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SQUEAKY WHEEL: The Wake-up Call

Toni Mester
Friday April 14, 2017 - 04:22:00 PM

The upcoming public hearing on the R-1A zoning at the Planning Commission is a rare opportunity for all residents of the flatlands to influence zoning policy that effects our living conditions, neighborhood character, and population diversity. The meeting is scheduled for 7 pm on Wednesday April 19 at the North Berkeley Senior Center at the corner of Hearst and MLK. 

The staff report and recommendations make a few small improvements, but the rules are still a formula for demolishing old houses and building two new two-story houses, a practice that ensures maximum developer profits but endangers the light and privacy of neighbors and gobbles up precious open space that should be used for healthy family outdoor living and for growing things like gardens, trees, and children. There are better options for creating infill housing. 

Our group, the Friends of R-1A, is holding an informational meeting at the West Berkeley Public Library Community Room, 1125 University Avenue, on Saturday April 15 from 3 to 5. The gathering is intended for residents of the R-1A zones, shown in bright yellow on the map. 

More of the Same 

The development standards recommended by staff reinforce the pattern of current permit applications but don’t challenge the stodgy conventions of Berkeley’s antediluvian zoning or advantage compact development. Even more problematic, the staff proposal essentially ignores the three Council and ZAB referrals that requested a better definition of the relationship between the two dwelling units allowed. There is no substantive attempt to address that basic concern. 

The R-1A should be an intermediate zone. But instead, an unstable history has turned it into another version of R-2. The staff proposal would still allow two main buildings of the same size, which are the conditions that produced neighborhood appeals and the referrals. 

Staff’s proposal is to allow a three-story front house and a two-story rear house but expand the setbacks a tiny bit and make them consistent in both west and north R-1A zones. The minimum lot size for two houses would remain at 4500 square feet. A building separation of 12 feet is required, but that may be reduced subject to an administrative use permit. Nothing much would be changed, except to eliminate the potential for a three-story rear house that nobody wants to build anyway. 

Such minor tweaks will not prevent appeals by neighbors or promote more affordable options. The City’s own housing element is not optimistic about in-fill housing and estimates the following production for this period (2015-2023): 

• 157 units on vacant lots, 

• 24 units from the addition of main units to already-developed lots, and 

• 56 accessory dwelling units 

These disappointing figures reflect a low expectation for in-fill housing based on past experience and the expense of building detached dwelling units. Even a small separated ADU requires a foundation and new sewer, electric, gas, and water connections. In contrast, creating an internal ADU, dividing an existing larger single-family house, or building a new compact duplex reduces many of these costs, by half according to some estimates. The duplex is the first step upward in the “missing middle” housing continuum and should be promoted. 

Zoning Privilege 

Before I bought my house West Berkeley, I lived in three different apartments that had been created by dividing single-family houses, which is the cheapest way to create in-fill housing; yet the law prohibits owners in the R-1 zones from providing such needed units this way. Two-thirds of the 27,000 residential parcels are single -family houses, and most of these are located in the R-1. 

Unless zoning is changed to advantage less expensive and more compact dwelling units, the allowances will continue to encourage developers to buy lots in the expectation of demolishing old construction, building new houses, and selling them separately as condominiums. Although the zoning code requires a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet in all residential areas, developers get around this division by maintaining the lot as one legal entity with an APN (assessor’s parcel number) and the houses as separate properties, each with a different APN. It’s a legal fiction that defies the intent of the law but returns a respectable profit. There is nothing wrong with this practice per se, which presents opportunities for ownership. The problem is how to regulate condo conversion to provide maximum benefit and minimum detriment. 

There is a huge demand for detached single-family houses because they conform to the American dream of the nuclear family and the white-picket fence syndrome, whether or not the design and the setting support the needs of parents and children. The Dick and Jane model has stuck in our minds as the ideal home that meets all desires. Some of the homeless leaders are demanding “tiny houses” which is a hugely inefficient way of providing shelter, unless a city is blessed with an overabundance of land. Next up in size is the accessory dwelling unit, one story to 750 square feet in Berkeley. The next is the stand- alone backyard house that the R-1A, R-2, and R-2A zones allow. Scaling up, we find the bungalow, typically a one-story craftsman. Bigger yet are the boxy, two and three story brown shingles, and finally the outright mansions. Berkeley has a share of those. The progression is like Russian dolls. 

