Downtown Berkeley To Be Re-Jiggered for the Benefit of Some

By Becky O'Malley
Friday March 09, 2012 - 08:19:00 AM

Don’t know why I keep doing this, but I did it again—watched the Berkeley City Council meeting online—and friends, the news is not good. The councilmembers, with a couple of semi-exceptions, continue their inexorable march toward re-shaping downtown Berkeley in the image of Manhattan.

The putative excuse is Measure R. About two-thirds of the Berkeley residents who showed up at the polls a couple of years ago were suckered into voting for Measure R with no real understanding of what it entailed. The slick professional campaign to rezone downtown Berkeley was funded by, among others, the biggest downtown apartment owner, Equity Residential, which is owned by the notorious Sam Zell, now reputed to be back in the real estate market after his disastrous fling with being a media mogul, which left the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times in ruins. To its eternal embarrassment, the too-often-fooled Sierra Club lent its good name to the Zell enterprise for a glossy mailer which probably tipped the scales, tricking infrequent voters who weren’t aware of who was actually behind the measure.

The new Downtown Plan is billed as the implementation of Measure R. 

How did we get here? It’s a tangled trail, but longtime Mayor Tom Bates has his footprints all over it. The proposed plan is cleverly designed to benefit big property owners (and campaign contributors) and the University of California—two powerful constituencies whose interests are often aligned. And of course, in the best contemporary style, it’s heavily green-washed to conceal this architecture. 

If you have about 20 minutes to spare, you can see a few vigilant citizens lay it all out for you in the public comment section of the video of the meeting: 

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  • former Planning Commission Chair (and occasional Planet contributor) Zelda Bronstein on UC Berkeley’s hidden hand in shaping the city’s planning process;
  • Tom Hunt on the pernicious impact of the expansion of the “Downtown Area” into abutting residential neighborhoods;
  • Steve Finacom, another Planet contributor and also the Vice-President of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, on the threat the new plan poses to historic buildings;
  • Dave Blake on the way internal contradictions in Measure R’s language have been interpreted in this plan to favor big property interests;
  • current Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman on the way passage of the plan is being fast-tracked without proper analysis and deliberation and several others of note.

And if you want a snapshot look at who’s behind the plan, check out the comments of Mr. and Mrs. Rhoades, Marc and Erin. He’s a former City of Berkeley planning director, who’s passed through the revolving door to emerge as a major developer. She runs the biggest entity lobbying for such developers, ironically called “Livable Berkeley”, whose main role is promoting the kind of development her husband’s firm does. Cozy. 

Another constituency supporting the plan is represented by a little parade of pathetic young folk who wish aloud that they could live in San Francisco but don’t want to move. They earnestly hope that Berkeley will become more like the cities of their dreams, just a lot cheaper. (For a hilarious, possibly satiric look at a clever scheme to exploit this group’s naïveté, see this Berkeleyside interview with promoter Patrick Kennedy.) 

Another thread running through the discussion on Tuesday was Startup Fever—the data-free Cargo Cult-like belief that the key to the city of Berkeley’s ultimate financial triumph will be zoning changes to facilitate building high-rises downtown for new enterprises and their worker bees. This is often linked with the parallel push to build same in West Berkeley—in both cases completely unsupported by market-based evidence, but vigorously supported by property owners and builders who hope to benefit from the construction process. 

What was most depressing about watching the city council discussion on Tuesday was the relative apathy of the very large majority of Berkeley citizens toward what will be major changes to the city’s face. As usual, the big divide is between the Above-It-Alls and the Trampled-Upons. That would be, in Berkeley geography, dwellers in the hills versus those in the flats. 

Berkeley has lately made the news as the city with the biggest wealth gap between the affluent and the rest of the residents. The power structure here is comparable to medieval towns, where the nobility lived in castles on hills surrounded by common folk below. Comfortably ensconced hillside residents have no reason to care if flatlanders have backyard tomato plants shaded by looming office blocks next door, and (with some admirable exceptions) they don’t care. They have no reason to be concerned about how many more residents will be crowded into downtown neighborhoods which they can easily avoid. 

In Berkeley, “Not In My Back Yard” these days often means “What, Me Worry?” Increased traffic and congestion downtown has little or no effect on the majority of voters, those who look down on our city from comfortable and increasingly pricey uphill enclaves and who can afford to shop elsewhere. The only councilmembers who have spoken up to defend those who will be afflicted by the proposed downtown plan are those who live in the area: Worthington, Arreguin and Anderson. 

About that fast-track: at Tuesday’s meeting the mayor announced a special meeting of the city council for next Tuesday, March 13, location TBD, so that councilmembers could add their rubberstamp to the new Downtown Plan in a timely way. The public hearing was closed last Tuesday, but in his ineffable style the mayor also referred to some sort of “hearing” at the special meeting—though procedural details hardly matter, since it’s clear that the deal has already gone down. The council majority won’t be hearing much at the “hearing” if there is one. 

The goal seems to be to conclude matters once and for all by April 3. Knowledgeable observers suggest that the reason for this is to spike a threatened citizen referendum on the plan, or at least to force it onto the November presidential election ballot, which traditionally attracts the largest number of poorly-informed infrequent voters who are easily swayed by expensive glossy mailers. There’s no reason to expect that the people now running Berkeley from behind the scenes won’t have it their way once again, but you could always come to the special meeting next Tuesday (if you can find it) and register your opinion, for all the good it will do.