Anti-Growth Group Wraps Itself in Green 

Opponents of Berkeley's groundbreaking plan for a dense urban center are attempting to fool voters into putting the issue on the ballot.

The Bush administration became infamous over the years for perverting the English language to disguise its true motives. When large timber interests wanted to log national forests, they called it the "Healthy Forests Initiative." And when corporate polluters sought to pollute the air even more, they dubbed it the "Clean Skies Initiative." In the last few weeks, however, a group of Berkeley anti-growth advocates has come up with a bit of language perversion that would make Karl Rove proud.

The group, led by councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín, is attempting to overturn a plan adopted last month by a majority of the Berkeley City Council that could lead to dense urban growth. The plan itself is groundbreaking. It would require that all new buildings in downtown Berkeley meet strict environmental standards and it pushes the envelope on what is possible for downtown development. The plan also could help Berkeley meet its aggressive greenhouse-emissions goals by increasing urban density, and thereby slowing the need for long commutes.

But the anti-growth group wants Berkeley voters to overturn the so-called Downtown Area Plan, because they say it doesn't go far enough. So they've launched a referendum campaign to put the issue on the ballot. The group calls itself the "Alliance for a Green and Livable Downtown." In truth, however, the group is advocating for a downtown that will be neither green nor livable because if its demands are met, it likely will result in a revised plan that will stifle downtown development, prohibit the city from doing more to fight global warming, and help spur suburban sprawl at the same time.

But the group's name isn't the only thing that's misleading. The language on the official referendum petition, for example, tells voters that the city's downtown plan comes "without the environmental protections and improvements essential for a vibrant downtown." In reality, however, page 27 of the plan specifically requires that all new buildings or major renovations in downtown Berkeley be rated "LEED Gold or its equivalent." LEED is an internationally recognized green-rating system developed by the US Green Building Council. It has four rating categories. A gold rating is the second most environmentally stringent after platinum.

"It's completely inflammatory and deceitful," Erin Rhoades, the volunteer executive director of Livable Berkeley, a pro-downtown development group, said of the referendum campaign. Rhoades, whose husband is a developer and former city planner, also said that the anti-growth group's signature gatherers have attempted to fool voters by asking, "Do want a green downtown?" when attempting to collect signatures. Livable Berkeley and other supporters of the council's decision have been showing up on street corners, talking to voters alongside the signature gatherers, trying to set the record straight. The petitioners must collect about 5,500 valid signatures by next week.

The Alliance for a Green and Livable Downtown also has come under criticism for posting a letter on its web site from the Sierra Club, making it seem as if the respected environmental group supports the referendum, when, in fact, it has taken no position. (The alliance's web site is GreenDowntownBerkeley.org, a name that also would surely make Rove smile.) The letter posting prompted Kent Lewandowski, chair of the Sierra Club Northern Alameda County Group, to write a second letter to the council and area activists, clarifying that the Sierra Club neither supports nor opposes the referendum or the city's downtown area plan.

In an interview, Lewandowski expressed disappointment that the alliance had posted the Sierra Club's letter, and thus had confused people as to the club's true position, saying he "would rather not see our letter on the web site." The letter came from the club in late May and expressed opposition to the downtown plan developed by the city's planning commission. The club backed a second plan put together by a city-sponsored panel. Originally, the council was leaning toward adopting the planning commission plan, but then in June and July it incorporated many of the requests made by the Sierra Club into the final downtown plan. "Let me put it this way," Lewandowski said, "we're not totally unhappy with what came out of council."

When asked whether the alliance planned to remove the Sierra Club's letter from its web site, Arreguín told Eco Watch that the issue was being "discussed." After Lewandowski sent out his clarification letter, the alliance posted an addendum on its web site, noting that the Sierra Club neither supports nor opposes the referendum campaign. "In no way do we want to mislead people into thinking that the Sierra Club has taken a position on the issue," Arreguín said.

But when asked if the referendum petition itself was misleading, Arreguín acknowledged that the final downtown plan requires LEED Gold ratings on new buildings and major renovations. But he maintained that the council also should have required developers to pay for "open space and transportation mitigations," along with more affordable housing. Arreguín also argued that such requirements would not kill downtown development, despite assurances from developers that they would and a city-commissioned feasibility that concurred with developers. "I think it will still be profitable for developers to build in downtown Berkeley, regardless of the requirements we put on it," the councilman said.

But of course, if that were true, then developers would have clamored to build in downtown Berkeley during the housing boom. But they did not, and they certainly won't once the housing market rebounds, if the anti-growth advocates have their way.

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