New: Berkeley Council Should Ensure that Developers of Tall Buildings Provide Significant Community Benefits

Charlene M. Woodcock
Monday January 15, 2018 - 04:15:00 PM

I strongly support Councilmember Harrison’s resolution, co-sponsored by Mayor Jesse Arreguín, to give more substance and more enforceability to our Significant Community Benefits program. 

In recent years the drive to permit many large development projects without ensuring that they would serve Berkeley’s urgent need for low-income and family housing has diminished both the architectural and social integrity of our city and taken up sites better used for non-profit projects. It has produced many large, market-rate or “luxury” units—providing an expensive bedroom community for people who do not work in Berkeley. It is essential that those buildings that are designed to be taller than the 75 feet our Downtown zoning permits, the up-to-three 180-foot buildings and two 120-foot buildings allowed by the 2010 Measure R, actually provide real benefit to the city in exchange for the problems they will create during years of construction and the additional stress they will put on city services and resources and water use into the future. 

Our city government needs to do much better than this. We need housing for the people who work in Berkeley, for young adults who grew up in Berkeley, for the diverse population we prize that contributes to the cultural richness of our community. Any local business, cultural resource, or non-profit displaced by a project must be provided financial recompense by the developer when a building permit is issued. 

We do not want mitigations passed off as Significant Community Benefits. We haven’t forgotten the outrage of permitting the LA developer whose plan to demolish the engine of downtown economic health the Shattuck Cinemas was rewarded by allowing him then to claim as a Significant Community Benefit provision of smaller, less accessible, less financially viable replacement theaters with fewer seats, no murals; and Berkeley residents suffer the loss of a landmarked building. This is, at best, an inadequate mitigation, NOT a Significant Community Benefit. 

We did not elect a new mayor and progressive council members to approve large buildings that do not serve our needs, that are apparently designed by committee and so do not enhance the architectural fabric of our city, and whose primary goal is profit for the developer. A good way to ensure that large new building projects downtown serve the needs of Berkeley residents is to create a strong, clear menu of potential Significant Community Benefits and make sure the program is enforceable. We need developers to be required to state in advance their intention to provide affordable units on-site or as in-lieu contribution to our Affordable Housing fund. Each proposed Community Benefits Package must have at least one public hearing at the Zoning Adjustments Board, and any changes to that package after approval must require a new hearing. 

City staff need to be reminded that the mission of our city government is to serve the needs of the residents of Berkeley, not the financial goals of developers.