Vote Yes on Berkeley Measure R for a Truly Green Downtown

Becky O'Malley
Friday September 26, 2014 - 10:46:00 AM

Anyone who doubts for a minute that we need to vote Yes on Berkeley Measure R should check out the brouhaha in San Francisco over the funding for the under-construction Transbay Terminal and associated transit improvements. As described in an article in the generally developer-friendly San Francisco Chronicle:

“The dispute has its roots in a series of agreements between City Hall and developers that sought to allow the construction of much taller buildings than the area was initially zoned for, in exchange for developers’ taxing themselves through a Mello-Roos district.”

Except that since the deal went down a couple of years ago, now that property tax assessments in San Francisco are on the rise in sync with rising property values there, the developers are trying to weasel their way out of paying their bills.  

Transit Authority spokesperson Adam Alberti told the Chronicle that “If not successful, the end result could be a lot of fancy, empty towers looking down at a giant hole in the ground where the Transit Center should have been, potentially jeopardizing the developers’ financing and the ability to attract tenants…The tax that they now refuse to pay would fund public transit and parks that the developers well know add great value to their buildings. Their opposition to the tax is merely an attempt to shift the cost of this infrastructure to the taxpayers.” It could happen here. 

The Measure R that will be on your Berkeley ballot for the November election (which actually starts on October 6, when vote-by-mail ballots are available) should be called, in the style popularized by software companies, Measure R2.0, since it’s the upgrade to the plausible-sounding but ineffectual original Measure R which Berkeley voters passed in 2010. That measure handed developers a bunch of new opportunities to build tall buildings in downtown Berkeley, but neglected to extract appropriate and enforceable community benefits for the citizens of Berkeley in return. The centerpiece of the pitch for Measure R1.0 (which was overwhelmingly funded by the development industry) was something called the Green Pathway, a scheme which was supposed to induce developers of Downtown Berkeley sites appropriate for blockbuster highrises to build environmentally friendly structures and provide some community benefits in return. 

Progressives on the Berkeley City Council, including Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, initially opposed the first Measure R because they realized it was toothless. Arreguin eventually endorsed it as an expression of opinion, but he accurately predicted that it would do nothing. That’s why he’s now an author of Measure R2.0, also called the Green Downtown initiative. 

Arreguin is running unopposed in this election, an indication of how much voters in Downtown Berkeley and its surrounding neighborhoods back his analysis of why a new Measure R is needed. It took only a couple of weeks to get enough signatures to put R2.0 on the ballot. 

I went to a—well, it was kind of like a debate, but since there was no cross-questioning, there was really no contest—panel discussion of the new measure at the office of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. Speakers were Arreguin, who represents the district which includes Downtown Berkeley, and Eric Panzer, representing the local pro-development lobbying group Livable Berkeley.  

Arreguin aptly labelled the Green Pathway the “Pathway to Nowhere”, since no one has ever used it. My notes on any salient points which emerged from Panzer’s presentation are sketchy, but his main gripe seemed to be that some bars in some areas near downtown residences might be required to close at midnight if R2.0 passes, unless they got a permit to stay open later.  

Oh please… 

Another bone of contention thrown out by No-on-R supporters is that the ballot measure is too long, too hard for them to read. That’s exactly the point. It needs to be very specific precisely because R1.0 was very vague. This level of detail will guarantee that Berkeley doesn’t go through the turmoil that’s now raging in San Francisco over the Transbay Terminal. SF supervisors thought they’d made a deal—their staff told them they had a deal—but now the developers are doing their damnedest to back out of it, and they just might get away with it. 

Here in Berkeley we want sustainable development, not just tall buildings. We want affordable housing, not just luxury condo bedrooms for over-paid San Francisco techies who want to be able to BART to The City for work and play. We want good construction jobs for local workers at prevailing wage. And last but not least, we want to preserve our lovely historic buildings, including, especially, the threatened Post Office.  

Proof of concept on this last point is that after Measure R2.0 collected the large number of signatures required to qualify for the ballot, the Berkeley city council majority rushed to pass the downtown historical district zoning overlay first proposed by Councilmember Arreguin, on which they had previously stalled. This overdue maneuver might protect the Post Office for a while, but this city council or a subsequent one would have the power to repeal it at any time, for example after the election.  

The old City Hall is another civic resource at risk from councilmember cupidity. Passing the historic district overlay in ballot measure R2.0 would guarantee that a simple majority vote from a developer-indebted council wouldn’t be enough to reverse it, and sadly this is a wise guarantee. The same goes for the rest of the new Measure R—if it’s passed by the voters, we might just get at least some of what Measure R 1.0 promised but defaulted on.  

A voter-approved ordinance would take another vote of the people to cancel. Vote yes on Measure R if you want a truly Green Downtown now and into the future. 

Otherwise, it’s just more Green Pie in the Sky By and By for Berkeley.