Short Buildings, Vast Subdivisions 

Backers of height caps want to preserve Berkeley's character. Critics say they're sacrificing the city's environmental integrity.

If an eco-friendly city wants to stop sprawl, what does it do? Does it attempt to squelch big buildings, perhaps driving developers to simply take their plans elsewhere? Or does it permit greater density and allow the construction of taller buildings? That's the paradox at the heart of Berkeley's Measure P, also known as the "Berkeley Height Initiative," which has so decisively split the local environmental community between those who want to slow development altogether and those who support "smart growth" that the Sierra Club and the Green Party won't take sides.

Measure P, which seeks to limit the height of buildings to three stories in residential neighborhoods, three or four stories along major avenues, and eight stories in the downtown core, has been a long time coming. It's the result of a standoff between those who say that the city is overbuilt, and those who believe the price of being green is to build skyward. The drafters of Measure P say it will protect Berkeley's infrastructure and charm. They claim developers have taken unfair advantage of city regulations allowing them an extra ten feet of height -- roughly an extra story -- for adding affordable housing units to their buildings, boosting the city's residential density beyond what was envisioned in the 1970s version of the city's General Plan. "The city was not complying with its own rules," says Marie Bowman, one of the measure's authors and Berkeley's Housing Advisory Commissioner. "I think in their earnestness to provide affordable housing, they've gone a little too far." Measure P's backers maintain that too-tall buildings block out sunlight and bay views, and their residents will create more noise and traffic.

But opponents say that if one of the nation's most famously green cities spurns higher-density development, it will set the tone for planning throughout the Bay Area by encouraging suburban sprawl. "If we pass Measure P, that is going to open the floodgates for the anti-smart-growth movement," says Hank Resnik, manager of the campaign opposing Measure P. Resnik says limiting the height of development along the city's main transit arteries is a direct blow to the construction of affordable housing necessary to support the city's public-sector workers. He also points out that even reducing residency is no panacea against crowding: Berkeley has lost 8,000 residents since 1970, he says, but has gained 25,000 jobs and 10,000 cars, all creating more traffic and pollution, putting greater strain on the regional environment. "The people who hate these big developers, they ain't seen a big developer," Resnik huffs. "They're the ones who are building 3,500-unit sprawling suburbs out in Antioch that are generating huge amounts of traffic." And that, critics argue, is exactly where much of the local workforce will have to live if Berkeley and its neighbors insist on thinking small.

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