dense city”, Arreguin said. “Berkeley shouldn’t be trying to bear the burden of the East Bay’s housing demand”. He argued that Measure R “encourages gentrification” through the focus on high rise condos in the downtown. “We can do better.”
“I don’t honestly know of families who would live downtown”, Novosel said. But, he added, if the green pathways provisions of R were actually carried out, “20% of these units have to be ‘affordable’.”
“Measure R doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get the affordable housing downtown because you’re going to have an unspecified in-lieu fee”, Dacey countered, arguing that the money could be spent on housing outside the downtown.
“Berkeley is a smart growth city” already, she said. But in existing residential neighborhoods like hers (the Le Conte district, southeast of downtown), “families are moving out as more dense development is impacting the neighborhood”.
The next question asked the speakers to give their definition of ‘greenwashing’ a term that has been used by Measure R opponents to characterize the proposal. Greenwashing is generally used as a pejorative to characterize a proposal or project that claims to have environmental benefits but does not, at least not to the extent claimed.
“Measure R IS greenwashing”, Arreguin said. “We can have a green progressive plan for downtown. The DAPAC developed that.” But “the green requirements in this proposal (Measure R) are not binding.”
“The folks that have endorsed this from the environmental community believe this is a green plan”, Frank said. “What you have is green on this side and greenwashing on the other side.”
“Greenwashing is about spin,” said Dacey. “The DAPAC Plan actually mandated green development. We are for appropriate development downtown.” Dacey noted that the local Green Party has opposed Measure R.
“I fully believe when the Council gets R (after voter approval) they will add these goody things into the Plan”, Novosel said.
The next question asked whether development of downtown would be delayed by passage of R, since the Measure is not a plan but calls for the City to start the process of creating a new downtown Plan.
“There really isn’t a phenomonally huge difference between the two plans”, Measure R and the DAPAC Plan, Novosel said.
“Contrary to what Mr. Novosel said, I wrote a plan that had binding green provisions and community benefits”, Arreguin countered. The City Council majority declined to put Arreguin’s plan on the ballot.
“I don’t think waiting until we get a chance to vote on November 2 is a delay”, said Frank. “I believe what we are voting on is good for the downtown, is good for the property owners, and the residents.”
“The City now faces a fiscal crisis and this is one of the answers.”
“The new plan (that Measure R passage would mandate) is going to have to go through all the jumps and hoops”, Dacey said, taking time to develop and implement.
She added that the recently completed SOSIP subcommittee process recommended streetscape and open space improvements in the downtown came up with projects that would cost about $30 million dollars. The extra development fees Measure R might bring in would only yield an estimated $3.2 million over several years. (Novosel chaired the SOSIP subcommittee; Dacey was a member.)
The next question asked how high heights could go in the “buffer” residential areas around the downtown core if Measure R passes.
“This is one of the inflated arguments”, Novosel said. “Nothing will change about the buffer zones.” “There’s a core and there’s a buffer zone.”
“Measure R includes no buffering”, Arreguin countered. “The impacts could be considerable.” He noted that neighborhood leaders in the MAGNA neighborhood west of downtown and the Le Conte neighborhood southeast of downtown “are against Measure R.”
“Measure R also relies on buffers”, Frank said. “There are ways to bring more housing in and put in it strategic locations while protecting single family neighborhoods.”
“This buffering the neighborhood is a ‘policy’, there’s nothing to guarantee it” in Measure R, Dacey claimed. Measure R, she said, is “downtown on steroids.”
The next question asked about loss of diversity in Berkeley’s population.
“We’ve built a lot of housing”, Arreguin said. “none of it is affordable” and that’s “the reason that Berkeley has lost its diversity.”
“We are losing our ethnic population”, Novosel agreed. He said of Berkeley’s African-American residents that “their children don’t want to live in Berkeley and deal in the sort of stuff we have in this room.” (He didn’t offer further clarification on the meaning of this statement.)
Novosel argued that money from development would go to the City’s Housing Trust Fund, to create more affordable housing.
“The in lieu fees (for affordable housing) Measure R might provide might be much less than what Jim is talking about”, Dacey cautioned.
“If you look at the challenge of providing affordable housing in a very high land cost area like this, it has to be multi-family housing”, Frank said. “Upper income condos are an important compliment” to student and affordable housing development in Berkeley, he added.
A question asked about the difference between encouragement for tall office buildings verses new housing in Measure R.
“I’ve been through so many plans in the last few years”, Novosel said. “I’m pretty sure we’re looking towards more residences, not offices.”
“This (Measure R) is one of the slowest possible ways for us to revitalize our downtown”, Dacey argued. Frank said that Measure R simply carries out strategies proposed in the Climate Action Plan. “This is a repeated strategy” to tie intensified land use development to climate action, he said.
How will Measure R help Berkeley meet new State environmental mandates, the next question asked.
