Two political newcomers are vying for four-year incumbent Sophie Hahn’s City Council seat in District 5 this year, competing with her tenure as vice mayor and lifelong residency of North Berkeley.
Hahn, Todd Andrew, a real estate agent, and animal rights activist Darwin Paul Picklesimer have more political common ground than differences, especially when it comes to their support of affordable, transit-oriented housing, a strong local response to climate change and wildfires and interest in increasing housing options in the largely built-out District 5.
They have varying policy approaches to accomplishing these goals, however, and, while Hahn has extensive experience and actions on the City Council to back up her ideas, Andrew and Picklesimer have both described a “broken system” as their motivation for running to replace her.
For Andrew, this means little to no housing projects in the pipeline for District 5 (which runs from Cedar Street up to Kensington between the Berkeley Hills and Albany), an increase in region-wide homelessness and city funds tied up in underfunded pension obligations during a COVID-19-prompted budget crisis.
Picklesimer, who is facing six felony charges for his activism through animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, moved to Berkeley from West Virginia in 2016 to become a part of the organization’s leadership team, along with mayoral candidate Wayne Hsiung.
Picklesimer said Hahn’s support of the Urban Shield training program in 2018 was a crucial factor in deciding to run for her seat. He also pointed to a strapped budget as a reason to re-evaluate funding priorities in the city and said this could include a larger cut to law enforcement than the one for $9.3 million approved by the City Council in July amid a nationwide reckoning over police brutality.
Election 2020: District 5 candidates differ on housing
District 5 contains some of the wealthiest zip codes in Berkeley and was protected from dense housing for decades through redlining and zoning policies like the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance of 1973.
During a forum with Berkeley Neighbors for Housing & Climate Action, who later endorsed him, Andrew said the ordinance resulted in discriminatory housing policy and set Berkeley back. He wants to increase density throughout the district, but said this can be done without the resurgence of “ticky-tacky” apartments that clash with the existing neighborhood.
Andrew has lived in Berkeley for a little over 20 years and often points out that 14 of those have been in a rent-controlled North Berkeley apartment. He’s a proponent of form-based code, a relatively newer school of thought in planning that doesn’t just separate uses but examines the relationship between what a building looks like and how people will interact with it, with the aim of creating walkable, sustainable communities. Hayward, Richmond and other cities have adopted parts of this system into their zoning codes.
Much of District 5 was zoned for single-family housing before the state eased restrictions on accessory dwelling units, but Hahn said the area also has several duplexes, fourplexes and other variations that complement the surrounding neighborhood. She has voted in favor of other council members’ referral for “missing middle” housing and made a referral to update the General Plan to reflect these policies. In an interview with Berkeleyside she described it as a massive undertaking over the next couple of decades.
Hahn wants to protect the “residential feel” of the neighborhood while tackling the housing crisis.
Hahn emphasized that, while her district can accommodate dense housing, design standards are equally as important as density and that for much of North Berkeley’s history, it was not an urban place. She wants to protect the “residential feel” of the neighborhood while tackling the housing crisis.
“The idea that longtime residents are mistaken about where they’re living and that folks that are coming in are right — I don’t subscribe to that,” Hahn said, describing her own childhood in the neighborhood. From speaking with constituents, she said that both longtime residents and newcomers actually have aligned views on preserving the neighborhood’s soul and character.
Picklesimer operated a family-owned construction company in West Virginia and has similar ideas to Hahn’s on subdividing existing homes, creating aesthetically pleasing units and doing it in a feasible way. He described himself as “housing insecure,” and said he’s lucky to be living in his neighborhood, where he wants to see a commitment to more density and “building up,” especially in areas like North Berkeley BART.
His experience in construction means he knows how to keep costs low, Picklesimer said, and he wants to create a “widget” format for easy-to-build, respectable tiny homes that could be placed in backyards. In larger projects, he wants housing to be paired with diverse retail to cut out a need to drive for daily tasks.
“The main thing that disappoints me is the lack of urgency,” he said, referring to the current council’s work around homelessness. He said it will be difficult to spring on families the idea of someone living in their backyard, but it can be done. “I just like to talk to people, I would love the opportunity to sit down with people one by one and figure out what it’s gonna take.”
Development at North Berkeley BART will be critical to the neighborhood
While North Berkeley BART isn’t technically inside District 5, its services are crucial to many residents who rely on public transport. Along with Ashby BART, it’s one of the areas of Berkeley that could undergo a complete neighborhood transformation in the coming years.
