Building for the Future, Not for the Past

Becky O'Malley
Sunday May 17, 2020 - 02:07:00 PM

“Never allow a good crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible.”

This quote, from Rahm Emanuel, the frequently disliked ex-mayor of Chicago, is often cited by paranoids left and right who see things happening that they worry about.

But as we know, even paranoids have enemies, so attention must be paid.

Let’s just take a look, in no particular order, at current attempts to push through causes beloved of a variety of interests while the noisy public shelters in place.

They have common threads. Many are related to the lately-challenged theory that making dense cities even denser by feverish construction is a social good. That’s so last year, if you’ve been watching the analyses of what’s gone wrong with the rapid spread of COVID-19.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at an op-ed in this week’s online (and Sunday’s print) New York Times, from a UC Berkeley B-School faculty administrator and urban planner: Now Is the Time to Embrace Density. It’s a thorough explication of the dogma of density as the cure for all social ills.

Then take a look at the comments from readers. The Times closed them out at 254—and my quick reading didn’t see more than 5 which supported the writer’s thesis. It turns out that when you’re confined to home having a modest backyard -- open space with a little sunlight--is more appealing than ever. And also, density helps disease to spread faster.

So what’s up in the beleaguered Bay, density-wise? 

First of all, thanks to several recent Planet op-eds we’ve learned that UCB Chancellor Carol Christ is doggedly trying to push forward a couple of major pet programs without much public scrutiny. One is a massive increase in the campus population., hoped to be 44% more by 2037.  

Another folly Dr. Christ is promoting is a 16-story “stack ‘n' pack” dormitory on People’s Park, in an era when parents might be reluctant for their students to be in crowded elevator-only high rises on the Hayward fault. And when remote learning is rapidly becoming the norm it seems quite unwise to rush into expansion of cramped quarters close to campus. 

Regardless of what you think of the present condition of People’s Park, jamming through the environmental review of the dormitory scheme without a real public hearing shows a reckless disregard for both alumni and Berkeley citizens which contravenes the university’s history.  

And then there’s the City of Berkeley, our local government, which might use the health crisis as an excuse for rushing through a pet project of the unlikely alliance of the Downtown Business Association and the bicycle lobby. 

The DBA has been trying to get the unsightly poor off the city streets for so long that those of us with still-functioning memories can’t help being suspicious of every proposal they make for Downtown.  

Like many people I enjoy sitting outside at restaurants. In Santa Cruz you can even bring your dog to dinner.  

But I remember so many attempts to evict the down-and-out from Berkeley sidewalks that I’m suspicious of councilmembers’ recent proposal to use our public spaces to facilitate social distancing of restaurant patrons. Though dining outdoors might be pleasant, our streets shouldn’t be privatized, but open to all. Minimally, seats for everyone who wants to sit down in public spaces but can’t pay for the privilege should be allowed and provided at public expense. 

Which brings me to the other popular proposal for privatization which is accelerating under quarantine. That would be the one for limiting use of parts of the public right of way to the able-bodied. Yes, you heard that right.  

Like many people who’ve been fortunate enough to be basically very healthy, I didn’t appreciate how much automobiles have increased the mobility of people with physical impairments of various kinds until I needed a walker for a couple of years after a fall. I’ve had several good friends who used spiffy motorized wheelchairs, but there’s a big gray area between those and riding bicycles for transportation.  

A weak knee here, a failing hip there, and before you know it it’s harder to get around than it used to be. Cars help to fill the gap, particularly since we’ve all been learning lately that public transit can be risky. 

Bicyle lanes are great for those who are able to use them, but that’s not everyone.  

( And they’re good for more than bikes. Last week, heading west on Adeline below College, I spotted a man riding a horse in the bike lane. He had a big hat, and I suspect he is a member of Oakland’s famous Black Cowboy Association, dedicated to recreating the real Old West, when it’s estimated that a third of all the cowboys were African Americans, despite Hollywood movies which portrayed them as all-White. So much more entertaining than bikers!) 

In the past few weeks the mayors of Oakland and Berkeley have devoted a fair percentage of their PR output to the concept of Slow Streets. They’re already in place in Oakland. The always entertaining NextDoor.com comments show passionate Oaklanders both pro and con. As a long-time resident of Ashby Avenue surrounded by barriered neighbors, I’m down with the concept of some suffering so others can benefit, but it’s come as a shock to some Oakland residents that they’re sheltering in place in an Urban Sacrifice Zone to enable others in the next block to enjoy Slow Streets.  

