Op-ed: The Harold Way Project, as presented, will sacrifice Berkeley’s unique character

The construction of the first, true high-rise in the city of Berkeley (in this case the Harold Way Project), will forever change the nature of our very unusual, human-scale city. Under the unfortunately voter-approved Downtown Plan, once the high-rise limit is breached, the city will never turn back as it rushes forward to become part of what Bay Area planners sometimes admiringly refer to as “the vernacular of today.” And there is no way the skyscrapers will be forever restricted to just three — as envisaged in the Plan. Urban planning, and urban developer dynamics over the long term just don’t work that way.

The old adage concerning contentious negotiations about urban architectural development is that “you can’t beat something with nothing.” The Harold Way Project fits within an ideological model developers are using to create synergy between their desire for profit, and the public’s interest in environmental issues, under the rubric of “smart-growth”.

The “smart growth” meme is the “something” upon which they are hanging their hats. They, and city planners, have persuaded the public into believing that only skyscrapers can save city downtowns from economic decline and environmental degradation, when the truth is that, with rare exceptions, the move to high-rise urban profiles simply adds greater fuel to the environmental problems of pollution and gridlock that “smart growth” is supposed to combat in the first place.

To battle this “something” zeitgeist , opponents have to develop an equally powerful meme to oppose it. Simply bleating and wringing one’s hands in opposition results, unfortunately, in a struggle tactic of simply “nothing.”


What is needed is an equally powerful counter-ideology of appropriate urban land-use planning, including the development of relatively low-rise (four to six stories) residential structures to meet density and infill needs, coupled with visual and emotionally charged vehicles for articulating a counter-meme.

In this regard, the “Campanile Way Visual Corridor” protest movement combines several creative elements of what is necessary for the marketing of an effective opposition strategy. Visually, it confronts the images the developers and planners put forward of their “exciting” skyscraper expressing the “vernacular of today,” with compelling photographic reconstructions of how that building would desecrate a long-beloved view corridor from the UC campus. And, while the Campanile Way movement provides an excellent visual vehicle to give emotional charge to opposition strategy, it also brings in young people and a long and cherished tradition of UC Berkeley student activism to change the shape of society.

Of course, a critical part of opposition strategy to the high-rise meme has to be a clear articulation to the voting public of how, and why, Berkeley’s overall architectural profile and style is so unusual among American cities.

Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that, as a percent of Berkeley’s overall population of 112,000, only a rather small minority have ever actually voted in favor of a high-rise downtown concept (26,727 in the latest iteration under the Prop R vote). Thus, sadly, at this point Berkeley citizens generally have little grasp of the tsunami of high-rise monoliths that are now headed towards them as part of their so-called, “citizen-approved” architectural future.

The citizenry of some other Bay Area cities, such as Palo Alto, appear to be much better informed and have firmly held off developer and planner efforts to explode their downtown core skywards. Countless other, highly successful cities worldwide have also strictly limited building heights. High-rises may be entirely appropriate, and necessary, in places like Manhattan and Chicago — but not for Berkeley.

Ideally, what now is urgently needed is a thought-provoking essay by a known architectural or social critic about what, historically, has made Berkley such an unusual place to live in from an architectural standpoint, and why this way of life is headed for complete, radical transformation under current development dynamics.

And what also is needed is a “marketing strategy” for creation of the Berkeley of tomorrow — while preserving its rich legacy of the past. Among the many parts of this marketing strategy must, of course, be a keen focus on environmental aspects of any construction proposals, and a clear understanding of how to preserve enough affordable housing for all strata of society.

In conclusion, somehow we must ensure going forward that the citizens of Berkeley and its civic leaders comprehend that if they go forward with the Harold Way Project as presently conceived, they will forever sacrifice the character of this unique, beautiful university town and its unusual place in American history, and instead transform this city into a generic replica of the sad, dehumanizing banality characteristic of so much of new urban architecture in America today.

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James Shinn is a retired American diplomat currently living in Kensington. He has previously been involved in downtown planning vision projects in the cities of Dallas and San Rafael, and is currently involved in investments in several four-to-five story apartment construction projects in downtown Berkeley.