Public Comment

SQUEAKY WHEEL: The Form of Infill

Toni Mester
Friday June 23, 2017 - 02:16:00 PM
2212 Tenth St.
Toni Mester
2212 Tenth St.

In a rare action on June 13, the City Council remanded an appeal of a two-house project at 2212 Tenth Street in the R-1A zone to the ZAB (Zoning Adjustments Board). Cheryl Davila, the Councilmember who represents this neighborhood in District Two, was recused because she lives within 500 feet of the project, narrowing the vote to 5-4. And so the neighbors live to fight another day.

Two issues were the basis of the remand: whether the tenants in the existing 1,080 square foot house to be demolished were notified of the owner’s intent, as required by city law, and the size of the rear building, a two-story, four bedrooms house.

Adam Fuchs, the owner of the house to the south, appealed on different grounds, asserting that the front building, another two-story four bedroom house, would block light and views to windows on the second story of his home, crowd the lot next door, invite group rather than family use, and decrease availability of street parking for the neighborhood.

The staff replied that the building envelope of the two houses fell within the zoning standards and the use issues were speculative. The project designer John Newton, representing his development firm and the owner, stated that they had already made adjustments to their plan and that the Fuchs’ house actually impacted their project more by shadowing.

Meanwhile back at the Planning Commission, another public hearing is scheduled for July on the R-1A development standards, which have been a bone of contention for many years, with referrals from the Council going back to 2010.

To make a bad situation even worse, the YIMBY groups of East Bay Forward and the Bay Area Renters’ Federation (BARF) have jumped into the fray, even though their latecomer analysis leaves much to be desired. The zoning in the R-1A is a complicated problem that simply does not lend itself to over-simplification. 

Downzoning (The horror! The horror!) 

Our small group, Friends of R-1A, has been working on a revision of the development standards for over a year. We appealed another two-house project at 1737 Tenth Street on behalf of a disabled couple who lacked the ability to fight on their own. That ended with a slight adjustment to the infill house behind their yard, but I wondered whether bringing this trend to the attention of the Council was such a good idea because lines have been drawn rather than problems illuminated, and the zoning questions reduced to the usual anti/pro development dichotomy. Since this matter will be coming to the Council once the Planning Commission hearings are over, we thought it best to acquaint the new Council members with the zoning problems. 

Friends of R-1A is a small group for a reason. Fixing bad zoning requires research, insights, and outreach. It’s technical, not a popular cause sure to rouse the masses. As one ex-Mayor said at a recent meeting with a city official, “Nobody understands zoning. To most people, zoning means the house next door.” I spent months writing a history of the R-1A zoning and compiling a database. We’ve held many small working meetings and two public meetings at the library that each attracted over twenty people and revealed a need for zoning education. Much time was spent just locating the R-1A zones on the map. 

Victoria Fierce from East Bay Forward came to our second meeting in April, tweeting and making bold assertions. She complained that she couldn’t afford to buy a house but later told me that she was paid from donations to the organization. Qualifying for a home loan these days requires a substantial salary, and many buyers are paying cash. After the meeting I tried to talk with her, an exhausting exercise. I said that West Berkeley has always been a working class neighborhood, to which she exclaimed, “Not any more!” That ended what could have been an interesting discussion on rising land values, since she identifies as a socialist. But reason did not prevail. Like many YIMBYs, Ms. Fierce has a simple solution to the complexities of the housing market: just build more. Such magical thinking excludes annoying details like how, how much, what, or where; in other words, to hell with zoning. In May Robert Gammon featured her in an article in Oakland magazine about the “real cause of gentrification.” Her topsy-turvy mindset unfolds in an op-ed she authored for Berkeleyside, in which she argues against raising the housing mitigation fee that is coming up again on the June 27 City Council agenda. One would think that a socialist would approve of exacting fees for the purpose of developing affordable housing. 

I met another EBF activist at a Sierra Club meeting who was a better advocate for their cause. He explained the difficulties of finding an apartment these days, which aroused my sympathy. The market is extremely competitive, and many people are suffering from the shortage, both home seekers and renters facing eviction and disaplcement. To the YIMBYs, restrictive zoning is a cause of the shortage, but zoning can also be a tool for creating housing as well as balancing the conflicting rights of property owners, both homeowners and developers, with the needs of the city and the market. But to champion improved zoning, people need a better understanding of how it works. 

The next YIMBY I encountered was Sonja Trauss of the SF Bay Area Renters Federation at a Planning Commission meeting, during which she accused me of being cynical. I tried to engage her in conversation afterwards and gave her some of our material, which she used in an op-ed in Berkeleyside that accused us of wanting to downzone West Berkeley. Evidently downzone is a word that produces hysterics because the very mention of it on a Council agenda garnered a denunciation in yet another op-ed from Councilwoman Lori Droste and others. 

Downzoning has a specific meaning among planners and in planning law: a change in a zoning ordinance to fewer units per acre: the measure and definition of density. One of Berkeley’s problems is a lack of density standards for our zones, which makes it difficult to figure the state density bonus or to create an additional city density bonus. In a private conversation, Carol Johnson, our former planning director, said that density standards were a top priority for her office. Now that she has left and Tim Burroughs is acting as interim director, we can only hope that this matter receives the attention it deserves. 