This is an exciting prospect to Hahn, who sees it as one of the main ways to address the housing crisis locally. She said the Community Advisory Group process has been “exemplary,” and she personally wants to see a development that’s “high in the middle” and later steps down to meet the existing neighborhood.
All three candidates support affordable housing at the BART development — though Andrew and Picklesimer favor density over the percentage of affordable units. Hahn says what sets her apart is her track record of raising money from her constituents to support such a development. She co-authored the successful measures O and P with Mayor Jesse Arreguín to generate millions of dollars for affordable housing and homeless services in 2018. She said North Berkeley BART is a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity, and she’s more than willing to rally her community for funding if they’re fully supportive of the project.
Many pro-density advocates say market-rate housing is necessary to finance affordable housing, but Hahn doesn’t abide by this idea. She said 95% of housing in Berkeley is currently market-rate, and her vision is to ultimately have 30-50% of housing be protected or affordable to ensure the city remains creative, diverse and accessible into the future.
An adjacent issue, parking, has been a controversial topic at both BART stations — partly due to the divide between those who need to drive to the station to access transit, and those who worry it will interfere with housing plans. The candidates all bill themselves as pedestrian and bike-friendly, but Andrew took the strongest stance against parking space for cars.
In an interview with Berkeleyside, Andrew noted that climate scientists see transportation fossil fuel use as the biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Housing was razed at North Berkeley BART to make way for parking lots 50 years ago, and he said it’s time to correct that wrong while ensuring there’s enough parking for accessibility. He also wants to do away with the residential preferred parking system and ask that residents use their garages, especially for those with multiple cars.
Hahn sees driving as the most realistic, current transportation solution for many of the elderly residents in her district, but wants to improve bike routes and pedestrian safety throughout the neighborhood — especially in areas like the busy Hopkins Street corridor.
She pushed for the “Healthy Streets” program early in the COVID-19 pandemic to create more recreation and pedestrian opportunities and wants to create “truly, low-stress” routes for non-car activities in the next four years. Ultimately, she wants biking and walking to be the primary mode of transportation for most people, especially if AC Transit bus service to North Berkeley continues to dwindle.
Wildfires and climate change affect residents near the hills, and on the ground
Conversations around parking and public transport also bleed into worries about the ever-extending “fire season” in California, which this year has generated a record-setting, 30 consecutive Spare the Air day alerts during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Poor air quality from region-wide wildfires — in addition to fire risk in the neighboring district which comprises the Berkeley Hills — kept wildfires on residents’ minds throughout the summer. Many of the streets in District 5 are evacuation routes for residents higher up, and they need to be kept accessible and unclogged.
Both Hahn and Andrew stressed that residents should park their cars in their garages, instead of on the street, especially if they have multiple vehicles. Hahn strongly supports city Measure FF ($8.5 million for firefighting and upgrading the emergency response system), in addition to the $1 million District 6 Councilmember Susan Wengraf secured for vegetation management in June 2019. She’s been endorsed by the Berkeley Firefighters Association and the Sierra Club, in addition to the Green Party of Alameda County, SEIU Local 1021 and East Bay Working Families.
She likened vegetation management on private properties to wearing a mask during the pandemic and said wildfires could bring down whole neighborhoods if trees and brush are left unattended.
Andrew also raised a systemwide transition away from private combustion vehicles to shared transportation as a solution, commending the existing Healthy Streets program. He said repeatedly that he favors “creative” fixes when it comes to complicated problems, a strategy he’s sees as being missing from the current city government. While he said he doesn’t have all the answers right away, he said he’s willing to learn and listen.
“One of the things that I think we need to do as a species is learn how to share more and cooperate more,” Andrew said. “When you bring that down to the level of a city, I think we have to look at the degree to which we allow individuals to make private space out of public property [or vice-versa].”
Picklesimer praised Hahn’s work on undergrowth management and coordination with the Berkeley Fire Department and said he would appreciate collaborating with her to continue this work if he was elected.
He again asked for a sense of urgency and pushed back on setting long-term climate goals that come to fruition 25, or 30 years down the line. His work through Direct Action Everywhere is considered extremist by some — especially when it comes to bloody die-ins and stealing animals from factory farms — but Picklesimer said Berkeley is also often seen as radical, and an outsider, to the rest of the country.
“One reason I’m in Berkeley is that it is a place of historical change, and while it may not live up to the historic progressive values that it once did, I think that a lot of people in the city still want to bring that spirit back,” he said. “You need proof of concept to create change, and I think Berkeley has an opportunity to do that.”
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