I feel so discouraged about what’s happening here in Berkeley. At the beginning of the year, like so many others, I was encouraged to hear Bernie Sanders speaking truth to power, calling out the culture of greed that is wreaking havoc in our country.
But right here in Berkeley, we are being overrun by that same culture of greed, often masquerading it seems as concern for the environment. We’ve had a city government that turned over our downtown to developers who are building high rise, luxury housing. The Bates administration has, by its own admission built 89% of the luxury housing and only 4% of the moderate income housing projected for future needs. Now the mayor is proposing to extend this downtown density to major corridors that line the flatland neighborhoods of our town.
In one of the more controversial proposals of the mayor’s plan, University Avenue, Telegraph Avenue and San Pablo, along with the areas south of Dwight Way on Shattuck and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, will be rezoned for higher density housing in a 200-foot swath behind those avenues, cutting into single-family residential areas. Initially, the mayor proposed that developers would get automatic approval for multi-family projects, bypassing the usual scrutiny by city boards and neighborhood groups. Bates withdrew both those features after community opposition but told Berkeleyside he will reintroduce aspects of them later.
This so-called “housing plan” is not just gentrification. It is the BIG LIE: that dense high-rise building is an environmentally conscious and socially responsible policy that will result in better conditions for the lower and middle-income families that are being driven out of town because of rising housing prices.
The fact is that re-use of existing buildings, and constructing low-rise housing results in a sustainable ecology that advances those social policy goals in a much more responsible way than destroying existing housing, hauling it away to landfills, and carting in steel and cement from overseas to construct a phalanx of shiny, new buildings as tall as 9-10 stories, construction that inevitably carries a price tag far beyond the reach of middle class families.
This is a rezoning plan that will rip out the heart from historic neighborhoods of middle-class families who long ago saw the wisdom of living in the flatlands where walking, bicycling and mass transportation have been a way of life for decades.
I think it’s fair to ask if this isn’t just a farewell gift to developers by a mayor leaving office. And I ask those who are campaigning to lead this city in the next few years to think carefully about whether the legacy of luxury housing is something they want to continue. Isn’t it time to return to the spirit of a city that has long treasured diversity and justice and the Ohlone wisdom of honoring nature’s gifts of sunlight and air?
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