PG&E, Manhattanization...plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Becky O'Malley
Saturday November 02, 2019 - 12:26:00 PM

Well, it’s been an exciting week or two. For some reason, our particular block of Ashby never lost power. The transformer on the antique pole in front of our house has blown out with a bang at least twice since we’ve lived here (which is a long time), but these incidents never managed to ignite anything else. I did watch the Oakland hills ablaze from my bedroom window in 1989, but that one wasn’t started by PG&E.

Many fires have been started by that company’s elderly equipment, however. This means that alternatives to PG&E power have been a hot topic of conversation lately.

Solar panels on roofs are multiplying, but most of them put power back into the grid, which means they’re no help during the preventative outages many have endured. Gasoline-fueled generators pose their own dangers, so they’re not a good solution.

Two interesting local storage modes are being talked about to bridge outages. One is some sort of chargeable battery set-up—the Tesla Wall is one (expensive) way of doing it. Another idea, for those prescient and affluent enough to afford electric automobiles, is simply to jerry-rig a way to plug into your car, but that’s very complicated.

Inevitably, talk turns to ways to get out from under the obviously incompetent and possibly even corrupt regime of Pacific Gas and Electric, Inc. Solutions include having municipalities take over their local power distribution grids or even explore energy production, as Palo Alto did many years ago.

Here I must pause and invoke the name and lore of my earliest journalistic mentor, the incorrigible Bruce Brugmann, for many years the owner and editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

A 2002 San Francisco Chronicle article paid grudging homage to his long fight again the company: 

Guardian has led fight over S.F. power / 1969 article began long campaign to create city utility

Some Terribly Clever People, or at least some who thought they were, have always enjoyed sneering at him. A sample quote: 

“Combative in the extreme, Brugmann made an easy target for anyone who wanted to mock his public power campaign. 

Stephen Buel, editor of a rival weekly, the East Bay Express, said,'The sad fact is that a lot of the Bay Guardian's criticisms of PG&E are very apt, but the way in which the paper hammers home its message makes it get lost because it is so mind-numbingly repetitive.' " 

Yes, Bruce was prematurely right and never shy to tell you that, which is always annoying to lesser mortals. But now his time has come. Suddenly, we understand why it might have been a good idea to get San Francisco and even smaller cities like Berkeley out from under PG&E a long, long time ago. 

And while we’re on the topic of Bruce Brugmann’s hobby horses, let’s think about his other big one, the campaign against what he called the Manhattanization of San Francisco. Sadly, it looks like we’ve lost that one—his beloved San Francisco downtown is now just cold, dark windy tunnels created by big ugly buildings, or at least it’s reputed to be, since I don’t like to go there much anymore. When I worked south of Market for the Guardian and Pacific News Service in the 70s and 80s, walking around outside was a pleasant experience, but no more. And now it looks like Berkeley is starting down the Manhattanization path. 

There’s more of a connection between taking over PG&E and fighting Manhattanization than might first appear. 

One of the alternatives to private power sources which seems appealing is small scale neighborhood-based mini-grids. Not all dwellings, whether single family or multi-unit, are suitable for roof-top solar, but in combination it is possible for small local groups to create durable access to solar electricity which can be shared by all. However, some buildings in the group need to be able to catch enough sunshine on a regular basis in order to provide electricity to share. 

A few days ago I dropped in on a meeting of Friends of Adeline, an organization founded in response to a City of Berkeley project to create what was named the Adeline Corridor Plan. 

From the Friends’ website: “Friends of Adeline is a diverse group of caring South Berkeley residents working in partnership with local businesses, nonprofits, and others to affect change so that our neighborhood is an inclusive and just place for all people.” 

The Friends have a detailed, complex response to the COB efforts to remake the neighborhood around the Ashby BART station, but the whole interaction, which has now extended over several years, can really be summed up in the difference of one word. Friends are now calling their recommendations the Adeline Community Plan, not using the Adeline Corridor Plan title given by the original proponents. 

When BART first went in, a quarter of a century ago, it cut right through the heart of a lively African-American community which had existed in South Berkeley since at least World War II, originally created in part by the redlining which kept people of color out of the rest of Berkeley. Heroic efforts of residents and others succeeded in getting tracks and station placed underground in Berkeley, and the Berkeley Flea Market sprang up to revitalize the parking lot which resulted. 

However, the neighborhood around the station was not viewed by the regional planners as a potential destination like Downtown Berkeley, which the gateway to UC. It’s been treated as an unfortunate impediment for mass transit to get through as quickly as possible—as a corridor, in other words. 

Use of the Corridor name implies that there’s nothing much of importance there. 

Now, however, BART, in financial jeopardy after years of mismanagement, has noticed that the land it acquired by eminent domain for the stated purpose of transit can be monetized for other kinds of development which might be more lucrative. 

The Friends think otherwise. Their concerns include diversity, affordability, sustainability and especially avoiding displacement of current lower-income residents. A recent published statement notes that the Corridor plan “has already caused housing costs to rise due to speculative activity”, even faster than the increase in other areas of Berkeley. 

So how does this all connect with PG&E? Well, I recently attended a subcommittee meeting of commissioners from the city’s housing and planning commissions and other groups which was convened to discuss regulating the daylight/shadowing impacts of new construction. 

The problems I observed in that meeting were discussed in principle by Adam Gopnik in a must-read New Yorker article: a faction of self-styled Sacramento progressives has wrested control of local planning on transit “corridors” under the pretense of providing for affordable housing. 

He notes that “Traditional progressives have, in effect, aligned with real-estate developers; the truth is that big buildings get built by big builders, even if they are subsidized by the state. Community control, always an ambivalent concept…is once again becoming an evil to be eradicated by state power in the state capitol. Local zoning that protects low density… has to be trumped by state law, as is already under way in California.” 

Gopnik characterizes this as Yimbyism: the claim that “the answer to the housing problem in big cities is to build more housing in big cities, even if that means building high-rise buildings in low-rise neighborhoods and ugly new spaces in quaint old ones”. He cites a Mother Jones story which debunks the Yimbyish theory that there’s a net housing deficit everywhere (except New York and San Francisco.) 

It looks like the area along South Shattuck, through the BART station and south along Adeline from Ashby, will fall prey to the bigger-is-better anti-aesthetic philosophy being promulgated in Sacramento by developer allies like State Senators Skinner and Weiner and Assemblymember Wicks. And what the big buildings their legislation promotes will do, besides looking ugly more often than not, is shadow adjacent smaller buildings. Promoting the construction of large luxurious market-rate structures on major arteries could significantly reduce the ability of existing older low-rent neighborhoods like the Adeline Community to create local energy projects by keeping the sun off the roofs of the buildings on the side streets. 

Manhattanization strikes again. 

It’s been a cool half-century (pretty much the whole duration of my own participation in journalism) since Bruce Brugmann’s San Francisco Bay Guardian started railing against the twin evils of PG&E and Manhattanization. Yet here they are: déjà vu all over again. 

Some of us used to believe that printing the truth and raising hell would cure the ills of society, but here we still are, same old same old problems, even though the truth has been out for a long time now. Sad, isn’t it?