by Carol Denney
To start with, the consultants are pretty funny. I opted not to sign in and put on a nametag at the “Community Visioning Workshop” in Berkeley on August 29, and it drove them mad. They kept surrounding me like a bunch of bees encouraging me to wear a name tag and sign in, and I kept declining politely, knowing that anything I filled out would be ultimately used in metrics against a neighborhood I loved.
They would boast about the turnout even if half the room was consultants, volunteers, and kids from local organizations getting credit for being there.
And after only being allowed to say positive things about the Adeline Corridor in guided workshop after guided survey after guided visioning committee, a report will be produced that says, “98 percent of the response was positive.”
One of them finally filled out a name tag for me and walked purposefully toward me across the room offering to put it on me. I declined that, too, and not even because it was somebody else’s name.
But the funniest person there by far was new interim Berkeley City Manager, Dee Williams-Ridley, who wanted people to shout good morning like a bunch of kindergartners until she was satisfied with the volume. They were all pretty good sports about it. But she wouldn’t quit.
She had a whole speech planned about how “you can’t play a symphony alone,” asking what kind of music we liked — jazz? rap? blues? It’s an old trick: no matter how annoyed an audience is with this kind of thing, if you can trick them into making a sound, or raising a hand, or clapping along, they end up remembering it later as positive.
They might think they played a role in developing the plan, and if later, after actually filling out surveys and writing essays and mapping things with crayons, they point out that the plan doesn’t at all resemble what they wanted, the developers get to point out that at least they played a role.
Williams-Ridley said, “you’re writing your own song” and “you are getting ready to write your own song” so many times, I started to write a song about it.
She kept trying to drive up the energy with cheap tricks, such as: “Why do you love Berkeley?” “What’s stopping you?” “Repeat after me; I will not stop until my song is written!” in a room that was ready to burst into song, alright, just not the song she wanted.
She finally acknowledged that people had a lot of distrust. She was told directly that people wouldn’t trust her, and she asked repeatedly for people to go easy on her, to give her a chance, which was so pathetic we were ready to hold hands and folkdance if she would just shut up. And then she said, “Will you give our city staff a chance?” — and the room went dead.
This is Berkeley, after all, not a bunch of kindergartners. Even Berkeley kindergartners are ahead of this game. The truth is that nobody should trust the city staff or Dee Williams-Ridley, either, as Mayor Tom Bates’ representative.
She stated that “the basis of trust is authenticity,” which I found puzzling. The basis of trust has nothing to do with authenticity, whatever that is, and when it comes to the city of Berkeley, trust has much more to do with transparency, sadly in short supply these days, and the pattern of previous behavior which, in the case of the Adeline Corridor, is the usual raw skidmark of greed.
City officials galvanized extraordinarily united opposition by blithely planning to build and displace the beloved Ashby Flea Market, and more recently altered the district’s land use controls to favor tax-base-enhancing automobile sales uses, the obvious enemy of small, pedestrian-serving businesses that make the Adeline Corridor such a shopable, walkable neighborhood.
The City of Berkeley has blown off decades of opportunities to listen to its citizens and has opted for big developer, corporate, and university perspectives every time.
While protesters in San Francisco’s Mission District have stopped at least two out-of-scale luxury housing developments, Berkeley’s best-educated and best-organized have yet to stop or even scale back the pet project of a former planning director which distorts a landmark building in an historic setting, mars an iconic view from the Campanile, exacerbates the housing crisis with 18 stories of luxury housing, kills off the current building’s theaters (with a lot of cat-and-mouse games regarding their replacement), displaces valued businesses and will require years, perhaps a decade, of disruptive construction.
Berkeley citizens have no track record on which to base any trust in a process dedicated to using their own dutiful participation in surveys designed to grease the path for their own exploitation — “98% found the process positive!” and “98% enjoyed the cookies!” — since after they slog through the monotonous “only positive remarks” free association exercises, the only options offered for suggestions have to be for immediate physical improvements to actual spaces on maps.
Once a few play areas and bike paths are thrown into the mix, whoever is left will probably sign off on more developer “flexibility” just to get the hell out of there. One person shouted “This is corporate BS!” at some point, but the event was extremely civil, considering what’s at stake.
Attendee Rinna Flohr, owner of Expressions Gallery on Ashby in Berkeley, was hazy about the benefits of an Arts District, but looked forward to any specific recognition which might improve awareness about arts in the area through signage or advertising.
Local resident Lois Fischer characterized many of the residents she knew in the room as “concerned” about the planning process, many of them longtime residents.
There was nothing about rent control or vacancy decontrol. Nothing about locally owned businesses or business opportunities and absolutely nothing about the racism hovering over both the history of the area and a room filled with primarily white planners and city staff and primarily black residents in a rapidly whitening, gentrifying area.
