Op-ed: Democracy, transparency and Measure R

Last March after Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan received a prestigious national American Planning Association award, I wrote the following for the “Cal Planner” newsletter:

“In the end, support was overwhelming as eight of nine Council members adopted a new Downtown Area Plan … but what a long, strange trip it has been. The 2012 ‘DAP’ was forged from the crucible of Berkeley’s special style of community decision-making — fueled by passionate debate across almost 200 public meetings, … everyone seemed to participate in what can only be described as ‘democracy in action.’”

What I didn’t realize was that this “strange trip” was hardly over. Opponents to downtown growth were not about to accept the results of the six-year downtown planning process. They were meeting amongst themselves to undo years of democratic debate with Measure R: 28 pages of stringent new regulations for any project over 60 feet.

The proposal to overburden buildings over 60 feet, rather than oppose taller buildings outright, sprang from political necessity. Four years ago, Berkeleyans voted by a 64% to 36% margin to allow taller downtown buildings. A transparent challenge to the voter mandate of 2010 would have been political suicide. Instead, opponents of downtown growth conceived 2014’s “Measure R,” a Trojan horse that conceals that it would halt downtown development and with it: economic revitalization, affordable housing production, and local efforts to combat climate change.

As the city of Berkeley’s principal planner for the Downtown Area Plan, I recognize many Measure R elements from the DAP process, where they were abandoned as infeasible. Others come from Berkeley’s “Green Pathway”: an existing and optional entitlement process that streamlines approvals in exchange for developer concessions. To eliminate drawn out Environmental Impact Reports, the optional Pathway prescribes draconian standards that limit a project’s size. Not surprisingly, developers have not opted for the Pathway, but Measure R would impose its rigid requirements while eliminating its faster approval process.

The subversive genius of Measure R is that it uses complicated zoning language to obscure end results. So let’s cut through hearsay and half-truths around what’s actually going on.

Four years ago Berkeleyans voted overwhelmingly to allow taller buildings downtown that would be accompanied by green building features and other community benefits. Council has delivered what it promised by adopting zoning that requires features like:

  • free transit passes for each household and employee,
  • carsharing facilities
  • LEED Gold building performance

No other Bay Area city has adopted such progressive green building and transportation requirements.

While Measure R supporters claim downtown development won’t be green, nothing could be farther from the truth. Car-free infill development around major transit hubs reduces traffic and the greenhouse gases it generates. Over 225 million pounds of greenhouse gas can be avoided by building the 1,300 dwellings that would be rendered infeasible by Measure R. Furthermore, building more housing is critical for making Berkeley more affordable, as someone not housed downtown is someone bidding up the price of housing in our neighborhoods.

Developers must now contribute significant new development fees. City Council has adopted fees for affordable housing and street and open space improvements, at the highest levels allowed under state law. In addition, projects over 75 feet are required to deliver community benefits that are unique to each project, such as new state-of-the-art theaters at Shattuck Cinemas and a new conference meeting rooms as part of a high-rise hotel.

Careful reading of Measure R proves that, without question, the high-rise hotel project would be rendered infeasible by Measure R, as it would impose strict new limits on building mass while stripping the Zoning Adjustments Board of discretion. That “the devil is in the details” could not be more true when it comes to Measure R.

Berkeley has invested hugely in a new Downtown Area Plan and we are just beginning see its positive effects. Don’t let a small minority of Measure R supporters outflank six years of public process by misrepresenting what’s in the measure and what its consequences would be.

Berkeley voters deserve transparent decision making. Say “no” to the politics of confusion. Say “no” to Measure R.

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Matthew Taecker AIA AICP was the City of Berkeley’s Principal Planner and guided development of its award-winning Downtown Area Plan. Now a private consultant, Taecker’s 30-year career has focused on pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented development to promote livability and environmental sustainability. Because of his familiarity with downtown policies and zoning, Taecker was asked to represent downtown Berkeley's high-rise hotel development project one year ago.