Public Comment

Going Forward: An Open Letter to Berkeley's new City Council

Charlene M. Woodcock
Friday December 09, 2016 - 11:11:00 AM

New policies

Berkeley voters have made clear their wish for a change of direction in the governance of Berkeley that will be more attentive to the needs and values of our existing residents and to the consequences of serious income inequality. We see cheaply-built 6- and 8-story buildings going up all over Berkeley. We see our handsome historic buildings downtown demeaned: a garish hotel planned for Shattuck and Center, and the grotesquely oversized 2211 Harold Way project that will demolish the beautifully-designed, financially successful Shattuck Cinemas, a fine example of creative reuse of an historic building. Rather than approve rapid construction of new residential buildings that exacerbate gentrification and serve those who can pay market and luxury rates, we hope now to see the city focus on ensuring housing for our low income residents and middle class families. Berkeley's cultural and economic diversity, its teachers, artists, musicians, and minimum-wage working people, are a highly valued part of our city’s cultural fabric.

The previous council majority’s failure to require cutting edge energy efficiency and resource conservation in the design and construction of the many new buildings now going up is also a factor in the opposition to new development measured in the poll done for the Berkeley Property Owners Association: “Our polling research showed that the electorate was really ticked off about new development in Berkeley. Our political consultants said they never in their combined 100 years or so of running political campaigns had seen anything poll at 72 percent.” (December 2016 BPOA newsletter). 


Jesse Arreguín proposed a number of ways the city can begin to serve the housing needs of its residents. One that can get underway immediately is to inventory poorly-maintained multi-unit apartment buildings that the city could acquire to refurbish and make available under rent control. Inviting proposals from non-profit developers for well-designed, energy-efficient inclusionary residential buildings is another way to begin to address Berkeley’s serious need for low-income and family housing. When there are so few locations for new construction, retrofitting older buildings is the most efficient and environmentally responsible way to proceed. 

The election outcome also makes clear that we want our former amenities to be repaired and returned to use, such as the Willard Pool, the Berkeley Pier, a warm pool to replace the one that was lost at Berkeley High. The Veterans’ Building has a fine auditorium. The retrofitting of that building could provide a community space to be made available to local artists, and theater and dance companies. These are some of the people who are being driven out of Berkeley by real estate speculation or who have had to make do with unsafe and inappropriate live-work spaces, with the tragic outcome that we saw in Oakland last week. 

The election also made clear that we want our parks to be cared for properly. Berkeley’s Aquatic Park provides tranquility and bird habitat, but it is under threat of a large new development and parking lot on the adjacent American Soil Products site. Instead, that property should be acquired by the city to add to the park. Its incorporation into Aquatic Park could come at a later time while its costs begin to be repaid by continuing to lease it for its current benign use. The population of southwest Berkeley in the immediate neighborhood of Aquatic Park has increased significantly with the five new large buildings at University Avenue and 4th Street; that park should be enhanced rather than urbanized. 

Address climate change

We want an informed and effective commitment to rigorous energy efficiency standards. In the face of climate change and the urgent need to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas pollution, the city should immediately revise out-of-date environmental policies and requirements that still consider LEED gold a high standard, to the detriment of city residents when a huge project like 2211 Harold Way is approved. 

To nearly double the size of the Berkeley Center Street Garage when the downtown plan commits to reducing automobile traffic makes no sense; several floors of that already obsolete project could be devoted instead to mixed- and low-income housing. Berkeley needs to do much better in addressing both housing and climate change. In 2020 the state will require net zero energy production for residential developments. We want rigorous energy efficiency and water conservation, and also good design, in all new buildings approved in our city. 

The obstacle to going forward with addressing these needs is lack of funding. However, there are foundations that offer grants to help cities become less wasteful and polluting, improve public transportation, become more suitable for biking and walking, and more supportive of local business and local amenities such as parks. A city staff member or bright, energetic UCB grad student could be directed to search out grants to fund specific projects such as those listed above. A higher transfer tax on residential buildings sold for more than $1,000,000 might be devoted to Berkeley’s low income housing fund. It will be interesting to see the outcome of Portland city commissioners’ vote to tax CEO incomes that are more than 100 times the median salary of their employees. It’s time for innovative solutions to our community needs.