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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Oakland, he believes, should limit skyscrapers to Broadway, near the 12th Street and 19th Street BART stations. Or, he said, the city should take a hard look at what San Francisco and other cities have done. San Francisco limits both building density and height, but allows property owners to buy and sell development rights to construct skyscrapers. So if you're a property owner and you do not intend to build a high-rise, then you can sell the space above your building to another developer, who then can add it to his or her property and build taller. As a result, San Francisco has been able to protect historic buildings while controlling land values and spurring growth.

Limiting most new buildings to 75 feet high also would generate more workforce housing by helping keep property values and building costs low. By contrast, high-rise condos are primarily for the wealthy because developers need to charge high prices to cover their increased costs. "High-rises only work for high-end housing," noted Pyatok, who sent a letter to top city officials, outlining his concerns.

So is the city council going to ignore the lessons learned by other cities? It appears so. Earlier this year, the city planning commission chose not to request an in-depth study of San Francisco's model for buying and selling development rights. And in an interview, Eric Angstadt, the city's deputy director of economic development who has led the downtown plan process, refused to comment on whether his office had examined Seattle's experience with limiting building heights to 75 feet.

In other words, Oakland's intense desire to finally develop its downtown appears likely to hurt its chances of ever attaining it — and thus helping fight global warming.

As Berkeley and Oakland debate the futures of their respective downtowns, both cities have yet to seriously examine the opportunities for dense development along the major transit corridors between them. Greenbelt Alliance report identified San Pablo and Telegraph avenues as potential growth areas, along with Upper Broadway, sometimes known as Auto Row. Of the three, the group thinks San Pablo can house the largest number of people and have the biggest impact on sprawl. "It's a huge opportunity," said Stampe of the alliance. "It really makes a lot of sense."

San Pablo is ripe for both rezoning and redevelopment. Greenbelt Alliance envisions a much denser urban strip with taller buildings replacing the strip malls and single-story businesses with parking, not to mention the empty storefronts and vacant lots. San Pablo, in short, is a prime example of how not to do smart-growth construction. "It feels like a highway," Stampe noted. Adding more apartments and condos also would help many of the businesses along the avenue. And the recent growth on San Pablo in Emeryville further points to the street's unrealized capacity.

But in terms of attracting large numbers of residents, no street in the East Bay may have more potential than Telegraph Avenue between the UC campus and downtown Oakland. Telegraph is already more desirable than San Pablo, as evidenced by the recent explosion in popularity of the Temescal area in North Oakland. But developing Telegraph in Berkeley promises to be contentious if the area's strong opposition to Bus Rapid Transit along the avenue is any indication. Telegraph's growth also could be curbed by NIMBYism, which is particularly strong on the avenue.

In the intense mid-decade battle over a condo project at Telegraph and 51st Street, a group of anti-dense-development activists who called themselves Standing Together for Accountable Neighborhood Development sought to block the project and demanded height limits of 48 feet in the Upper Telegraph neighborhood. They were opposed by a pro-dense-development group, known as Urbanists for a Livable Temescal Rockridge Area, which backed the 68-unit project and advocated for taller buildings, up to 75 feet in the area. Ultimately, the city approved the condo project, but it has yet to break ground because of the housing crisis.

Upper Broadway in North Oakland also may prove to be controversial. Oakland City Council President Jane Brunner, who represents North Oakland, said that residents who live east of Broadway and enjoy views of San Francisco will likely oppose 55-foot- to 75-foot-tall buildings. Brunner believes that smart-growth advocates, whom she calls "urbanists," need to learn how to "work with people who have lived in neighborhoods for years."

That may be true, but the people who have lived for years along the East Bay's major transit corridors and consider themselves to be liberal environmentalists also need to finally start thinking globally and acting locally. The coming global warming crisis demands that they do more than just eat organic, install solar panels, or buy a Prius.

They also need to realize that dense development will make their neighborhoods and their cities better — not worse. More people means more shops, cafes, and restaurants — and more tax revenues. And when you think about it, who doesn't want to be able to walk to the local store for a bag of groceries or grab a cup of coffee at the corner cafe — and save help save the planet at the same time?

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