Mayor Tom Bates

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports that Berkeley mayor Tom Bates has a new plan to cut the Gordian knot of the city’s planning process:

How do you persuade developers to hire local workers, pay fair wages and build ecofriendly structures with housing for the poor in downtown Berkeley?

The mayor proposes giving them a carrot that’s particularly enticing in Berkeley: shortcuts through the city’s notorious red tape.

According to the Chronicle, developers could have a fast-track planning process provided they employed at least 30% local workers and included affordable housing in their projects.

The proposal comes partly as a response to the deadlocked debate over the future of Downtown. The City Council-approved Downtown Area Plan could be shelved by a referendum scheduled for June. Bates is quoted as determined to end Berkeley’s planning “gridlock” by putting his new measure on the ballot this year if necessary.

Lance Knobel

Lance Knobel (co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine in Britain,...

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  1. “One issue is that it already has the highest concentration of low income households in the city. Are we trying to ghettoize the poor?”

    The recent city council and Housing Authority decisions to use project-based housing vouchers primary for new construction assisting developers in securing loans with guaranteed income does suggest your question is quite relevant.
    See Citicentric Ashby Arts project.

    I agree with your focus on south Shattuck, I would add Adeline and Sacramento Sts. IMHO, what makes a city livable is support of neighborhoods.
    Portland comes to mind, every neighborhood has an very diverse commercial district. Portland’s government takes pride in their neighborhoods, city staff partners with residents in land use and crime prevention decisions.
    Berkeley’s government is afraid of shared decision making, and the insiders have perpetuated the “Berkeley is a difficult place” explanation in order to shut out any community partnerships.

  2. Hyperlexic,

    I’m not sure we completely agree about the implications of it but at least abstractly I agree with you that the “pickle it in amber” notion is wrong-headed.

    What irks me about Bates’ approach here is the implication that you can’t be against this expedited development unless you’re against jobs and affordable housing. All he needs now is tie in kittens and puppies. “A vote against this development is a vote against kittens and puppies! Don’t you like kittens and puppies?”

    That said, downtown has some issues:

    One issue is that it already has the highest concentration of low income households in the city. Are we trying to ghettoize the poor?

    Another issue is the surroundings. Downtown is flanked to the east by the University and to the north by the relatively successful gourmet ghetto area. To the south and the west, though, are relatively under-developed, economic wastelands. My intuitive model of this is that downtown is like the crown of a tree and the surrounding areas are like the root system. While half the root system is in trouble, the crown of the tree can’t possibly flourish no matter what you do it. Should we not concentrate first on development to the south and the west?

    Another issue is existing supply vs. demand. The existing stock in downtown is (painfully, notoriously) under-used. This isn’t fully reflected in the asking prices for purchases and rent for various structural reasons but its certainly clear that nobody is lined up around block hoping to set up new businesses or obtain homes there. That suggests to me an existing condition of over-supply. I’m not sure how building more of an unwanted good is supposed to help.

    Developing south and west and improving intra-city public transportation are probably, in my guesstimation, the most efficient and promising ways to renew the economic vitality of downtown.

  3. I disagree to some degree. Having grown up in Berkeley, I really get tired of the ‘let’s pickle it in amber’ movement. I support more buildings of around the height of the wells fargo building, and I thought the university art museum design was lovely – far better than the UC printer shop.

    You do have a good point that our slow planning process kept any too many economically unsustainable buildings from being built. But on the flip side, it seems like it would have been good to try to extract as much benefit out of growth while there was still strong demand. Surely developers would have been much more willing to make compromises and trade-offs 3 years ago than they’ll be in the next 5 years?

  4. What a disappointingly callous, manipulative strategy.

    I think the “gridlock” over downtown has, so far, been a very good thing. It has been improved mainly by the sorrowful downturn in the economy.

    So far those factors have spared us the loss of the UC printer shop and construction of that eyesore replacement. It has spared us the construction of an economically implausible hotel and parking structure. It has at least slowed the rush to build new high-rise buildings. It has helped to beat back very questionable ideas for a bus rapid transit system by an ailing transit authority. It has kept open the difficult questions about the fate of Center St.

    Sometimes, the most cost efficient, quality-of-life improving, most strategically valuable work a City can do in situations like this is the hard work of doing *nothing* (or at least as little as possible).