Op-ed: Measure R delivers on the green promise for downtown

The Green Downtown Initiative is the latest chapter in the land use battle between big developers and the rest of us.

In 2010, Berkeley voters approved a different Measure R, which asked voters to adopt a “Green Vision” for the downtown, ostensibly to meet the City’s climate action goals. The measure promised voters that in exchange for a few tall buildings, Berkeley would become one of the greenest cities in the United States.

Unfortunately, the City Council majority enacted zoning code provisions with huge loopholes that allow projects to go forward with a bare minimum of the community, labor and environmental benefits promised. It also established an elective permitting process called “the Green Pathway” which allows any development under 75ft to go forward by right — no hearings, no public input, no appeals whatsoever. That alternative permitting path also truncates the Landmarks Preservation review process in force city-wide, making it easier for projects that potentially endanger historic resources to be approved (also with no public input, hearings or appeals!).

Acheson Commons was the first of the big projects to receive approval under the 2010 zoning. With 205 units and rents estimated at $3,400 a month, it eats up an entire block of downtown at University and Shattuck and provides only the bare minimum of affordable housing required of all projects in Berkeley.

Not one other community benefit is provided, despite the promises made to voters of a variety of enhanced environmental and community benefits, and despite the 2010 up-zoning that confers a huge windfall for private developers in the form of additional height and density. Yes, the historic street level façade is being saved, but we are losing a host of longtime small business that are doing just fine, including Ace Hardware — the kind of independent business we most value. Measure R 2014 requires developers to pay into a fund for loans to small businesses, helping to tide them over in the face of this kind of business disruption or destruction.

The current Measure R 2014 makes good on the promises made to voters in 2010: namely that in exchange for the increased height and other incentives developers can obtain, like expedited review of projects, they will in fact be required to provide meaningful community benefits, including increased affordable housing, payment of prevailing wages to construction, maintenance, security and hotel workers, and a multitude of “green” features in new buildings. Heights are raised slightly in three of the four subareas of the Downtown, under a “parking and penthouse” provision that rewards developers for including publicly accessible parking. Heights are adjusted downward very slightly in the “Buffer Subarea” – portions of the Downtown that are closest to existing residential neighborhoods, to ensure adequate stepping down.

This measure also establishes a Civic Center Historic District “overlay” specifying uses that will protect the historic center of our downtown – including the Post Office – and stop the privatization of our Public Commons. The City Council has registered its strong support for Measure R’s Civic Center overlay by unanimously passing it, word for word. But please don’t be fooled: the City Council can undo these protections at any time. Mayor Bates is on record stating that after the election Council can go back and provide “more flexibility”. The only way to truly protect our historic public resources is with a Yes vote on Measure R – protections that can only be changed with another vote of the people.

Those funding the opposition to Measure R – developers, real estate investors and politicians who take money from the development community – make a number of hysterical claims, but one in particular, that rents will skyrocket under Measure R, needs to be addressed. Berkeley and the Bay Area in general have had an affordable housing crisis for the last 40 years. Rents in Berkeley have never gone down, and we are not going to build our way out of this problem by overdeveloping the Downtown with market rate housing.

For a well-researched article on this subject, read an article published on Truth Out titled “Developers aren’t going to solve the housing crisis in San Francisco.

Measure R is detailed, but it is not complicated. It does just two things. First, it forces developers to build affordable housing beyond the bare minimum, and ensures that labor, community and environmental benefits will be delivered along with taller and denser buildings. Second, it protects our Public Commons from privatization — in perpetuity. No Council majority, now or in the future, can change the protections enacted by voters under Measure R.

If we don’t pass these changes now, it will simply be too late. Once the Post Office is sold – and it’s on the block right now — we can’t get it back for public purposes later. Once all the large buildings in the pipeline have received their permits, we can’t go back and get more affordable housing, fair wages for workers, green building features and all of the other community benefits. It doesn’t work like that.

If you are among those who quibble with one or another small element of Measure R, this is one time to see the forest for the trees. It’s now or never to get the Green, Equitable and Civic Downtown we all were promised. Vote Yes on Measure R.

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related, local authors are preferred, and we don’t publish anonymous pieces. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

Lisa Stephens is the chair of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board and a former member of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.