Keep your eye on the tail of the fish in Berkeley

Becky O'Malley
Friday February 10, 2017 - 05:49:00 PM

It’s said that a fish rots from the head. Those who believe that might be worried about our form of government, so worried that they’re having trouble keeping track of what’s happening to the rest of the fish. But even though most of us here in Berkeley are desperately concerned about the Washington situation, we really should be keeping track of the tail too.

(First, let’s digress with a salute to our 9th Circuit judges, especially Judge Michele Friedland, born in Berkeley according to an undisclosed source.)

And speaking of Berkeley, despite the outrage fatigue we’re feeling, we really should keep track of what our newly-elected mayor and councilmembers are doing. In my opinion, in the local November elections we reversed the national outcome: that is to say, we replaced a poorly performing government with a better one.

Note, I did not say perfect.  

Four of the five candidates we endorsed are now on the city council. They have actually been to a couple of council meetings by now, and though they’ve made a few mistakes they’re on the ball for the most part. 

Voting to buy the homeland security tank was a bad move, but almost everything else has been an improvement. As I said last week, I think the decision not to tangle with the Black Bloc bullies was sensible, whoever made it. Mayor Arreguin says he didn’t meddle, and if so, good for him. I have some suggestions for better ways to handle similar situations, but I’ll save those for another time. 

Where we are now is undoing all the truly awful land use decisions made by the previous councilmembers, some of whom were approximately bought and paid for by campaign contributions from development interests. The fact that Mayor Arreguin bested an opponent supported by $100K from the national real estate lobby shows that Berkeley has finally noticed what’s happened and is more than ready for a change. 

What needs to be changed, and how can it be done? The number one problem is that the city staff is heavily weighted with revolving-door wannabes who have done everything in their power to grease the skids for their developer patrons. 

One very important step in the cleanup process would be for the new council to change the rule that Planning Department salaries are funded by the fees paid by developers. This creates an inherent bias for expensive buildings, and lubricates the hinges on the revolving door. 

The poster boy for this pattern is Mark Rhoades, who went from variously denominated high level positions in the Berkeley Planning Department to being the front man for speculation capital trying to get into the lucrative Berkeley market.  

The worst example of the damage he’s done is the project formerly known as 2211 Harold Way, now rechristened as “Berkeley Plaza” after a spate of bad publicity. His clients are now trying to flip it into the hands of some unwary builder who might not know that major seismic and water issues will have to be addressed if the project ever gets started.  

The Millenium Tower debacle must have alerted many potential developers to the unreliability of “expert” pre-construction advice, so they might be scared off on this boondogggle. One might hope that the new administration would hire new and better inspection staff to replace whatever numbskulls let the fatal Library Gardens slip through the radar. Better inspectors might strictly enforce the inspection requirements for this project. 

Another Berkeley problem highlighted by this deal is the continuing dearth of affordable housing, which will not be helped by the mini-Millenium Berkeley Plaza. The previous council majority let the project owners off the hook, failing to insist that community benefits would adequately reward the city for the numerous variances required to get permits.  

Councilmembers agreed to a deeply discounted schedule of payments in lieu of requiring affordable housing to be included on site. This should never happen again—given the parlous condition of the federal government, it’s going to be much, much harder to finance all-affordable developments with matching grants than it used to be. 

And what about the rest of the bad land use decisions still in the pipeline? At the last Berkeley City Council meeting, it was very disheartening (as Judge Gorsuch might say) to see four of the eight councilmembers refuse to support the people living right on top of the proposed Honda repair location in the South Shattuck/Adeline Corridor district.  

The most disappointing of the four was Worthington, a putative progressive and infrequent automobile user, who really should know better than to vote against citizen appeals. Why, I wonder, does he think that transforming a former bowling alley from retail into a repair shop for gasoline engines is a neighborhood serving use? Or that it’s in any way a progressive stance? Aren’t we supposed to be trying to reduce auto use, not enable it?  

(And don’t tell me that the building trade unions want more buildings, here, there and everywhere. Sure they do, but..climate change…Did anyone else notice their national leaders’ cheery tete-a-tete last week with the new so-called president? Everyone has their price, it seems.) 

It’s absolutely no excuse that the previous developer-dominated Zoning Adjustment Board approved the Honda plan. There’s been an election since then, remember? New ZAB members and all. 

Yes, I know, ex-Mayor Bates engineered some special spot zoning on behalf of the automobile, but his anointed successor lost that election. The building’s owners, who also own the two Berkeley Bowl locations, got numerous special concessions in the Bates era, but it’s time for that to end. 

The other three councilmembers (Maio, Wengraf, Droste), seemingly confused, abstained. Fortunately, in this case there’s still time for a do-over. In the next 30 days, the council could revisit the matter, and all four could change their votes. If they care at all about the support of neighborhood activists, that might be a wise decision.  

These are only a few examples of all the terrible choices left behind by the departing councilmembers as they slid from the scene. Any diligent investigative reporter, which I no longer am, would be able to pull together some nice graphics illustrating the correlation between campaign contributions from developers and bad decisions on developments. But we know that happened—and now it should stop. That’s what we voted for, and we're watching.