Opinion

Vote no on Measure T: let’s not lose local talent, treasures

My husband and I have an architecture and design firm in West Berkeley. On any given day, I am searching for plumbing fixtures, light fixtures, hardware, windows, doors, cabinets, tile, flooring, decking and furniture, to name a few. I have the unique privilege of looking at and specifying all of those products, and many more, all found or made in West Berkeley. Things look different on the computer, the colors aren’t accurate or the scale is hard to picture, so I like to see things in person as much as possible.  If I don’t find exactly what I am looking for, I usually can talk to the local fabricator or vendor and work together to customize.

There are incredible resources and talent here in West Berkeley, from the great selection of tiles at Import Tile and exquisite light fixtures made by McEwen Lighting (who also uses local glass blowers), to the technical glass produced by Adams & Chittenden and used by Libby Labs. It’s all very symbiotic and local, much like the creative resurgence of Brooklyn’s artisanal and niche manufacturing.

I don’t want to lose the treasures and talent that exist here, which is one of the reasons I am against Measure T. All small businesses (including mine) rely on affordable space. Whether they own or rent, if a neighboring property qualifies for a height limit of 75 feet, while their own property only qualifies for 45 foot height limit, there will be increased pressure to sell to a developer who wants additional property eligible for increased height. There will be less and less space to accommodate small businesses as the smaller properties get swallowed by the big ones, because only the big properties would be allowed increased heights under Measure T.

Aggregation has already been happening, as the big developers have been scooping up properties, while lobbying the city (and now the voters with numerous mailers) to get increased height limits. Blocks and blocks have been aggregated together to form single ownership properties that would qualify for 75 foot buildings under measure T.

One developer already owns the equivalent of 10 square blocks (average 2.25 acres per block), and though it could encompass dozens of Helios (Oxford and Hearst) type buildings, it would only count as one of the six projects allowed in the first 10 years. And yes, these properties are currently underutilized by being severely under built under current height limits, but it is quite intentional. Why would the developers settle for dozens of new 45 foot high buildings (currently allowed), which would increase their building square footage capacity by 300%- 400%, when they could hold out for the high priced views 75 feet would provide?

Developers can already build very big buildings under current height limits — buildings taller and bigger than the new Pixar campus in Emeryville or most of the tech buildings in Silicon Valley, including Dell Computers or Hewlett Packard. Under current height limits, there could be multi-block office parks of 45 foot buildings, which would still alter the landscape of West Berkeley considerably.

Yet, all properties (not just the large properties) would have the same height limits, taking much of the economic pressure off of the smaller properties. Not to mention relieving the negative aesthetic of having big swaths of 75 foot buildings next to the prevalent 20 foot tall buildings that currently make up West Berkeley.

The developers have been holding out precisely to make their own properties much more valuable than neighboring properties by capturing better views. They have claimed that if they can’t build to 75 feet, they won’t build. They have been comparing the value of their own “barren” properties to what could be if they get the 75 feet. There is no mention of the huge increase in value and square footage, if they were to build out those “barren” properties to 45 feet. The added jobs and city revenue would not be so different when comparing growth from zero to 75 feet heights with growth from zero to 45 feet heights.

The City’s own Environmental Impact Report (DEIR Chapter 5) states “Under the Limited Height Alternative [45’ height limit], the total floor area developed within the zoning districts that would be affected by the West Berkeley Project [Measure T] would be anticipated to be similar over the 20 year planning period to that anticipated under the West Berkeley Project.”  Right now, the only thing stopping the developers from building is greed.

The “yes on T” campaign has been very well funded, by a few developers for the sake of their own profits. I suspect, that if Measure T does not pass, developers just might start developing within the current 45 foot height limit, or maybe they will apply for individual development agreements like Bayer has. There is already plenty of room for West Berkeley to grow without Measure T.  And alongside the new and appropriately scaled 45 foot tall buildings, we would be able to continue working with all the incredibly talented people our own back yards who could then afford to stay here.

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Visit Voter’s Edge Berkeley, Berkeleyside’s non-partisan voting guide to the ten measures on the Berkeley ballot. Visit Berkeleyside’s Election 2012 section to see all our coverage in the run-up to November 6.

Cathleen Quandt is a West Berkeley resident, designer, and business owner and a member of the Save West Berkeley Committee.