New: How the Bates Development Plan Would Destroy Flatlands Berkeley

Steven Finacom
Monday March 28, 2016 - 10:17:00 PM

The Tom Bates Development Plan for Berkeley which will be presented to the Council on April 5 contains the seeds of destruction of pretty much every Berkeley “flatlands” neighborhood.

His proposal would permit, “by right”, up to nine story housing developments along avenues in Berkeley’s “Priority Development Areas”, districts that the Bates-led Council voted into existence years ago with soothing promises that this was not a major change for Berkeley, just a way to enable the City to qualify for some transportation grant funds.

Beyond those nine-story canyons, Bates now proposes the up zoning of adjacent blocks 200 feet back from the “PDA” zone to allow intense multi-unit development on those blocks.

Bates describes this as “higher densities for housing projects on streets along major transit corridors (with step-down height limits on the back side of blocks that face lower-density residential neighborhoods).”

This is billed as a “buffer” zone between the really big buildings and the lower-rise residential neighborhoods. What it is, in fact, is a gift of development rights to real estate speculators to wipe out those residential districts piece by piece.

An honest translation of the Bates statement would be: “a wall of nine story buildings along the major streets and, for 200 feet beyond the outer edges of those building sites, tearing down any existing houses or small apartment buildings and building dense apartment buildings or condos that are “step down” only in relation to the nine-story buildings next to them.” 

This makes the development zone several hundred feet wide, and also extends the zone of "infill" a block deep to the adjacent residential streets, in many cases. 

Most Berkeley flatlands blocks are roughly 700 feet long and about 300 feet wide (conditions vary considerably, but that’s an approximation).  

If a block sits narrow “end on” to a main street (as is the case in the neighborhoods along south Shattuck and much of Telegraph), this means that the lots slated for high-rise housing along that street extend about 150 feet deep into the block. Add another 200 feet to that, and half or more of each block becomes “developable” under the Bates plan. 

If the adjacent block sits “long side on” to a main street, as is the case along most of University Avenue, then the entire block essentially becomes a development site. The high-rise sites take up half, or about 150 feet, of the 300 foot depth; the 200 foot “buffer” beyond that consumes the entire remainder of the block and extends out to the middle of the next street. 

Most Berkeley flatlands neighborhoods are only 3-4 blocks wide or deep, if that, between major arterial streets. If you have a "PDA" on both sides, and extend the up-zoning 200 additional feet into the neighborhood, this means the potential destruction of additional hundreds of older houses and small multi-unit buildings and the conversion of the majority of the land area of some neighborhoods into dense apartment sites. 

In the Le Conte neighborhood, for example, the expanded density zones on Telegraph and Shattuck would leave only about one block width in the middle of the neighborhood untouched.  

(Ironically, this is the zone in Le Conte where Tom Bates and Loni Hancock have their home. They will be able to live out their retirement in Berkeley—interspersed with the lengthy overseas trips they enjoy—insulated from development. Vice Mayor Linda Maio won’t be so lucky. I believe she still lives in what would become a “buffer zone” next to University Avenue.) 

During a public hearing last year before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, one Commissioner who lives in the neighborhood west of south Shattuck made a vehement statement that he thought infill development—particularly the Parker Place development on his block—is the way to “save” neighborhoods like his from destruction, by concentrating the development along the transit corridors, rather than further in the neighborhoods. 

Not so fast. That commissioner’s home would, under the Bates proposal, be on land “up zoned" for apartment buildings. Sorry about that. He and his family would ultimately have the “choice” of either selling and moving, or living in an isolated house surrounded by much taller apartment buildings. 

This is no less than a proposal by Bates to convert many hundreds of flatlands houses into "sites"--pretty much the same thing that happened in the 1950s / 60s with the "ticky-tack" apartment buildings that sprang up through the flatlands, but this time on a steroidal scale of larger buildings. 

By my very rough count, perhaps 120 City blocks which partially border on “Priority Development Areas” would be directly affected by the “buffer zone” proposal. Those blocks each may average—again, a rough count—about 12-15 separate land parcels that would be part of the 200 foot “buffer”, most of those parcels containing one or more houses or a small apartment building.  

Total, that’s at least 1,800 properties in Berkeley—and probably a higher number of actual buildings—that would be intentionally rezoned so speculators and developers could buy them up, demolish the existing buildings, and then construct apartment buildings for quick profit. 

And that’s “only” 1,800 properties. It won’t stop there. Just as Bates endorsed Priority Development Areas just along the avenues, but now pursues higher density deeper into the adjacent residential neighborhoods, it will only be a matter of time before his successors and their enablers start saying why not develop those entire neighborhoods with multi-unit apartment buildings? Let’s tweak the zoning a bit more. 

There’s one last irony here. The Berkeley flatlands neighborhoods are already considerably dense, by any objective standard. They abound with duplexes, back yard cottages, in-law units, shared houses, and small apartment buildings, most of them just 1-2 stories tall, and free-standing on their own lots. 

If you drive or walk along a Berkeley flatlands street, count what you think is the number of residences. Then go back and count the mailboxes, not the buildings. In most cases you’ll end up with an “actual density” of residential units probably 2-4 times the “apparent density”.  

Residents and homeowners of these neighborhoods have achieved what I think of as “liveable density”, high residential densities where most residents still have access to light, air, sun, maybe a partial view of the hills or the Bay, some garden space, quiet at night, and a place where they are happy to live long term, not simply endure until they can afford to move elsewhere. 

Instead of recognizing that “liveable density” for what it is—an immensely creative and humane approach to providing housing for many, without stacking boxes on top of each other and extracting development profits and rents for absentee owners—Bates and his complacent Council colleagues and “growther” supporters regard those neighborhoods as something to be wiped away. This is contemptible. 

Earlier this year one resident of my neighborhood made a plea to the City Council to think of what Berkeley needs in terms of “homes” not “housing”. That sums it up. Too bad the Council isn’t listening.