Op-ed: Let’s build the housing that Berkeley needs

Berkeley is in urgent need of affordable housing. We do NOT need more market-rate and upscale rentals and condos; that need has been more than adequately served. We need housing for families and low-income people who are being pushed out of Berkeley.

The adult children of middle class families cannot find affordable housing in their hometown. If Berkeley is to retain its valued character based on economic, racial, and cultural diversity, we must slow the rapidly rising rents that encourage waves of gentrification and drive out longtime Berkeley residents.

Instead of market-rate large buildings, we need inclusionary 4- or 5-story projects that can achieve net-zero energy and do not place excessive burdens on their neighborhoods. Taller buildings should not be built before transit is improved or they will greatly increase auto traffic.

The speculative development at 2211 Harold Way, the west side of the old Hink’s building, is greatly out-of-scale with its proposed context in the downtown historic center. It would be adjacent to our beautiful Public Library, Post Office, High School, YMCA, and the Walter Ratcliff-designed Armstrong College and Elks Club buildings, but it would tower over these handsome buildings and it fails to equal the high quality of design they manifest, or to strive for dramatic greenhouse gas reductions as any large new building in Berkeley should be required to do. We must not allow for-profit developers to take up the few sites available with buildings that will be obsolete by their completion.


190-foot buildings would disrupt our downtown’s scale, mostly 1 to 4-story buildings with the exception of the 160-foot Wells Fargo Building and the Great Western building.

Paris and Stockholm are examples of inviting, livable-scale cities built with 4- and 5-story limits. Huge new buildings would cause years of traffic disruption. It would be greatly more difficult to access the existing nearby businesses and our downtown Library and Post Office and the YMCA during three years or more of construction.

A vibrant downtown, as Jane Jacobs demonstrated, results from having a variety of locally owned businesses and cultural venues that serve the interests of local residents. Efforts to develop an arts district have come to fruition with the very popular Berkeley Repertory Theater, the 10-screen Shattuck Cinemas, the new Freight and Salvage performance space, the Jazz School (now the California Jazz Conservatory). The cafés and restaurants are successful thanks to the critical mass of patrons brought into downtown by the cultural venues. 60% of the signers of the petition to save the Shattuck Cinemas from demolition are from outside Berkeley. They come to see movies they can’t see elsewhere. There will be significant income loss to downtown business if we lose the Cinemas and Habitot, both of which the 2211 Harold Way developer intends to demolish.

Berkeley has prided itself on being environmentally responsible. The state’s 2020 energy efficiency standards include net zero energy production for residential buildings. For this reason, any large new buildings approved for construction in Berkeley should be held to these more rigorous green standards, not the greatly-diluted LEED standards that are already obsolete in view of escalating climate change.

The canard that Berkeley voters last year provided a mandate for building tall buildings downtown without the more rigorous green requirements that Measure R proposed is belied by the very low voter turnout — just 50.4%. The developer and corporate real estate opponents of Measure R claim 74% of Berkeley voters supported its defeat, but 74% of 50.4% is obviously not a majority, and those votes were purchased by outside developer and real estate money, including $95,000 from the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors, 14 times the local funds spent to support Measure R.

This could be a turning point for Berkeley, from being a diverse, inclusive, culturally rich, forward-looking, environmentally accountable community to one controlled by developers and real estate investors, many out-of-state or foreign, who would shape its future, our future, based on maximum profits. I hope our current city government will represent our needs at this crucial time.

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Charlene M. Woodcock has been a Berkeley resident since 1967. She is a retired UC Press editor, a choral singer, and an activist in issues that will affect our grandchildren.