Another Watershed on the Berkeley Horizon

Becky O'Malley
Saturday November 30, 2019 - 09:45:00 PM

UPDATE, 12/7/19: As predicted here, “Berkeley Plaza”, aka 2211 Harold Way, is again in play as we rush toward the putative end of the serial deadline extensions which the City of Berkeley has granted to the project’s financiers as they’ve struggled to amass the requisite capital since the project was granted a use permit in 2015. On the agenda of Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Commission last Thursday was an item captioned “Final Design Review” but which was described in the staff report as “incomplete”. This relates, somehow, to a requirement in the original conditions of approval that the LPC has to review certain aspects of the design before the building permits are granted.

Full disclosure: I sit on the commission, but that doesn’t mean in any way that I knew what was going on.

The original financial backer, one Joseph Penner, who had put the entitlements up for sale a couple of years ago with no apparent buyers, was in attendance along with his posse, minus Berkeley “expediter” Mark Rhoades, but he didn’t say anything.

Opponents did participate in full voice. Four speakers noted that the latest version of the plans, which some of the commissioners had received, featured a 40% reduction in the promised number of film theaters (from 10 to 6) and also a reduction in the number of units. They therefore concluded that the complex should be returned to the Zoning Adjustment Board as effectively a new project.

My fellow commissioners, possibly all of them as confused as I was, voted unanimously to take no action, except to continue the item to their next meeting, which won’t be until February. Is there any way the project could be green-lighted before then? If anyone thinks they know the answer, I’d love to hear about it. 

Rain, rain, beautiful rain. We’ve finally reached that blessed point, the first rain of the season, when we can stop worrying about wildfires.

And start worrying about floods. Oh well…

We’re all learning the difference between weather and climate, which makes it easier to target our worrying. The key is Shakespeare’s Law: One swallow does not a summer make.And yet even one heavy rain, despite the worrysome evidence that it might be the stalking horse for climate change, at least lets us relax a bit until spring if we live at the interface between city and country. (Though I did see an excellent little book at my insurance agent’s office which pointed out that winter is the time to make changes aimed at increasing your home’s fire resistance before the next dry season.)

Those of us who don’t have homes (defined here as indoor waterproof shelter) have a different set of problems. It is outrageous that California blithely continues expanding pricey shelter for the already housed while neglecting the needs of the unhoused, or even worse claiming that “the free market” will provide them with homes even if God won't.

Good luck with that. Trickle-down still doesn’t. 

We have somehow gotten the idea that it’s super meritorious to build projects with 20% of the units designated as “affordable”, even if that means that the other 80% by definition are unaffordable. That way we’ll never get caught up. 

And what does “affordable” mean anyhow? Weasel-word definitions abound, but what it doesn’t mean is a roof over your head when it’s raining if you’re sleeping out in the cold tonight. 

Boring as it is, land use continues to be the most contested topic among self-styled progressives here and all over the country. More precisely, the contest is the intersection between housing as a market opportunity for surplus capital and housing as a human right. 

Berkeley, for example, is vastly overbuilt in the category of “market rate” (read expensive) housing and vastly under-built in the basic shelter category for truly low-income people. Meanwhile, extravagant lip service is given to the idea that Berkeley is combating climate change by permitting such speculative projects, which use up scarce buildable land in cities yet don’t come close to meeting recognized goals for reduced carbon footprint. Many of these boondoggles have already been build, and many more are now in the pipeline. 

At the same time as cities like Berkeley have thousands of homeless individuals living on the street or in vehicles, there are thousands of units at all price levels held vacant by speculators. Various studies of exactly what the discrepancy is have had varied results, but anecdotally it’s apparent that many older buildings in Berkeley have unrented units, and many of our new buildings have signs advertising available “luxury” apartments which are being held out of the market in anticipation of even higher rents. 

It’s popular for developers and their legislator cronies to claim that building near transit hubs will reduce greenhouse gases by reducing auto use. In fact there’s little objective proof of this theory, but it’s indisputable that rezoning transit neighborhoods benefits those who have already acquired building sites in the target areas. That’s why politicians in the California legislature are eagerly moving to take control of local land use from California’s cities and towns, even from those they supposedly represent. See, e.g. Scott Wiener, Nancy Skinner, Buffy Wicks and others. 

Now there’s an added incentive for wannabe builders to buy up property in Berkeley and similar cities. A new Trump-backed federal law has created “opportunity zones” in cities which provide a way for oligarchs, home-grown and otherwise, to escape paying capital gains taxes by investing in development in these designated areas. For more information about the mechanism, see: DISPLACEMENT ZONES: How Opportunity Zones Turn Communities into Tax Shelters for the Rich 

I’ve been told that parts of Berkeley were designated for such zones by the unilateral decision of one individual in the city’s economic development department. City elected officials have told me that his choice can’t be reversed—why, I’m not sure, and they’re vague about it when I ask. However it happened, it’s a disaster. 

Case in point: 2211 Harold Way. That’s the widely opposed mega-project planned for the corner of Harold Way and Shattuck that would result in the demolition of the very popular Shattuck Cinemas,albeit with a wishy-washy provision that the theaters would be rebuilt sometime somehow maybe. 

The project was approved in December of 2015 at one of the very last council meetings in the regime of former Mayor Tom Bates, in a chaotic approval process that looked an awful lot like chicanery to many observers. There was a time limit for taking out permits, which the would-be developers missed for three years in a row because they couldn’t come up with the requisite funding, only to be granted serial extensions by the City of Berkeley’s Planning Director. Oh, and do you remember that the hired fixer who represented the developer during the planning process was that official’s predecessor, now working on the outside of the Planning Department’s revolving door? 

Soon we’ll have the opportunity to once again watch this fine old conflict play out. This month is, for the fourth time, the deadline by which the developers should be required to put up or shut up. There’s a rumor that they have finally amassed the capital to go forward, thanks to the Opportunity Zone incentive. But if they don’t come up with the money, the planning director has the power to give them another year—or maybe more—to make their nut. The majority of the Berkeley City Councilmembers, including Mayor Jesse Arreguin, now up for re-election, were elected largely because of the backing of the many citizens who opposed this project. It will be interesting to see whether the electeds will at last be able to stop it if the city staff tries to give the investors yet another pass. And, whether they want to.