Whatever Happened on the Way to the High-Tech Downtown Berkeley Start-ups?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday January 11, 2013 - 12:07:00 PM

Saying “I told you so”, as Cassandra could have attested, does nothing to make you popular. But a little bit of schadenfreude is perhaps understandable in this case.

Not even a full year ago, in this very space, I said that “As a (retired) entrepreneur who’s actually participated in starting something up, I can testify that adding one more bureaucrat to the Mayor’s office staff won’t make a dime’s worth of difference to location decisions of nascent enterprises.”

The context for my gloomy prediction was an editorial suggesting that perhaps Judith Iglehart, the bureaucrat in question, erstwhile Chief of Staff for the Mayor of Berkeley, wasn’t the right person for the job of serving the citizens on behalf of their mayor. She was presumably hired because of her experience with high-tech startups both at UC Berkeley and in the marketplace, but she seems not to have produced any techno-miracles while she was a city employee, nor has she markedly improved the way Bates serves the public—though he did get re-elected.

And now, a year later, after collecting something in the range of a hundred thousand dollars or so from the citizens of Berkeley, Ms. Iglehart is bailing to create her own job in the private profit arena, according to a story on Berkeleyside.com

She’s appeared on these pages just a couple of times during the year. 

In March, Zelda Bronstein covered her appearance at a “Startup Forum” sponsored by Berkeleyside.com, in a piece which revealed that Iglehart planned to continue her association with Keiretsu International, where she was Vice President for International Chapter Development and Operations. It’s likely that this was the kind of networking that’s now paid off with her new job. 

Then in August Ted Friedman spotted her at Tom Bates’ campaign kickoff, where she played but a cameo role: “Bates' food was donated, prepared by Judith Iglehart, his new city-employee chief of staff, who called it "finger food." 

In some circles cooking up noshes for a campaign event might be considered inappropriate for a city employee, but perhaps she baked those cookies or chopped those crudités at her home in Piedmont as a political contribution to the Bates campaign, not on the City of Berkeley’s time as an employee. 

And Bates told the Berkeleyside reporter “that Iglehart had been largely absent from city hall during his recent re-election campaign due to a long recovery necessitated by a double knee operation.” So she might have had time for domestic pursuits. 

B-side commenters, sometimes a surly bunch, were rude enough to wonder aloud exactly what Iglehart had done for Berkeley in this short year of service. Said their Number One airhead (with whom I seldom agree, and whose 3K+ comments on the site beat the next guy’s by almost 4-1): she “doesn't seem to have done a whole lot during her tenure.” 

That might be, for once, an understatement. Another windy fellow sprang to her defense, trying to give her credit for bringing a $200 million project to downtown Berkeley, but Numero Uno batted him down effectively, asking for proof that it was her baby and receiving none. 

In a way, you can’t blame her for what she has or hasn’t done this year. Someone looking forward to having both knees done would be smart to take a not-too-taxing public job with good healthcare benefits for the duration of the medical problem, and then to go on to more lucrative pursuits in the private sector. 

And while we’re on the subject, whether Iglehart can take the credit or not, how about that project—the latest mega-monstrosity that the land speculators are trying to foist on downtown Berkeley? The absentee owner of the old Hinks building, now the thriving Shattuck theater complex, sold it to a Southern California group which proposes once again to destroy the downtown in order to save it. (Boy, am I tired of that Vietnam era formulation, but it’s still got legs.) 

Mark Rhoades, former city planning employee and husband of development lobbyist Erin Rhoades, is serving as the project’s—“expediter”—isn’t that what they call it in San Francisco? In Chicago it would be “fixer”, but that’s too crude for Berkeley, isn’t it? Though we have revolving doors in our planning office, just like they do in the big cities, don’t we? 

One of the few things I learned in my 15 years in the computer industry was “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Despite the incessant kvetching of the Downtown Berkeley Association and their boy the Mayor, it’s starting to seem like Downtown Berkeley is almost working despite the whiners. But the grandiosely titled “Residences at Berkeley Plaza”, accurately described by its boosters as “unlike anything else in downtown Berkeley” could manage to break what’s now working about Downtown. 

What’s working there now, among other things, is the Shattuck Theater complex, which the project threatens to demolish. The area has finally become the arts destination which was envisioned for many years, with thriving entertainment venues and associated eateries, plus a handy BART station to bring the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, which adores the Berkeley Rep, in from the burbs. 

