Op-ed: Jesse Arreguín, Sophie Hahn and the 2 Measure Rs

William Faulkner famously wrote “The past is not dead. Actually, it’s not even past.” That’s especially true in Berkeley, where civic issues can persist for years after they have apparently been resolved.

Take the case of “development,” a topic of local controversy that refuses to die. Two ballot measures addressing downtown development over the past six years are still relevant for this year’s local races. They illustrate how open civic process encourages good outcomes, while antidemocratic civic process seeds unproductive division. Comparing the two gives us a yardstick by which to evaluate two current candidates who took the darker path: mayoral candidate Jesse Arreguín and District 5 candidate Sophie Hahn.

By coincidence both ballot measures were tagged as Measure R. But their outcomes differed dramatically: the first approved by 66% of voters in 2010, the second rejected by a 74% No vote (and defeated in every Berkeley precinct) in 2014. (Below I’ll call them R/10 and R/14.) What accounts for their divergent results?

R/10 was an “advisory measure” put on the ballot to see if voters would approve principles and proposals for a new downtown development plan. The basis for that plan had been produced by the council’s appointed Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) beginning in 2005. Holding more than 100 public meetings that each included hours of discussion, the DAPAC reached agreement on a proposal favoring greater downtown density within designated subdistricts, a small number of taller buildings, greener building standards and street-level open space and public amenities. The proposal at council experienced a similar level of public discussion (and several failed attempts at differing enactments) before arriving on the ballot in a very-well-vetted state. Following its approval, R/10 was used as the basis of the final downtown plan enacted in 2012.

R/10 should have settled the issue for decades. But opponents tried to weaken the approved outcome with their own initiative measure, R/14.

R/14 had a very different gestational path. Conceived by private citizens who had long opposed development proposals of any significant size, R/14 was drafted by a small committee including Jesse Arreguin, Sophie Hahn, and ardent preservationist Austene Hall. Unlike its predecessor R/10, R/14 received absolutely no public input along the way — no open meetings to receive feedback were ever held. R/14 was simply circulated for signature as drafted by its proponents alone.

Fortunately for defenders of the enacted plan, this lack of citizen input on R/14 almost guaranteed that it would be a flawed proposal. In the public name of making the downtown more “green” (but actually intended to discourage development) R/14 would have eliminated up to 1300 new housing units from the plan; mandated “28 pages of zoning minutia” establishing multiple new building requirements that could only be changed by another vote; increased construction costs via new per-square-foot fees; and a lot more. Each of those items needed separate attention and discussion about its specific parameters (rather than an up-or-down vote as one package). But R/14 was an all-or-nothing proposition that proved too complicated and proscriptive to be digestible.

R/14 also included a head-fake distracting issue: its proponents’ claim to “save” the downtown post office from adverse change by creating a new civic-district overlay. This was unnecessary, since the council was already united in working toward the same goal.

The lesson should be obvious. No private-interest group is likely to be smart enough to craft an acceptable “solution” without extensive public discussion, fondly known as “Berkeley process.”

Which brings us to this year’s races. Two of the principal originators and sponsors of R/14 are running for office: Jesse Arreguín for mayor and Sophie Hahn for councilwoman in District 5. At the very least, losing by a 74% margin shows that both had fallen deeply out of touch with Berkeley voters. But their resorting to a closed process to attempt to impose sectarian goals should be cause for deep concern.

Jesse has the longer public history here. He was s signer of the losing ballot arguments against R/10 and in favor of R/14 — hardly the “progressive housing advocate” he claims to be; Despite some positive environmental involvements, Sophie similarly demonstrates convenient blind spots on urban density and democratic process.

Not surprisingly, their valiant effort to pass R/14 does not appear on either Jesse’s or Sophie’s political resumé, and neither lists the other as an endorser on their current campaign website. They seem to be acting as if R/14 never happened and that they never worked together. Citizens who care, however, should connect the dots to help confirm that this undemocratic way of working should not be rewarded in Berkeley.

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Alan Tobey is a retired technologist and urban-infill advocate who has lived in Berkeley since 1970.