“That’s a fundamental misunderstood” issue, Arreguin responded. “The opponents of Measure R want new housing downtown, at a reasonable scale. Five stories, 7 stories, ten stories, which has actually been done downtown.” “We don’t have to build 17 story buildings to meet the (State) requirements.”
“The simple response is to put more humans in the inner Bay around the transit stops”, Frank said.
“We do not need Measure R to meet any of these projected needs”, Dacey said. “Our current zoning is probably good for 30 years. Berkeley is one of the densest cities in the country”, and “we absolutely don’t need Measure R to meet the mandate.”
Novosel said Berkeley has a “tremendous jobs and housing imbalance. We’re trying to correct this, to have more housing in the downtown.”
The next question asked the panelists how Measure R would relate to economic development.
“Building housing in the downtown is an economic development strategy”, said Frank. “If you look at the small businesses downtown I think they would agree.”
“I don’t believe that JUST bringing tall buildings is going to revitalize downtown” said Arreguin. “One of the reasons we have vacant storefronts is because we have such high square foot rents.”
“All the small businesses I’ve been polling say we need more housing”, said Novosel. “We need spaces that can incorporate retail stores of the size of Marshall, Penny’s or the Emporium” and tall buildings will help create that downtown, Novosel said.
Dacey took a different approach to encouraging business. “I’ve always through a vacancy tax would be a way to reduce vacant storefronts” she said, since it would encourage property owners to get their vacant spaces rented.
How will the public be able to participate in the creation of an actual downtown plan if Measure R passes the next questioner asked?
“I’m hoping that all parties come back to the table and participate”, said Novosel. “The downtown is great right now, but it needs both sides of the land use wars to come together.”
Arreguin said “I don’t know which parties will be at the table after the referendum.” “I was in discussion about trying to negotiate a plan”, but “the Mayor handed me a document and said take this or we’re going to the ballot.”
“What’s remarkable is how similar all (the) plans are”, Frank said.
“I love how all the people who were against the DAPAC Plan now say all the plans were essentially alike”, Dacey responded. “I think Measure R is actually a pre-emptive strike to keep certain people from the table.”
The panelists were next asked about the issue of embedded energy in older buildings that might be demolished and replaced under Measure R, and whether that represented a ‘green’ strategy.
“Is Measure R really a green plan if it will make it easier for older buildings to be torn down?” Arreguin asked. “We can preserve our historic buildings and promote adaptive reuse.”
“I don’t get where you read there will be more demolition of Buildings in Measure R”, Novosel countered. “We all know what the landmarks are in the downtown, and we are going to keep them, pretty much.”
Frank said that “the green pathway requires you to get the equivalent of LEED Gold”, which requires management of construction waste and measures that reduce energy consumption in new buildings. He added the most important way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to get people to live close to transit.
Arreguin said that Measure R simply says it provides “guidance to a green pathway”. “I think we need to have strong green building requirements. The plan I wrote in consultation with community members would require LEED Gold.”
“In Europe they have much higher standards and are doing extraordinary green things,” Dacey said. “I t seems very strange to me that we’re actually only ‘considering’ LEED Gold standards” in Measure R.
Frank said “there are not many LEED Platinum (the next higher level) buildings in the whole country. LEED Gold is a very aggressive standard itself.”
Candidates were next offered a chance to make closing remarks.
“The proponents of Measure R have made certain statements that aren’t really correct”, said Arreguin. “Measure R is NOT a plan, and it’s NOT legally binding. I twill impact our neighborhoods and historic resources around downtown. We don’t need to do that to revitalize downtown.”
“Let’s more forward with revitalizing our downtown right now”, he concluded. “We don’t need Measure R.”
“I’d like to point out that Measure R is a very good compromise for the DAPAC and DAP” plans, Novosel said. “The spirit of compromise is very strong in the 7-2 vote of the City Council to put Measure R on the ballot.” “No one is going to go into the buffer neighborhoods” with development, he added.
“I thought Measure R was going to be the way to unify ourselves as a community.”
“Measure R is an advisory measure”, Frank said, like the ballot measure on the Climate Action Plan a few years ago. “Measure R is something that would make a more walkable, vibrant, downtown.” “You have this measure mix of the people who are the owners and the residents and environmentalists all working together.” He added that Measure R would also create temporary construction jobs.
The DAPAC Plan “was a compromise”, Dacey said. “To ask us to compromise on the compromise is ridiculous.” “I think it (Measure R) is a club to say the citizens voted for the tall buildings”, she added.
“Sam Zell is paying for this.” “If you think Patrick Kennedy” (developer of several downtown properties) has deep pockets, Sam Zell is a multi-billionaire. He’s going to be the biggest property owner there” in downtown Berkeley.
“Measure R is deceptive, and grants us nothing.”
(Steven Finacom writes frequently for the Planet on historic, land use, and feature topics. He personally opposes Measure R on the November ballot.)