We went downtown with friends on Saturday night and experienced the scene first-hand. We hoped to have an early dinner in one of the two trendy restaurants on the west side of Shattuck just north of Addison and then take in the 8 o’clock show at the Shattuck. Since UC’s still on break, we thought we’d have no trouble getting in to all these places without reservations, though we knew they’re usually jammed. 

What a mistake! By the time we got there at six, Downtown was jumping, even in pouring rain. Both restaurants were filled, with long waits for tables, if at all. 

I still can’t bring myself to patronize the third trendy spot on the south side of that corner since the proprietor took out after the homeless during the Measure S campaign, but we found a pleasant family-run Asian restaurant and had a leisurely dinner. Somewhat too leisurely, in fact, because when we tried to buy our tickets at the Shattuck they were sold out. 

So much for the Downtown Doldrums. Yes, there were some spare-changers abroad in the rain, but we survived the encounters. Downtown Berkeley is doing fine, thank you—but that could change. 

The proposed development, three glass boxes up to 180-feet and 17 stories, is pitched as 365 luxury apartments aimed at employees of the techie boom now spilling out of San Francisco and Silicon Valley. It would have the obligatory ground floor retail, just in case there aren’t enough empty storefronts downtown already. 

And while promoters will give lip service to the fiction that residents in luxury apartments don’t drive cars, in fact there will be lots of parking for their inevitable autos in the project. Don’t ask me to believe that the luxurious tenants will survive without owning one luxurious vehicle per person, adding to traffic even if they might BART to San Francisco for work. 

An out-of-town UC alumnus friend asked if the building will be taller than the Campanile. Yes. 

Might it block the view of the bay from many points in the hills? Yes. 

Do we need this? No. 

Whatever happened to all those Downtown startups that Ms. Iglehart was expected to produce? Maybe I’ve missed something, but all I’ve heard about so far is a crib in the Great-Western/Powerbar/Chase-Western building for UC grad students, working cheap for their professors, which has yet to provide any revenue to the city. 

The Residences, so-called, are not expected to house any such enterprises. 

This whole boondoggle is yet another example of Planning by Property Ownership. The out-of-town owners of the site, both past and present, think of the Shattuck Theater as just a blank space on an aerial map, ripe for exploitation by builders, who don’t care whether the eventual occupants are good for Berkeley or not. 

The sorry history of luxury residential developments in Berkeley is embodied in the still-moribund Seagate/Arpeggio building on Addison, whose godfather at birth way back in 2004 was the very same Mark Rhoades, then employed on the other side of the revolving door as a Berkeley city planner. At the time ace Planet reporter Richard Brenneman covered the whole sorry story in depth—citizens of all stripes predicted the disastrous course which this project has taken, and for their efforts they were called NIMBYs. 

Once again, just today, the ever-optimistic San Francisco Business Times predicts “Housing Boom to Hit Berkeley”. 

From the lede: 

Like a college graduate entering the real world, downtown Berkeley is growing up. 

Investment is pouring into the city’s nucleus with residential developers proposing more than 800 units in six projects — more new housing than the city has seen in years — as well as numerous new restaurants and a business improvement district giving the downtown an urban, upscale makeover. 

“The economy is roaring back,” said Mark Rhoades, a Berkeley residential developer and consultant. “People are now pushing out to the East Bay from San Francisco. There’s lots of interest in Berkeley plus the constant need for housing for the University of California and the passing of the downtown area plan.” 

Oh sure. The puff piece fails to mention that we already have a bunch of similar units still vacant after all these years, with the Arpeggio (or whatever it’s now called) leading the pack. It might be interesting if an SFBT reporter could find out what Berkeley’s current vacancy rate in this category might be, a figure guarded jealously by the powers that be, if in fact anyone actually knows. 

The Bay Area in the 40 years I’ve lived here has been subjected to a great number of boom-and-bust construction cycles, sometimes residential and sometimes office. Inevitably, the builders make out like bandits and the citizens pick up the pieces when the expected tenants don’t materialize on schedule. 

I hereby predict lots more vacant fancy apartments for Berkeley if this project is built, and few if any new start-up businesses. We’ll see what happens. 

Some of the Planet’s regular contributors have told me they plan in-depth discussions of the impact of the Residences proposal. We welcome contributions from anyone who has an opinion on this topic, especially one that’s backed up by data.