Measure T: A step towards a more consistent set of rules

It’s easy to dismiss the most vocal opponents of Measure T (West Berkeley up-zoning) as nimbies and bananas (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). It’s also easy to see that the objections to development near Aquatic Park on environmental grounds are exaggerated beyond the breaking point. But one of the more cogent arguments against T has been put forth by Toni Mester in several op eds in the Berkeley Daily Planet. (Google “Toni Mester West Berkeley” for links.)

Toni argues that the individual development agreement (DA) is a far better tool for managing development projects than zoning. She advocates development agreements as the preferred alternative to the Master Use Permit (MUP) system provided for in Measure T. Toni cites the success of the Bayer DA, and the entire city of Santa Barbara, as evidence of how well this approach can work.

Let’s take a step or two back from these selected examples and think of long-term policies, benefits and costs. If every major project drives a new DA process, we end up with a patchwork of civic amenities and services, each negotiated separately by each property developer. Sure, these concessions are good things: public park space, job training programs, support for public transit, infrastructure improvements and other socially desirable mandates.

But… these are all things that should be provided by good local and regional government anyway, not by private developers. And they should be paid for by fair and uniform taxes, not by extorting developers for concessions that depend on political connectedness and squeaky wheel advocacy. A new DA process for each project makes about as much sense as Romney’s claim that 50 different state-run health care systems will somehow be more efficient than a single federal system. A new DA for each proposal is like re-writing the tax code for each property.

Services should be provided according needs and priorities determined via an open political process, not by negotiations with each new developer. And they should be paid for by a transparent tax system that extracts funds according to fair and predictable rules. The Development Agreement system fails badly on both counts.

Same with mandates for socially desirable policies. If they are worth having then they should apply equally to everyone, city-wide, not just to certain big players according to their skill at cutting special deals and their need for exceptions to restrictive zoning.

Perhaps more disturbing than the inefficiencies and inequities of the DA system is the implication that top-down management by City commissions will result in a better outcome than market forces working within a known set of rules. I’ll take rule-based development patterns over the capricious results of individual development agreements any time.

Measure T is a step towards a more consistent set of rules via a reasonable zoning revision, and is ultimately a much better path to improving the economic, physical, and cultural value of West Berkeley.

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Paul Kamen is a naval architect specializing in small craft accident reconstruction. He owns a small sailboat in the Berkeley Marina, has taught sailing for U.C. in Aquatic Park, and chairs the Berkeley Waterfront Commission.

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