Democracy, Transparency and Measure R

Last March, after Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan received the prestigious national American Planning Association award for “best practices,” I wrote the following for the “Cal Planner” newsletter:

“In the end, support was overwhelming as eight of nine Council members adopted a new Downtown Area Plan … but what a long, strange trip it has been.  The 2012 “DAP” was forged from the crucible of Berkeley’s special style of community decision-making — fueled by passionate debate across almost 200 public meetings, … everyone seemed to participate in what can only be described as ‘democracy in action.’”

What I didn’t realize was that this “strange trip” was hardly over.  Opponents to downtown growth were not about to accept the results of the six-year downtown planning process.  They were meeting amongst themselves to undue years of democratic debate with Measure R:  28 pages of stringent new regulations for any project over 60 feet.

The proposal to overburden buildings over 60 feet sprang out of political necessity.  Four years ago, Berkeleyans voted by a 64% to 36% margin to allow taller downtown buildings.  Overtly challenging the voter mandate of 2010 would have been political suicide.  Instead, opponents of downtown growth conceived 2014’s “Measure R,” a Trojan horse that conceals its negative effects on downtown revitalization, affordable housing, and local efforts to combat climate change.

Measure R’s regulations are drawn from a number of sources.  Many were suggested during the DAP process but were abandoned as impractical.  Others come from Berkeley’s “Green Pathway”:  an existing and optional entitlement process that streamlines approvals in exchange for developer concessions.  To eliminate drawn out Environmental Impact Reports, the optional Pathway prescribes draconian standards.  Not surprisingly, developers have not opted for the Pathway, but Measure R would impose its rigid requirements while eliminating its faster approval process.

Did I just lose you?  This is the subversive genius of Measure R.  It uses complicated language to obscure end results.  That “the devil is in the details” could not be more true.  So let’s cut through hearsay and half truths.
Four years ago Berkeleyans voted overwhelmingly to allow taller buildings downtown but that they should be accompanied by green building features and other community benefits.  Council has delivered by adopting zoning that includes:

  • free transit passes for each household and employee;
  • carsharing facilities;
  • and LEED Gold building performance.
  • No other Bay Area city has adopted such progressive green building and transportation requirements.

    While Measure R supporters claim that downtown development won’t be green, nothing could be further from the truth.  Car-free infill development around major transit hubs reduces traffic and the greenhouse gases it generates.  Over 225 million pounds of greenhouse gas can be avoided by building the 1,300 dwellings that would be rendered infeasible by Measure R.  Furthermore, building more housing is critical for making Berkeley more affordable, as someone not housed downtown is another person bidding up the price of housing in our neighborhoods.

    In addition, developers must now contribute significant new development fees.  City Council has adopted fees at the highest levels allowed under State law for affordable housing and street and open space improvements.  In addition, projects over 75 feet are required to provide additional concessions to leverage community benefits that are unique to each project, such as new state-of-the-art theaters at Shattuck Cinemas and a new conference meeting rooms as part of a high-rise hotel.

    Berkeley has invested hugely in a new Downtown Area Plan and we are just beginning see its revitalizing effects.  Don’t let a small minority of Measure R supporters outflank six-years of public process by misrepresenting what’s in the Measure and what its consequences will be.

    Berkeley voters deserve transparent decision making.  Say “no” to the politics of confusion.  Say “no” to Measure R.

    Matthew Taecker AIA AICP was the City of Berkeley’s Principal Planner and guided development of its award-winning Downtown Area Plan.  His thirty year career has focused on pedestrian-friendly transit-oriented development to promote livability and environmental sustainability.

    Berkeley Downtown Area Plan with tallest buildings adjacent to BART

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