The definition of a unit is a measure of housing equivalent to the living quarters of one household and can be as small as a 350 square foot backyard accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or as large as a Claremont mansion. 

Why can’t we all just get along? 

The R-1A was downzoned in 1967 from R-4 after a citywide effort to correct the mistakes of the 1949 ordinance, as I relate in my research paper A Brief and Personal History of R-1A Zoning in Berkeley that is posted on the City website. During the 1960’s over 8,000 parcels were reclassified including the San Pablo park area, which was downzoned from R-3 to R-1. 

When West Berkeley was downzoned to R-1A, development standards for the original accessory unit allowance were not put into place. This omission was magnified when the Council adopted uniform building heights in 1991, which brought every residential allowance to three stories including rear units. This is a grotesque envelope that is at the heart of the current R-1A reform effort as well as the 1310 Haskell Street lawsuit brought by SFBARF. 

In her attack piece on Friends of R-1A, Sonja Trauss wrote, “According to Trulia, 2209-2211 Ninth Street comprises two 1,143 square-foot, four-bedroom two-story building with pitched roofs. Toni is criticizing cheap rental housing, and claiming it is suburban to have two houses per lot, but that one house per lot is an example of compact urban infill.” This is a perfect example of how people talk at cross-purposes when they don’t share a common vocabulary and data. Real estate sites like Trulia, Redfin, and Zillow are infamous for inaccurate information. For reliable data on lot area and building square footage, one must consult the records of the County Assessor or go to the map room of the City of Berkeley website and click on parcel conditions viewer under planning, which takes you to the same assessor’s data. A search of those two addresses reveals that the combined square footage of that project is 4050 square feet on a lot size of 5366 for a floor area ratio (FAR) of .75, more than twice the existing FAR of the neighborhood. And how does she know that the rent is “cheap”? One thing she got straight is that single-family houses are a suburban form, whereas the duplex is more compact and urban, the lower end of the “missing middle” forms that I support. 

Our group’s effort has nothing to do with reducing the number of units, but advantaging the single duplex building over two detached houses for several reasons including cost of construction, locating the parking at the front of the parcel rather than the middle, preserving gardens and safe play space for children and other backyard family activities, and reducing detriment to adjacent properties. Our recommendation is a form related lateral change, neither an increase nor a decrease in the number of units because that is not on the table. The Council did not refer the number of units to the Planning Commission but rather the development standards related to two units. However, our standards could reduce the number of bedrooms and the overall floor area of the two units, depending on the size of the lot. 

I am not unsympathetic to the possibility of increasing the number of units in West Berkeley and elsewhere to enable the “missing middle” forms advocated by Daniel Parolek and Opticos Design, and I am gratified that after publishing an article here “The NIMBYs of Middle Earth” other people like Eric Panzer of Livable Berkeley and Robert Gammon have begun to talk the talk. 

But to actually walk the walk of recreating the bungalow courts of yesteryear and allowing small multiplexes, live-work projects, and townhouses, people will have to discuss zoning in a rational and respectful way. Zoning is a form of technical writing that utilizes exact terms and requires a large “definitions” section in each ordinance. 

The problems of regulating density v. form-based zoning, which the Paroleks discuss on their website must be approached in a thoughtful manner, rather than politics as usual. My inclination is to set density standards for the avenues and move towards a modified form-based code for the missing middle neighborhoods in every zone between the R-1 and the commercial mixed-use transit corridors. So instead of R-1A, R-2 and R-2A, we would have RW (residential west) or R-LM (low to medium) and for the R-3 to R-5, another designation like R-M (medium density). 

The benefit of form-based zoning is reliance on pictorial design, but the drawback is that is supposes a tabula rasa like a brand new subdivision. Berkeley is too old for such imaginings, but our code could surely use design standards and forms. Development is usually regulated by three categories of standards: fixed (so many feet in height and setbacks), variable (proportionate like FAR and % of lot coverage), and design (daylight plane, materials, window placement, roof types). The kicker is usable open space, which comes in a variety of modalities, as I discovered researching the zoning code of thirty other California cities. The resulting matrix can be found on page 53 of the communications section of the April planning commission agenda. 

Upzoning (The horror! The horror!) 

The YIMBYs have decided to advocate for upzoning and want West Berkeley to revert to R-4, which is not only regressive but also irrelevant, inappropriate, and counterproductive. R-4 allows for dormitories, sororities and fraternities, and hotels as well as six story apartment buildings. We want to keep our neighborhoods affordable for working families and to maintain the historical character of West Berkeley. 

Every increase in a building allowance means an increase in land value. A parcel that allows a six-story building comes at a higher price than a parcel where you can only build two stories because the return on investment is greater. The problems of upzoning are two-fold: demolition of historic buildings and higher land costs. The contradiction for those who believe that more building to greater heights is going to drive down rents is that the cost of building begins with the price of the land. 

The allowance for two houses on one parcel in West Berkeley has already resulted in a steep increase in the price of a parcel because building and selling two single-family houses is a lucrative business. When I stated at our last library meeting that the price of a West Berkeley parcel runs around $650,000, I was corrected by an architect-developer who said there is little for sale now under $800,000. That’s an enormous increase in a matter of a year. One of the benefits of improved zoning is to regulate land valuation so that development costs can be better anticipated. 

Stay tuned; there’s a lot more to this story. 


Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.