I just finished watching the Zoning Adjustments Board, which I find far more enjoyable than the City Council, mostly because architecture is a fascinating intersection of human needs and the material world. One of the applicants for a two-house project on Cedar Street in the R-1A said that there’s a shortage of single-family houses in Berkeley, which is a half-truth. When over two-thirds of residential parcels are single-family, that’s not shortage but excess. The shortage is based on an insatiable demand for the detached house in collision with protection of that type. The City can attempt to satisfy that infinite demand by cramming houses into every available yard or provide alternatives that increase the over-all number of units. 

If more family housing is needed, then the City erred in limiting the ADU to one story and 750 square feet when California law allows 1200. Every 100 square feet is another child’s bedroom. Political reality, not policy, drives these restrictions as well as the protections for the SFR and the R-1. It is understood that wealth buys private space, both interior and outdoors, and that our zoning laws reflect class differences. The poor have always lived cheek by jowl. So when working class people succeed in buying a home, it’s our neighborhoods that take the brunt of increased demand. 

The other zoning privilege of the R-1 is zoning stability since 1949. California land-use law provides for an orderly process that involves the planning commission, and the City of Berkeley master plan has a citizen participation element that promises all kinds of inclusive process, on paper at least. But when the uniform height limits were imposed in 1991, that topic was not discussed at the planning commission or properly noticed. Even the up-coming public hearing has not been widely publicized, other than the effort by yours truly and friends, and we’ve actually drawn flack for doing so.  

Neighbors from all corners who testify at the zoning board often speak to their fear of losing privacy, sunlight, and open space. It’s even worse to learn that the scale of your neighborhood has been changed behind your back. 

Lots of sizes  

The median size of single-family lots in the R-1A is around 4400 square feet with lot coverage of 27 - 31% because the zone includes Oceanview, a low-scale neighborhood with some of the smallest lots and homes, mostly one-story cottages. In contrast, the median lot size of single-family parcels in the city as a whole is 4950 square feet with lot coverage of 36%. 

When small houses go on the market, some as derelict properties, they present an opportunity to build larger homes that can overpower existing, adjacent dwellings. Building a three-story house next to a one-story cottage is unacceptable. Many cities like Palo Alto provide the protection of a daylight plane and other cities simply disallow more than one story or 12 feet difference.  

Two standards of Berkeley’s low and medium density zones are a maximum of 40% lot coverage and 400 square feet usable open space. The lot coverage in new development in West Berkeley is close to the maximum while the open space gets reduced. A minimum of 400 square feet of usable open space is pathetic for family living. With an average lot width of 40 feet, that’s a depth of only 10 feet, about enough room for a couple of chairs and a little table. Either the minimum of open space should be adjusted upwards for family use, the maximum lot coverage decreased, or the building square footage limited. Some cities like Burbank correlate the maximum gross floor area to the lot size. 



I hope that’s the right word in Spanish for displacement. If so, we might be hearing it used more. Just as the African-American population has shrunk with the rise of property prices in South Berkeley, the Hispanic population of West Berkeley faces the potential for similar displacement. I’m not an expert on “the causes and consequences of neighborhood change” but obviously the poor are the most vulnerable. 

According to the most recent ACS (American Community Survey 2011-2016, a service of the U.S. Census), the populations of the two R-1A sections differ in race and income. Westbrae is predominantly white and Asian with 7% blacks, while West Berkeley is also mixed but 30% Hispanic, mostly Mexican. The statistics reveal that the 556 Oceanview Hispanics have lived here longer and have a higher per capita average income ($24K) than those l022 living in mi tierra, the Rosa Parks neighborhood ($16K). 

Some of our hard working neighbors don’t speak English very well, about 250 out of 1578 Hispanics. Perhaps the City should provide some outreach in Spanish to engage these residents and get their input. 

But come to think of it, many native English speakers don’t understand planning lingo either. Do you speak zoning? 


Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.