You're Not an Environmentalist If You're Also a NIMBY 

As both Berkeley and Oakland debate their downtown plans, there is growing recognition that the fight against global warming requires greater urban density.

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Mayor Tom Bates, who backs the density plan and who received widespread recognition for his decision earlier this year to get rid of his car, says a small, vigilant, and loud group of anti-growth activists have attempted to hijack the process. But he thinks a majority of the council will ultimately adopt the dense development proposal. "The council has come to understand that a group of people — it's hard to quantify how many, but we think it's about 30 percent of the population — don't want anything to grow; they don't want anything to happen," the mayor said. "We just have to keep in mind that there's another 70 percent who aren't that vocal."

Much of the heated debate over the plan has been about tall buildings. After eighteen months of meetings, a city-sponsored committee recommended that the council allow four 100-foot-tall buildings, and four that are 120 feet tall in the downtown area. However, the city's planning commission, which is more development friendly, came up with its own plan that would allow six 120-foot-tall buildings, and four that are 180 feet tall — as tall as the existing Wells Fargo building, the city's tallest. Both plans would also allow most new buildings to be built at a maximum height of 85 feet. The council appears to be leaning toward approving the denser plan, which some critics decry as "the Manhattanization of Berkeley."

In truth, the fight over building heights is misdirected. Tall buildings are unlikely to be built in Berkeley anytime soon because they're too expensive to construct. The real difference between the two plans is that the less dense one will probably result in no tall buildings, while the other will probably produce four. The reason is that developers prefer buildings that are less than 75 feet tall or greater than 180 feet, but not in between. So any plan that calls for 100-foot- or 120-foot-tall buildings is unrealistic.

Why? In buildings that are less than 75 feet tall, developers can use wood framing, which tends to be relatively inexpensive. But above that height, fire-safety codes require them to build with reinforced concrete or steel, which costs a lot more. As a result, developers can't make a tall building profitable unless it's at least 180 feet in height (seventeen stories). Anything shorter than that means that the developer won't generate enough money from selling condos or renting apartments to pay for the high costs of erecting the building in the first place.

In a study conducted for the city last year, Strategic Economics, a Berkeley-based consultant that advises cities throughout the Bay Area, including Oakland, found that once the housing market rebounds the only feasible buildings for developers in Berkeley will be less than 75 or at least 180 feet tall. The report said it's possible that developers could make 140-foot-tall buildings pencil out in ten to fifteen years — but not ones that are 100 feet or 120. In other words, if Berkeley were truly serious about allowing tall buildings in downtown, then it would adopt a plan that calls for a few that are 140 feet tall, and several more at 180 feet. "I don't mean to be pessimistic, but infill development is very challenging," said Nadine Fogarty, a principal at Strategic Economics.

Nonetheless, the debate about tall buildings ultimately misses the point. Both the less-dense and more-dense plans provide for plenty of housing. But the real threats to downtown development are the restrictions placed upon it. The two main opponents of Berkeley's dense downtown plan on the council are Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín, who also are considered the most liberal members of the council. In interviews, both said they won't vote for the plan unless the city increases its affordable housing requirement to 25 percent and forces developers to adhere to strict green building standards. Berkeley currently requires that developers make at least 20 percent of their housing projects affordable, or pay the city an equivalent fee to build affordable units elsewhere, regardless of whether there is a public subsidy involved. It also does not require strict green building standards.

Worthington also said developers that don't provide sufficient parking should pay a "transportation services fee," while Arreguín said that developers should help pay for open space and other "public improvements." When asked whether they were simply putting up barriers to smart growth, both said they believed developers can afford it. Worthington also said that ensuring that more affordable housing is built in Berkeley is his top priority and that developers often find loopholes in the 20 percent rule that allow them to build less than that. "For some people in Berkeley, the height of the building is what they care about," he said. "For me, it's the affordability."

Both councilmen bristled when asked whether they were being NIMBYs. "I think it's laughable," Worthington said. "I campaigned for office supporting 1,000 units of housing in my district, and 5,000 in the City of Berkeley. That's not a very NIMBY thing to say." Worthington said he is not among the "25 percent who think that Berkeley is dense enough and that we don't need more growth." "There isn't anybody on this council who is saying we don't need more density in downtown," he said.

While Worthington and Arreguín may indeed support dense development, the requirements they're advocating would probably kill most of it, according to the Strategic Economics report. The study concluded that even in a robust housing market, the 20 percent affordable housing requirements and a green building standard would make 75-foot-tall and 180-foot-tall buildings barely feasible for developers. By contrast, the study indicated that the city could spur downtown development by reducing the affordable housing requirement to 10 percent and by not adopting the green building standard at all.

Ali Kashani, a longtime Berkeley developer and co-founder of Livable Berkeley, the YIMBY group, said he believes that advocates of the affordable housing requirement and the strict green building standard know that those proposals will sell well in liberal Berkeley. After all, who could be against affordable housing and eco-friendly buildings? But Kashani said he believes that the advocates of those requirements are exploiting them to block downtown development. "They know nobody will build," he said.

Rhoades of Livable Berkeley said the lack of new housing development over the past few decades has made Berkeley almost entirely unaffordable. But if the city were to add lots of new housing, she argued, it would create an abundance of supply, thereby lowering prices. In addition, more housing developments will result in more money to build affordable units or more cash the city can use to subsidize affordable housing elsewhere. Plus more housing will allow more workers to live in Berkeley, thereby slowing suburban sprawl.

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