The Chronicle Gets Berkeley Wrong--Again

Becky O'Malley
Friday November 06, 2015 - 12:45:00 PM

If you’re lucky enough to have skipped J-School, and are one of the many Berkeley residents who have dropped their subscription to the San Francisco Chronicle, you just might want to take a look at a text-book example of lazy journalism in this morning’s issue: Berkeley Plaza housing needed, but meets with resistance.

(Good luck, however, navigating their lame pay wall. I’ve been a subscriber for forty years, and I still have to reset my password EVERY SINGLE TIME I try to read it online.)

Columnist Chip Johnson has authored a classic single-source story, in which he appears to have talked only to the clever developer’s shill who’s fronting for the luxury housing development which has been approved by Berkeley’s developer-dominated Zoning Adjustment Board. He doesn’t even seem to know what the relationship of proponent Mark Rhoades is to the property owner, for example.

He says that Rhoades is “the principal in the Rhoades Planning Group, which holds the contract for the Berkeley Plaza development.” Well, yes, Mark’s the front man, but the applicant is Hill Street Properties of Los Angeles, whose principal is a guy named Joseph Penner, who specializes in flipping entitled project sites. What “holds the contract” means to Chip is anyone’s guess. I don’t expect he has much business experience.

If he were a real reporter, which he’s not, he might have talked to some of the people who oppose the plan, or maybe even come to a meeting or two—after all, there were more than 30 of them. If he’d been at the last couple of ZAB meetings he might have noticed that at least one of the board members who voted against the project was clearly under 30, probably under 25. Instead, he bought into Rhoades’ pejorative characterization of opponents as “grey pony tails”. 

And by the way, Chip, the quote is “don’t trust anyone over 30”, not “over 40”, an error for which he seems to blame architecture critic John King, who’s not that dumb. 

While we’re on the subject of errors, let’s also notice that Chip locates this project as being near “the Ashby BART station”. Well, it’s true that BART stations in Berkeley are fairly close together, but someone who’s actually been here (which doesn’t seem to include Chip) might say that the building would actually be near the Downtown Berkeley BART station. Facts, facts, facts—it appears that Chronicle columnists these days are allowed to be immune to facts. 

Then there’s this quote: 

“It’s exactly the kind of growth that progressives across the Bay Area have been screaming for for more than a decade — and now it doesn’t meet Berkeley’s architectural standards. 

“This is an old story in Berkeley, and the lengths to which preservationists have gone to maintain historic buildings, which includes reducing original walls to paper-thin facades, are too often petty and frivolous.” 

Okay, Chronicle editors, if there still are any. I challenge anyone who’s still sentient at the old paper to produce even a single Berkeley instance of ‘reducing original walls to paper-thin facades.” Makes a handy cheap rhetorical flourish, but it’s just not true. You could even ask John King if you don’t believe me. 

And then there’s that claim that “It’s exactly the kind of growth that progressives across the Bay Area have been screaming for for more than a decade.” No, Chip, evidently you don’t even read the Chronicle. That would be what progressives have been screaming about, not screaming for. 

Surely you noticed, in the recent San Francisco election, the substantial opposition to exactly this kind of “luxury market-rate” (translation: pricey) building, when what’s needed is affordable housing. Seems to me there was some kind of ballot measure about this, wasn’t there, which came pretty close to passing, didn’t it? Supported by progressives, remember? 

Another fast and loose with facts example: “ 'from 1970 to 1995 they built only 600 new housing units,' Rhoades said.” Chip fell for the oldest trick in the “How to Lie with Statistics” book. Rhoades, as any 10th grade math student could tell you, deliberately selected the economic period of lowest growth. 1995 was twenty years ago—the relevant question is what’s been built since. 

From an excellent piece by Tom Hunt: “Over the last 8 years Berkeley has added only 14% of the housing goals set by the regional Plan Bay Area for moderate income and below but has added 89% of the goal for households making more than $92,566 (Above Moderate Income). If we don't build 1116 units of affordable housing before we build 125 above moderate income units, we won't build our way out of the affordable housing hole we're in.” Hey, Chip, take a look at these figures

And finally we come to the identified opinion part of Johnson’s rant. As a columnist, he’s hired to be opinionated, so we can’t quibble when he is. But we can call his opinions stupid if we want to, and we do. 

He opines:“The Berkeley Plaza project is a worthy, needed project packed with many perks included in the community benefits package offered by the developer. 

“It’s a good deal for the city that includes a $6 million payment to the city’s affordable housing efforts and a pledge to refurbish the 10-screen Shattuck Theater, an anchor entertainment venue on Berkeley’s main thoroughfare.” 

Six million dollars? Oh, come on. 

In an area where the median home price is now hovering above a million, just how many affordable homes would this project provide? As anyone who reads what passes for the Berkeley press—either berkeleydailyplanet.com or berkeleyside.com—knows, this particular project has been given a very special break on the in-lieu payment that the Berkeley city planning department is offering for all market-rate projects like this. And the developers will be allowed to pay up on the $6 million not when the $86 million building is permitted, as they’d have to do in San Francisco, but when it’s occupied, 3-5 years hence. 

The $6 million fee, moreover, is deeply discounted from the affordable housing payment that will probably be required for subsequent tall buildings now in the works for downtown Berkeley. Could this have anything to do with Mark Rhoades’ former job with the city of Berkeley’s planning department? I know, I know, Chip Johnson is not an investigative reporter, but he shouldn’t be a sucker. 

In San Francisco, by contrast, buildings which ask for special concessions outside the usual zoning are being required to include affordable units on-site, not just to make pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by payments into a slush fund which will probably never build anything. 

San Francisco typically requires the inclusion of affordable units in every project which gets special consideration—one recent very big building has offered to include 40% of such units at the time of completion. 

And that plan to “refurbish” the 10-screen Shattuck Theater? It’s a joke. How is it a good deal to first destroy the existing, profitable Shattuck Theater and then—maybe—rebuild it after a lengthy construction period? At best, it’s compensation for damage done, and it’s not legally enforceable by the public. 

It’s hard to understand what the Chronicle has to gain by buying into the ageism which this pathetic single-source puff piece represents. I’d wager that the “over-60 property owners” that the probably 50-something Mark Rhoades denigrates with the help of Chip Johnson (no spring chicken himself) represent the Chron’s target demographic, or at least its actual demographic. 

My under-60 offspring long ago stopped reading the Chronicle. (One of them went to Berkeley High with San Francisco Supervisor-elect Aaron Peskin, who seems to have won handily without the Chronicle’s blessing.) 

Oh well, now that Jon Carroll is retiring, there will not be much reason for this over-60 print reader to continue to subscribe to the San Francisco Chronicle. It seldom covers Berkeley, and when it does it gets it wrong, in this case embarrassingly wrong. I’ll miss Caille Milner and sometimes Leah Garchik, but that’s about it.