Op-ed: Harold Way deserves better than Berkeley

Harold Way could be one of the best streets in Downtown Berkeley. It’s a quiet, narrow, low-traffic, shady street with some beautiful architecture from the Dharma College buildings. It’s highly accessible – with a parking garage next door, in direct proximity to both Shattuck and Milvia (and the bike station on Shattuck), and just a few hundred feet from Downtown Berkeley BART. Harold Way is easy to get to by bus, BART, bike, foot, or car. With all the other opportunities in Downtown, a trip to Harold Way could easily be combined with a visit to the library, the theaters, the pharmacy, or even when making a transfer on the daily commute.

But right now, there’s not much to visit on Harold Way. Right now, it’s a bleak, abandoned street in the heart of our thriving downtown. A featureless wall greets pedestrians at the intersection with Allston, and runs the entire length of Harold Way and up Kittredge Street, with one break in the monotony for the sunken entrance to Habitot Children’s Museum, whose street-level windows are protected by metal bars. A recent evening walk revealed that every streetlight along the road was either burnt out or nonfunctional.

It’s ridiculous to leave such an accessible location underdeveloped when Berkeley stores and residents are facing rising rents due to limited retail and housing opportunities. Given that the eastern side of Harold Way is also the least utilized area within the Downtown Area Plan’s “Core Area” (approved by voters to allow 180-ft buildings), it’s highly sensible to build one of Berkeley’s new high-rises here, where the impact on most of Downtown and disruption to other businesses will be minimized.

The Residences at Berkeley Plaza, aka 2211 Harold Way, proposes to transform the desolate street into a thriving new row of stores and activities, but it’s facing an unreasonable level of opposition. Opponents of the project have attacked it with unfounded claims about the project’s impacts, unreasonable demands for community benefits, and impossible design requirements. Some efforts may be well intentioned, some are simple misunderstandings, but it’s clear that others are the fantasies of anti-development zealots who oppose any change to Berkeley, even if it’s a change that makes it better.

The Shattuck Cinemas are getting a lot of attention, but they have always been included as part of the design, with detailed layouts provided in the plan submitted last July. Similarly, the specter of impacts to Berkeley High School has been raised, but other recent construction near the school – such as BHS’s own construction of multiple buildings and the Library Gardens apartments on Milvia – didn’t end up having significant negative impacts to the school.

And as for a change in the view from the northernmost edge of the steps atop Campanile Way – that’s an awfully specific view to be worried about, one which is rather removed from the lives of most ordinary Berkeley residents. Even so, the developer has proposed changes that would minimize the impact to that one specific view.

Which raises the question – why are some residents so concerned and opposed to this (and, in fact, any) new development in Berkeley, in spite of developer’s efforts to address legitimate concerns?

Downtown is one of the few neighborhoods in Berkeley where people who don’t live here feel entitled to dictate what can and can’t be built, and who can or can’t live here, even beyond the normal citywide planning and project review processes.

That sense of entitlement and ownership over someone else’s neighborhood generally comes with the privileges of being a property owner. Maybe they’re afraid that building new high-end housing here will mean property owners will live in Downtown, and finally give it a voice of its own. (Even our council member doesn’t actually live in Downtown, but just about as far from it as possible, while still being (technically) in the district.)

Or maybe those anti-development property owners are afraid that building new housing to meet market demand will slow the rate of growth of their property values. Right now, housing prices are inordinately high due to a combination of restricted supply, and a broken property tax system that causes homeowners to value their homes above their actual value. If new housing is built for the wealthy, that will reduce the demand for existing overpriced homes and slow the growth in home values. (Building affordable housing will likely have little impact on market prices, as the people who need affordable housing aren’t driving demand for single-family homes anyways. According to Zillow, the median home price in Berkeley has increased by about 50% over the last four years [to just over $900k] – closely tracking the tech boom).

Either way, the people opposed to new development aren’t looking out for Berkeley’s best interests – they’re looking out for their own.

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Ben Gould is a Berkeley native and a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying Environmental Engineering and Public Policy. He lives in Downtown Berkeley.