West B

To: John King, Architecture Critic, San Francisco Chronicle

From: Michael Goldin, Berkeley

Some time ago you were touring the West Berkeley area with [Berkeley architect] Regan Bice and you stopped by our new building – Swerve. We spoke about the district and had some differences over the question of how the district ought to change over time.

I was advocating densification and a radical re-thinking of how we plan the city. You kind of felt things were just right as they were. I feel a mixed-use densification would provide the critical mass to fund public transportation programs, pay for infrastructure repair, and allow people to walk and to work and shop where they live — a European model of the city, really.

I am hoping you have reconsidered your position on urban planning in light of your recent article, State Exploring Detailed Strategy for Growth?

Time is of the essence. If it is not enough that the accelerated pace of technology and the globalization of the economy is forcing us to reconsider fundamental aspects of zoning and planning, then in light of the rapidly decaying environment, it has become imperative we do so. Watch this talk by Arun Majumdar – who, along with Steven Chu from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, (both in the Obama Administration), are advocating for sweeping change.

Although California is among the leaders in carbon reduction policy, bills such as SB375 and AB32 — which would see vehicle trips reduced through densification and mixed use in cities — will have little impact until local governments apply these concepts to local planning and zoning laws.

Even the renowned East Bay Green Corridor is meaningless without land use policy and laws that permit its implementation. We could not house the spin-offs from LBL or UC because West Berkeley Planning is mired in land-use policy from the 1950s.

I hope the current debate around land use in West Berkeley is not wasted; that it is used to motivate a more urgent and responsive change needed to improve our cities and our environment. The absurdity of this debate is best portrayed in Robert Gammon’s recent article in the East Bay Express.

If Berkeley, its people, or its politicians can’t lead substantive environmental change, who will?

I look forward to hearing from you again.

Michael Goldin

Michael Goldin is a business owner in Berkeley, where he also lives. He is involved in city development issues, including as the chair of the sustainability committee of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. These are his personal views.

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  1. You should identify Michael Goldin as a major property owner in West Berkeley whose holdings would directly profit from the kind of zoning changes he and his allies tout. It’s misleading to label an advocacy piece like this one, which would be perfectly appropriate if the writer’s financial interest were clearly revealed, a “story” in the usual sense of the term.

  2. Citing Robert Gammon’s ridiculous “article” in the Express harms Mr. Goldin’s arguments. Here’s my letter to the Express, published a couple of weeks ago:

    Robert Gammon’s ageism (“old hippies” stuck in a “time warp”) and easily flung accusations of “NIMBY” in his opinion piece, “Activists Try to Block Green Tech in Berkeley,” reflect his ignorance, prejudice, and laziness. The issues in West Berkeley facing decision makers are complicated and deserve a better journalistic platform — certainly more than the stereotyping and name-calling by Mr. Gammon.There was applause for speakers voicing concerns with the city’s proposed changes to the West Berkeley Plan at the November 4 Planning Commission workshop, but I heard no “ridiculing and heckling of anyone who disagreed with them,” from the audience. (Though I did smile to myself once when I heard the phrase, “Developers’ fair share.”)It would be nice to see an intelligent, thoughtful, and balanced article in the Express about West Berkeley. Speakers brought valid concerns and research-based information to the commission for consideration. Gammon ignores that “green” businesses providing living-wage jobs (and better) have been around for decades in West Berkeley. The diverse use here is appealing and worth being preserved. No one is fighting to prevent change or progress — we’re speaking up for new development along with the preservation and expansion of what is working. I find it negligent that in the middle of this huge economic downturn brought about by unregulated, laissez-faire policies and practices, that anyone would think that opening the doors wide to market forces (green or otherwise) is a good choice. There is a balance to be struck.

    Susan Henderson, Berkeley

  3. Mr. Goldin,

    You are bringing up an important debate. I disagree rather sharply with your perspective but perhaps you can persuade me, or vice versa. So, I have some questions for you and thoughts to share.

    First, let’s talk about urban density and its impact on exurban “sprawl”. It seems to me that your position starts with an assumption: You assume that increasing density in cities will decrease sprawl. That seems counter-intuitive to me, for reasons I’ll explain. Can you offer any evidence for your view? or explain the reasoning behind your hypothesis?

    Here some reasons why I think density projects (as currently conceived) are likely to make sprawl worse:

    Perhaps the most important concept is the economic notion of “substitute”. One product is a substitute for another if someone inclined to buy A would seriously consider buying B, instead. For example, frozen filo dough is in some cases a substitute for quantities of flour, oil, vinegar, and perhaps eggs. More directly, lattes from cafes A and B, across the street from one another, might mutually substitute. Frozen filo can be so good, at a reasonable price, that significantly less flour is sold. Cafe A can beat B on, say, price or service to such a large extent that B goes out of business.

    It seems to me that any claim that density projects fight sprawl must assume that densely built urban dwellings substitute for dwellings in the exurbs. We have to assume that, in large numbers, people will decide “I was planning to buy in the exurbs, but that condo next to the train station enticed me away.”

    I don’t see that happening, do you? The densest urban environments seem to attract transient students and professionals who are briefly staging (often before buying the exurbs) along-side singles and lower-income households. Housing consumers don’t seem much inclined to substitute one for the other.

    Worse, the presence of an economically vibrant, dense urban hub seems to my eyes (and, no, I can’t prove it) = to simply *increase* pressure for exurban sprawl in that region. Sprawl doesn’t develop on the cheapest land. Sprawl develops around dense urban environments. If that’s true, increasing the amount of economic activity in the heart of a city will have the opposite effect of what you want: it will increase sprawl.

    On a related point, you argue for density projects today to build up funding for public transportation. It seems to me that you have two problems, there: The first problem is the assumption that more riders, rather than lower costs, is the more efficient improvement. The second problem is that increased ridership is only a net environmental improvement if it significantly outpaces the rate of regional population growth. For example, if bus ridership doubles but car miles also double – it’s a net loss. Can you point to any example, anywhere, of a density project comparable to what you favor for West Berkeley actually demonstrably reducing regional emissions?

    I’ll stop there, for now. I have more questions but that’s a place to start.