It took Howie Muir 25 hours to put together a homemade styrofoam model of his West Berkeley neighborhood, complete with handpainted buildings, which may explain why he angrily yanked it away from Patrick Kennedy when the developer started playing with the pieces.
Muir made the model to show the City Council, at an April 24 public hearing, how Kennedy's proposed four-story building at 2700 San Pablo Avenue--the so-called Jubilee Courtyard Apartments--would tower over the surrounding neighborhood of single family homes. He guessed the buildings' proportions from photographs he took of friends standing in front of them. The scale might not have been perfect, he conceded, but nonetheless he felt the model gave the nine people sitting behind the dais a visual sense of what Muir and his neighbors had in store for them.
After concluding his plea at the podium, Muir left his creation on an adjacent table where the council could still see it--and where Kennedy happened to be seated. Suspicious that Muir tweaked the dimensions, Kennedy pulled out an architect's ruler, lifted up one of the faux-buildings from its base, and began measuring. Muir may have spent a day putting his little project together, but Kennedy had spent two years pushing his $7 million project through Berkeley's byzantine land-use process. He wasn't going to be upstaged by a "neighborhood vigilante," as he calls Muir, with a homemade stage prop.
When Muir saw what Kennedy was doing, he rushed to the front of the council chambers to retrieve his model. According to Muir, Kennedy was lifting buildings that he had glued to the base. "I had to hold his wrist to pry a building out of his clutch," recalls Muir, a stay-at-home dad who lives a couple of blocks away from the proposed project. "He essentially vandalized it."
Kennedy, of course, remembers things differently. He insists that the pieces were removable. Muir freaked out, Kennedy argues, because he knew that once Kennedy took measurements he could prove the model distorted the facts. Kennedy says Muir clearly supersized the proposed apartment building, while making adjacent homes and businesses misleadingly bite-sized.
"Supposedly, the model was to scale, but it wasn't," Kennedy huffs. "It was a very clever propaganda tool. As soon as I started measuring it, [Muir] grabbed it and ran out of the building."
Muir's stage prop would not have made a difference anyway. As usual, Berkeley's most prolific private housing developer of the past decade was probably confident that he had the backing of a majority of council members even before the actual vote. And, in fact, a bare majority of the council ultimately did give Kennedy and his partner, Jubilee Restoration, the go-ahead. That's why it was so surprising when just as he should have been getting out the shovels, Kennedy abruptly scrapped his plan and announced that he was going to start the process all over again.
On the wall of his fifth-floor Oxford Street office, Patrick Kennedy has a framed quote from Aristophanes: "Be valiant, daring and subtle, and never mind taking a risk." He certainly has taken risks during his decade of building housing in Berkeley. But subtle? He is anything but. Kennedy is Berkeley's Clintonian equivalent when it comes to private development: no attack from the opposition goes without a response. Whether his critiques are from low-income housing advocates or neighbors who don't want big buildings screwing with their views or parking, he has a reply.
Sometimes he resorts to planning buzzwords like "smart growth" to say his projects are an urban planner's dream: reasonably affordable, high-density housing on commercial corridors near public transit. Other times Kennedy simply prefers name-calling, as the latest description of his neighborhood resisters near 2700 San Pablo Avenue ("vigilantes") shows. (He used to refer to his nonprofit building counterparts in Berkeley as a "housing cartel.")
Kennedy is a living oxymoron: a Berkeley developer. As such he has continually faced the contentiousness of Berkeley politics, where every proposed infill housing development is fought over as if it were the Gaza Strip. He insists big profits are not what keep him in this contested territory. Really, he admits, it has a lot to do with ego--being a big fish in small pond. Why else would a Harvard law graduate put up with all this crap?
"This is the only place," he muses, "where a small developer like me can have an impact in shaping the personality and texture of a city." No one would doubt his impact: when the Gaia Building opens this summer, Kennedy's company, Panoramic Interests, will have added 213 apartments and condos to the city's housing supply over the past decade (50 of which are set aside for low-income tenants or homebuyers). He has another 126 units in the pipeline.
To an extent, Kennedy's success in Berkeley goes back to an axiom that would be taught in Development 101: Always contribute campaign money to local pols who are considering your projects. But Kennedy has found more sophisticated ways to earn political support. He wisely avoids renting the commercial portions of his projects to chains, and has sought out local businesses instead. (He, for instance, allowed lefty lawyer/ lounge singer Anna De Leon free rent for one year to open Anna's restaurant in his building at 1801 University.)
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