Op-ed: Berkeley is a city without a plan for projected population growth

Berkeley is allowing the construction of many new buildings, but not planning how to cope with a 20,000 person increase in population.

About a year or so ago when the discussion of high rises in downtown Berkeley was a hot topic, I called the director of the Planning Department to ask if it had a plan that addressed the issue of what additional services the City would need to provide for an increase in population of 25,000 people and the related costs for those services.

The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) assigns housing allocations to each city to provide for the expected population growth. Berkeley’s allocation was to accommodate a population of 140,000 by 2040.

The planning department said it didn’t have a plan and I should call each department for an answer. I thanked them and decided I wouldn’t do that.

Recently, I thought about the problem and decided to pursue it with the city manager. She sent a message back that I should file a public records request with each department to see what they had planned. I decided that I wouldn’t do that.

I decided to give it one last try and called Mayor Bates’ office and asked the same question. They gave me the same answer: There was no such plan. I asked if they would or could produce such a plan. They responded that the Planning Department didn’t have any people or resources to do it.

The issue of additional city services needed as people move into the planned high-rises isn’t addressed in the individual building’s EIRs. They reference the Downtown Area Plan, but DAP doesn’t go into detail and doesn’t address the issue of additional services required. Neither does the Downtown Plan cover the new buildings on University/San Pablo and other Priority Development Areas.

It is inconceivable that an additional 20,000 plus people will not require more police/fire/public works, public health, and related services. When the Gaia building was built the fire department said that their ladders wouldn’t go higher than seven stories and that they were relying on the building being essentially fireproof and that the sprinkler system would protect the upper floors. That is likely true except when you have an earthquake/fire and there is NO water available to operate the sprinkler systems. While the building may not be combustible, the occupants’ carpets and other possessions are fuel for fires.

The city budget is approximately $340 million. Berkeley’s population is 115,000. Adding 25,000 more should require an additional 20% more money ($68 million) if everything is linear. The city will collect far less than that from taxes on the new buildings. The City’s only other revenue source of significance is existing property owners. You can see on your current tax bill that the City has raised 9 of the 23 special assessments that show on your tax bill. As Yogi Berra said: “predicting is difficult — particularly the future.” I predict you will see a lot more increases in the future on your tax bill.

The police department is down from an authorized 215 in 2000 to 176 in 2016. A city with a population of 140,000 should have a police force of 240 officers, in my opinion. The fire department is down from 126 to 121 in the same period.

The Downtown Plan went through a number of public hearings before it was adopted by the Council. The plan is silent about city services required to service another 25,000 residents. A defective plan if ever there was one.

Recently the City of San Ramon won a court case that challenged their levying an assessment of $450/unit for services required for newly constructed units. The number was arrived at by a consultant who analyzed the cost of services provide to the new construction/occupants.

I am also concerned by the “revolving door” of former city employees now acting as advocates for developers. Mark Rhodes, Berkeley’s former planning director, has a consulting firm which shepherds new proposed buildings through the City bureaucracy which he headed for ten years or more. Matt Taecker, a former Berkeley employee who helped write the Downtown Area Plan, served with Rhoades when he was planning director. The two often work together on advocating for projects.

Two years ago EBMUD replaced the 8” water line servicing the downtown with a 12” pipe -more than doubling the water available to service the additional population downtown. Check your water bill. The fee for connecting to your meter increased by 10% and the sewer charge for disposing of the water is greater than the cost of the water which comes from 100 miles away. The fee for the water treatment has increased.   The city has elected to increase all fees charged to property owners to subsidize the developers/new residents.

Perhaps the new administration can review special assessments levied on existing property owners to more fairly align benefits with assessments.

Ted Edlin, who has lived in Berkeley for more than 50 years, was formerly president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, vice-president of NEBA, chair of the Housing Advisory Commission, and a member of the Fire Commission, now known as the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission.