For much of the past decade, anti-growth activists have been working overtime to block development in downtown Berkeley. But they've suffered a series of setbacks, losing key elections and city council votes. They haven't given up, however, and are now pushing a November ballot measure that would make it extremely difficult to build tall buildings and increase density in the city's urban core. And they believe they will finally be successful — by labeling their anti-growth plan "green" and by tying it to an extraordinarily popular idea: saving the historic downtown Berkeley post office. Their plan, however, appears to be in jeopardy, thanks to a counter-proposal by Mayor Tom Bates, who has repeatedly out-maneuvered the anti-growthers in the past several years.
Last week, Bates unveiled his plan, which would separate the post-office-protection proposal from the anti-growth measure, the latter of which he views as a death knell for downtown development. Under Bates' proposal, the city council would adopt the exact language in the ballot measure having to do with safeguarding the post office and twelve other historic structures in downtown. That way, the ballot measure would effectively only deal with anti-development — an issue that the mayor contends voters will reject once again. "It kills the downtown," he said of the anti-growth aspects of the ballot measure. "This is being put on by extremists who want to stop downtown development."
Councilmember Jesse Arreguín, the lead sponsor of the ballot measure, said he strongly supports the protection of the post office, which is in danger of being sold, and thus will vote for Bates' proposal. The mayor's plan is scheduled to go before the council on June 24 and would be officially adopted in September. However, Arreguín also plans to still push forward with the ballot measure, arguing that the council could later decide to repeal the post-office protection language. He also contends that the rest of the ballot measure is not anti-growth; rather, it's an attempt to maximize "environmental and community benefits" for downtown development. "It's not pie in the sky," he said of the strict requirements that the ballot measure would place on all new development in downtown.
But Bates and developers say the ballot measure requirements amount to a series of poison pills. And they're right. The measure also would overhaul important aspects of Measure R, a 2010 citywide ballot measure that sought to increase density in downtown, was overwhelmingly approved by Berkeley voters, and was adamantly opposed by anti-growthers.
Under Measure R, developers have the option of choosing a "green pathway" — that is, they could make their buildings more environmentally friendly in exchange for a streamlined permitting process. But this year's ballot measure would turn the pathway option into a requirement of downtown development, as first reported by Berkeleyside. For example, it would mandate that all buildings over 75 feet in height must achieve a LEED Platinum rating for environmental sustainability, rather than LEED Gold, as currently mandated by city law. It also would require that tall buildings include 30 percent affordable units — up from the current 20 percent — and that they be large enough for families. And it would demand more onsite parking for housing development.
Backers of the measure argue that it "tightens" the green aspects of downtown development. In truth, however, the measure will turn out to be anti-green if its unnecessarily tough requirements stifle the creation of more housing in downtown. The reason is that all dense housing development in downtown areas and along major transit corridors is by definition very green. Such so-called smart growth discourages car commuting and encourages walking, biking, and taking mass transit — and thus decreases the number-one cause of greenhouse gas emissions: cars. Transit-oriented development also helps discourage suburban sprawl by providing much-needed urban infill housing.
As such, requiring that downtown buildings be LEED Platinum is overkill. Instead, such requirements are better suited for truly environmentally harmful development — like the paving over of green open spaces. Likewise, requiring more parking in downtown is the exact opposite of green urban planning. We should be discouraging car use — not encouraging it by building more parking.
As for the affordable housing requirement in the measure, there's no doubt that the East Bay desperately needs more affordable units as housing prices continue to soar. But building affordable housing is not profitable for developers, and thus requiring more of it will likely backfire. Developers now interested in Berkeley probably will seek to build in other cities that don't have such requirements, thereby keeping the city's housing prices artificially high because of the lack of housing on the market.
It's safe to assume that anti-growthers know these facts full well. Indeed, they're counting on them. They don't want tall buildings and a dense downtown, and they know that placing strict requirements on development likely will result in no development at all.
It's cynical, but it's part of a pattern of deception used by Berkeley NIMBYs in the past several years. In 2010, after the city council adopted a pro-growth downtown plan, opponents launched a referendum drive to overturn the vote, and told voters that their plan was more "green." And now they're doing it again — and are going one step further by combining their proposal with the protection of the historic post office. In fact, signature gatherers for the ballot measure made a point of highlighting the post-office aspect of the plan when qualifying the initiative for November.
In 2010, Bates outsmarted the anti-growth crowd when he sponsored Measure R — a truly green plan — after the referendum drive. Hopefully, for the sake of the environment, his new counter-proposal will do it again.