Berkeley’s redistricting commission picks new City Council map

The map the commission chose essentially keeps intact the current City Council district borders, with a few tweaks.

Berkeley’s Independent Redistricting Commission selected this map for new City Council districts on Monday. It keeps the district borders Berkeley has had since 2014 broadly intact, with a few tweaks meant to smooth out the current map’s sometimes awkward boundary lines. Credit: City of Berkeley

Voters who live aboard houseboats in the Berkeley Marina will have a new representative on the City Council. So will those in a few corners of South and North Berkeley, and parts of the Willard and LeConte neighborhoods.

For most residents, though, the once-a-decade effort to redraw the lines of Berkeley’s City Council districts will not change how they’re represented in local government.

The city’s Independent Redistricting Commission on Monday unanimously selected a new council map that essentially keeps intact the districts Berkeley has used since 2014, with a few tweaks to simplify their borders. While the commission considered making more significant changes earlier in its process, members said they heard little appetite from the public for those options.

“While no map is perfect, the final map is compliant with all applicable law and reflects the extensive input we received,” the commission wrote in a draft of the report it is expected to send to the City Council later this month. “We are grateful to every Berkeley resident who took the time to understand and to contribute to the process.”

This round of redistricting, which is based on the 2020 census, marked the first time an independent commission — rather than members of the City Council — decided on the boundaries. Voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to create the commission in 2016, following a years-long battle over the previous redistricting effort.

The City Council is required to adopt the map chosen by the commission. Unless the process is unexpectedly derailed, the new boundaries will be in effect this November, when seats representing districts 1, 4, 7 and 8 will be on the ballot.

Map of Berkeley City Council districts
The current Berkeley City Council districts include several oddly shaped borders, particular in districts 4 and 7, as a result of rules for the last redistricting process prohibiting changes that would “draw out” sitting councilmembers. The new boundaries aim to smooth out those awkward boundary lines. Credit: City of Berkeley

The new map’s most apparent departure from the current one is in its use of major streets and census tracts as district borders in an effort to make those boundaries more logical. Rules from the prior redistricting process required that sitting councilmembers could not be “drawn out” of the areas they represented, which led to oddly shaped borders drawn to ensure those members’ homes were still part of their districts. Although commissioners were directed not to consider councilmembers’ addresses this time around, the map they chose does not cut any current members out of their districts.

Dubbed the “Amber Map” in the color-coded set of drafts the commission unveiled earlier this year, Commissioner Sherry Smith said at a January meeting that public comments were “overwhelmingly” in favor of the design.

While this redistricting process has been far less contentious than the last one, it is ending in disappointment for some advocates who hoped the new map would create a second district where the vast majority of residents are renters.

Ben Gould, a former City Council candidate and member of the group Berkeley Neighbors for Housing and Climate Action, lobbied the commission to redraw District 4, which includes downtown, to add the student-heavy Northside neighborhood near UC Berkeley. Gould contends that the current district borders limit the power of renters and students in those neighborhoods by splitting them into two districts, each of which includes areas with higher concentrations of older homeowners. The power of Northside renters is diluted, he argued, by the fact that District 6 also covers much of the Berkeley Hills. And homeowners in Central Berkeley, he said, tend to wield more power in District 4 than renters downtown thanks to their higher turnout in local elections.

Gould has run twice to represent District 4 against Councilmember Kate Harrison, with housing politics a key issue in each race, and his proposal could have reshaped the district politically. Advocates who want Berkeley to substantially ramp up production of new homes, often referred to with the acronym YIMBY, or “Yes In My Back Yard,” have criticized Harrison for voting against some development proposals, and argue she has sought to block necessary housing construction; Harrison denies that charge, saying during the campaign that Gould would be too permissive to developers. Gould acknowledged the new design he proposed for the district could benefit someone of his political stripe — conventional wisdom holds that renters are more likely than homeowners to support efforts to boost housing construction.

“I was trying to draw a district that represented a community of interest that has been divided,” Gould wrote in a text message. “While I anticipated that would likely result in a (more) YIMBY district I honestly just wanted better representation for downtown and other young renters.”

Harrison declined to comment on Gould’s effort. She pointed to the fact that nearly 80% of residents in the current iteration of District 4 are renters — second only to District 7, which was created as a majority-student seat and covers the neighborhoods south of UC Berkeley.

“I have the most mixed district in the entire city,” Harrison said, in terms of its housing stock and share of renters and homeowners.

A handful of speakers at a January redistricting commission supported the plan for a second renter district, though other members of the public said they were against it. Gould contends the commission’s draft maps never effectively visualized his proposal, which led to the tepid support.

Elisabeth Watson, the commission’s chair, declined to comment for this story. But in its draft report, commissioners wrote that “a significant majority of community input” favored maps with only one majority-student district.

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.