Berkeley Residents Refuse to Do Their Part to Stop Sprawl

After a public hearing dominated by negative testimony, the Berkeley Planning Commission has rejected a proposed smart-growth land-use plan for the California city. The plan called for greatly increasing residential densities in order to accommodate 13,000 new people.

Planners say that the plan is needed to maintain a walkable community and to "encourage sufficient new construction to meet Berkeley's fair share of regional housing needs." Local residents maintain that the plan will "destroy" Berkeley "by bulldozing neighborhoods and over-building in the name of progress."

Among other things, residents objected to the tall buildings allowed by the plan--up to 12 to 14 stories in many places. Height limits were tripled or quadrupled in many neighborhoods. "People would be mystified to wake up and walk down College Avenue"--a busy, narrow thoroughfare surrounded by one- and two-story structures--"and find four-story buildings," commented Nancy Carleton, the chair of Berkeley's zoning board.

Much of Berkeley was only recently rezoned. When the planning commission authorized city planners to prepare a new draft plan, they specified that the staff should not "re-invent the wheel." Yet planners emphasized the latest in smart-growth planning: high-density, mixed-use developments.

The plan increases densities in much of the city. Residents particularly objected to density increases in popular shopping areas such as Solano Street and Elmwood. These are streets of older store fronts filled with restaurants, boutiques, and other businesses, and are already heavily congested.

Local activist Becky O'Malley blames developers for the plan. "Speculators hiding behind the smart-growth banner have started drawing their bullseyes on attractive viable cities like San Francisco and Berkeley," she says.

O'Malley admits that the smart-growth goals and strategies identified in the plan are "laudable." But she says that, "What it should say, however, is that 'we're proposing a massive increase in population and density for much of Berkeley, and we want to build some really tall buildings all over town to make it possible.'" That, of course, is what smart growth is all about.

The plan to provide for 13,000 new residents flies in the face of Berkeley's downward population trends. The city declined from more than 114,000 residents in 1970 to 102,000 in 1990. But planners say that inner-city neighborhoods need to accept their fair share of newcomers to minimize urban sprawl.

"In Berkeley we've done our 'fair share' decades ago," says O'Malley. "We're the third densest city in the Bay Area, right behind San Francisco and Emeryville."

The pressure to increase densities comes from the booming Silicon Valley combined with numerous legal restrictions placed on growth by other cities in the Bay Area. These restrictions have slowed suburbanization, so new residents are willing to accept higher densitis. But existing residents don't like it.

Berkeley residents have a long history of opposing further density increases. In the 1970s, the city council passed the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, which prevented developers from building multi-family housing in single-family neighborhoods. Although four BART stations have been located in Berkeley for decades, UC city planning professor Robert Cervero notes that these BART stations have seen little transit-oriented development. This is mainly, Cervero laments, due to opposition from NIMBYs.

The problem facing residents of Berkeley is similar to that faced by people in Portland and other citie that adopted zoning codes decades ago. Originally conceived as a way to preserve neighborhoods from unwanted intrusions by businesses or high-density residential, residents have come to accept existing zones as their right. In areas that don't have zoning, such as Houston and many Sun Belt communities, people rely on protective covenants to achieve the same result.

Planners now want to rezone neighborhoods to explicitly allow or even force business and density intrusions. Strict libertarians argue that zoning is an unnecessary government intrustion. But if zoning had not existed, many neighborhoods would have used covenants or other tools to protect themselves. Simply eliminating or loosening zoning today represents a betrayal of neighborhood values and expectations.

Based on objections raised at a September 8 hearing, the Berkeley Planning Commission voted to order planners to start over. The Berkeley plan shows once again that smart-growth plans can create a sense of community--by bringing together people to oppose them. The only positive thing said about the plan at the hearing was that it "was a fabulous organizing tool."

For more information:

The draft Berkeley plan | O'Malley's objections

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