Op-ed: Developers should permanently share with the Berkeley community the wealth created by tall buildings

With respect for this community as a whole, I believe Berkeley City Council’s most fundamental objectives regarding downtown development have little if anything to do with funding housing for families with low and moderate incomes. Yes, better designs and development of such housing with everything needed to support it are critical to future life in the East Bay and Bay Area. But no, pressing needs for such housing are not even close to the most important goals our city council and commissions should achieve when evaluating the 2211 Harold Way proposal and the significant community benefits its construction will enable.

City Council’s most important task is to guide development of this city in conjunction with development of the University of California in Berkeley (UCB). The immediate objective is to create a revitalized downtown well integrating UCB, students, faculty and staff, businesses and visitors into a convenient yet stimulating urban center meeting long-term University needs while at the same time illustrating the best higher learning has to offer in the form of a cultural, business, residential and transportation hub connecting UCB to the East Bay, a region which is itself centered significantly on the bay at the western threshold of the Western World’s Golden Gate to the Pacific.

2211 Harold Way is one of several tall building proposals in the pipeline that must offer "significant community benefits" under the Downtown Area Plan. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning
2211 Harold Way is one of several tall building proposals in the pipeline that must offer “significant community benefits” under the Downtown Area Plan. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning

The overarching design objective must be to subtly instill in residents and the many thousands of outsiders who sojourn here every year well-justified confidence in the intelligence, foresight and compassion of our institutional configurations uniting matter with spirit to enrich the overall health, morality and general welfare of our people rich and poor. While success in this endeavor must manifest itself throughout the East Bay, Berkeley’s downtown core requires something special in this regard, a landmark with street and open space improvements — something very much like what the architects behind 2211 Harold Way envision as the next best step in the unfolding maturation by which this very young university community grows into the intellectual heart and soul of the East Bay.

My impression is our elected and appointed officials have lost sight of these goals and much that’s positive in the award-winning Downtown Area Plan (DAP), the Sidewalk and Open Space Plan (SOSP) and the Harold Way proposal with its 50-page analysis of community benefits both routine and significantly other. Radical harpies, character assassination, slander and factual misrepresentation, development phobia and latecomers to downtown planning are driving the public dialogue. Some officials are working to kill the Harold Way project. Others have tepidly retreated – a poor man’s response in the face of unmerited hysteria over building height (e.g., two existing bank buildings approximate 180’), clamor over insatiable needs for affordable Bay Area housing and leftist imaginings of wealth sharing whipped up through contradictions implicit in the DAP: 180’ building heights are offered as an incentive to invest, but in addition to the costs of construction, the DAP expects not only environmental mitigations, fees to remedy externalities and community benefits routinely imposed on new development, but costly significant yet unspecified additional community benefits on top of those other costs.

What’s needed are fewer opinions and more knowledgeable, well-informed, foresightful and insightful concentration on infrastructure and amenity alternatives which will directly benefit the downtown core and move this university community significantly closer to realizing its center-city goals. On the horizon for downtown are 2211 Harold Way, a new hotel, a BART station remodel, a UCB art museum, Acheson Commons, a 120’ condominium complex, and an office building or two.

I want to offer for consideration a different approach to significant community benefits. If investors are willing to share the wealth which is in fact created by public and private sectors working in conjunction with each other, agreements can be negotiated creating a property right to receive a substantial percentage (? 50/50, 40/60, 70/30) of a building’s net profit to publically finance significant community benefits long term. In exchange developers get permits to construct a building exceeding the 75’ height limit up to 120’ or 180’ and pay routinely imposed development costs. One advantage of this approach is that wealth created by larger buildings in a well-planned downtown core would be shared with the public for the life of each building. Owners, city government and UCB would have incentives to continually enhance Berkeley’s vitality as the business, cultural, residential and transportation hub of a premier research university and national hard-science laboratory, such vitality emanating out into the East Bay and beyond to effectively improve with positive affects the lives we share together.

Read Berkeleyside’s coverage of the 2211 Harold Way project.

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Edward C. Moore, a retired lawyer, is a 49-year resident of California and a West Berkeley homeowner.