There was a brief admission regarding the extreme decrease in the black population, but nothing about Black Lives Matter. Nothing about police who think camouflage outfits help them blend in with picket fences.
“The basis of trust is authenticity — and I am authentic!” If Interim City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley is authentic, whatever that is, what a lovely thing that must be for her and for anybody who had concerns about her provenance. But it’s not about her.
The Lorin District survived being initially excluded from Berkeley’s boundaries in 1878, the severe disruption of BART construction in 1970s, and has more economic resilience, community connection, and many other measurable attributes which the City of Berkeley could learn from if the City were interested.
Here’s the good news:
Great transit! The Adeline Corridor is served by bus, by BART, and a short distance from both I-80 and the Bay Bridge. People in the hills may have the swanky views, but they have to battle it out on absurdly constricted roads through a sea of Mercedes to commute or get some eggs. And the views from West and South Berkeley are still pretty impressive.
Diversity! This isn’t the fake diversity so popular among groups that sigh with relief when one black person sits in the corner of their meeting. This is the real thing, the area where African Americans excluded by racial covenants and race-based redlining east of what was once Grove Street (now Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Way) could buy property, start businesses, have families, and build the connections and resources that keep a real neighborhood humming and help to side-step homelessness. Around 25 percent of the population in the Adeline Corridor is African American, as opposed to only 10 percent across the rest of the city.
Walkability! What the planning consultants call “the walk score” is 89 in the Adeline Corridor, as opposed to only 79 for Berkeley as a whole. This means many errands can be accomplished on foot, unlike the whoops-out-of-butter emergencies for people with gold-plated views.
Stable vacancy and occupancy rates! Vacancies along the Adeline Corridor are lower than both Downtown Berkeley (11.2 percent) and the Telegraph Avenue area (12.7 percent) since the vacancies (7.2 percent) are “absorbed at roughly the same rate” as businesses leave, making for a stable, neighborhood-serving business community.
This is noteworthy since BART construction disrupted the area for years, burdening local businesses. But let’s not be stupid. If the property owners on Telegraph and in the downtown lowered their rents, they could lower the vacancies in a New York minute. They would just have to give up on their dreams of getting New York rents.
Got density? The population density (25 people per acre) is two and a half times greater than that of Berkeley overall (10 people per acre). This is a crucial point, because “enhancing density” is used as the excuse for imposing tall, ugly blocks of chicken-coop housing along transit corridors, an excuse which residents can point out is not called for in this area.
Planners, developers, and consultants have no excuse for imposing out-of-scale monster buildings here. They should be on their knees examining how over the years this area, naturally and organically, achieved such a radical degree of density without sacrificing its skyline, without abandoning its culture, without losing its identity, and without selling out to planners, developers, and consultants.
Got kids? Got work? This, the historic Lorin District, has a higher percentage of children compared with the rest of the city. 70 percent of the Lorin District is in the workforce, although the median income is lower than for most of the City of Berkeley, where only 60 percent are in the workforce.
Car free rate!32 percent of people in the Adeline Corridor area are car-free, unlike 25 percent of Berkeley citywide, which is mighty green. So why is the city messing with the Adeline Corridor?
They’re not coy about it. Planners, developers and the consultants they lunch with want to build what they build everywhere else: out-of-scale, fake-affordable, UC-dorms-whoops-we-meant-housing-units that make developers sing arias and neighborhoods wince.
The planners and politicians want to deliver the goods to their best donors, and the donor-developers want “vacant parcels and surface parking lots” they’ve pretty much run out of or cost more in other parts of town.
Consultant Mukul Malhotra of MIG’s planning and consulting staff, referred to “enhancing” the zoning restrictions, and any public discussion of that will come long after the bike paths and play areas have loosened up whoever is left — if discussion comes at all.
They are hoping what all planners and developers hope: that if they scatter some park-lets, bike lanes and play structures around, they can keep people in the area singing hallelujah long enough to loosen the zoning restrictions, limber up the height restrictions and land use controls, and “create opportunities” for themselves which apparently don’t exist right now or aren’t quite as lucrative as some tweaks in a planning process will make them down the road.
Right now is already here. Max Anderson, who represents the district on the City Council and is one of the founders of Friends of the Adeline Corridor, commented at a recent community meeting that the planning department is “forging ahead with development projects without consulting the community” and suggested a “moratorium on development” until a plan is ready.
Suffice it to say that a “moratorium on development” will not be on any checkbox at the next “Community Visioning Workshop.”
Berkeley officials could have had a different speech instead of the “you can’t play a symphony alone” speech, which was pretty flat by symphonic standards. They could have said, hey, we want to stop the gentrification of this historically black area, put the brakes on homelessness, and get some common sense into what has up to now been a planning process which only benefits the wealthy. What are your ideas?
It’s a question they can still ask.