As far as I can ascertain while staying at home, Berkeley hasn’t got the Slow Streets thing going yet. In normal times (which may never come again) there would be a Plan for that, but probably there’s not one yet. Of course, People’s Park, where all the houses were removed decades ago, functions as a poorly managed Slow Street, but UCB will do away with that if they have their way. 

The city of Berkeley has, however, now decided to open up all construction of all kinds, accompanied by hopes and prayers that social distancing on job sites will be observed. Good luck with that one. 

Austin, Texas, another booming college town like Berkeley, declared construction workers to be essential early on in the pandemic, with reportedly disastrous results. Some construction sites in Austin have become new and concerning clusters of positive coronavirus test results for both workers and their family members. Like meat-packing employees, construction workers don’t seem able to achieve effective social distancing, according to numerous press reports.  

Neverthess, in Berkeley, after pressure from the building trades and permission from the governor’s office, all kinds of construction are now allowed. Previously, only a small number of key projects like those with 10% affordable housing were okay. 

But the pressure from the powerful building industry and its minions and groupies continues. 

From active local architect David Trachtenberg, in a letter addressed to Berkeley city councilmembers and everyone who’s anyone in the COB Planning Department and Planning Commission: 

“Prior to the shelter-in-place order, our office had a half dozen projects that had been scheduled for DRC and ZAB hearings that were subsequently canceled. So far only one of our projects has been re-calendared for a DRC hearing on May 21, while others are being pushed out to June or July because we're told the hearing calendars may already be full.  

“Given the time-critical nature of these projects, we implore the City to find a way to process the backlog. If it requires a couple of marathon hearings so that we can get through the backlog then we should do so. Too much is at stake to continue to sit on our hands. Even prior to the current pandemic the wait times for hearings were untenable in Berkeley and now they've become positively devastating.  


“Projects are rapidly falling apart due to these delays. People are losing their jobs. Desperately needed housing is not getting built. We need to get focused.  

‘At this moment, business, as usual, isn't good enough. So that these vital projects don't die on the vine, and for the sake of the many workers in design, construction, and development, I urge you to accelerate these time-critical hearings.” 

At least Mr. Trachtenberg is sincere and civil. The same can’t be said for the infamous Sonja Trauss, who has participated in a string of militant organizations purporting to represent the entitled 30-somethings who want the Bay Area’s already dense cities to build the kind of housing to which they feel they’re, well, entitled. 

Trauss’s various Yes In My Back Yard (originally BARF) front groups continue to invoke the very real need for affordable housing to promote the kind of for-profit market rate development that is preferred by the kind of developers who fund them.  

She’s lately sent a threatening letter to some of the same functionaries Tractenberg addressed plus many others, over her latest title, “President, YIMBY Law”. 

Although the State Bar doesn’t think she’s a lawyer, she says on behalf of one of her organizations that she reserves the right to sue the city if she doesn’t see more action, COVID be damned. 

From her letter: 

“The City has made ad infinitum declarations that the lack of affordable housing is a crisis on the one hand, and now uses the COVID-19 response to slow-walk the very housing projects it needs to address that crisis on the other. The Governor’s Executive Order clearly allows for these meetings to be held remotely such that the City could manage both of these crises at the same time. Instead, the City has made a decision that fails to meet the dire housing needs of its residents, as well as its obligations under state law.  

“Yes In My Back Yard urges the City of Berkeley to reconsider its decision to suspend all meetings held by the Department of Planning and Development and reserves its right to institute legal proceedings should the City continue to violate state law. “ 

Trauss’s reasoning is similar to UCB’S: let’s get it all approved right now while the irritating members of the public are locked down so they can’t bother us. What this will mean is more big box luxury apartments getting top of the market rent with no on site affordable units. 

But the world as we knew it will not be the same after COVID-19. Rushing to judgment under the old rules in this new crisis will make it possible to make more mistakes faster. And that’s not a good thing. 

When I had small children pressing me to deliver various benefits that they just couldn't live without, I had a stock reply: "if you need an answer now, it's no." That would satisfy any of the purported legal claims Trauss et al. might make. They should be careful what they wish for.