Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

Measure R: Giving Berkeley What It Wants

Posted by Roobs on November 3, 2010

This past Tuesday, Berkeley voters overwhelmingly passed Measure R, the controversial city measure that called for greener and denser development around transit in Downtown Berkeley.  Measure R passed with 64% of the vote.

Supporters stated Measure R is the greenest direction for Downtown Berkeley because it increases Downtown’s density.  And by pushing green building standards and encouraging new residents to live near transit, it will help achieve Berkeley’s Climate Action plan passed last year. Opponents, however, argued that Measure R is too vague and doesn’t go far enough to ensure affordable housing.  They also protest the increased height limits.

I previously wrote a post, Understanding Berkeley’s Measure R, that went over many of the opponents claims and found them to be largely unfounded, if not flat out false.  As it turned out, Berkeley voters did understand Measure R.

Measure R repeated part of the Downtown Plan the Berkeley City Council had approved last year. This plan was later rescinded after Councilmen Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington–the only council members who voted no on the original plan–led a controversial, though successful, signature gathering campaign to place the council’s decision on the ballot.  Measure R came to exist after the City Council scrapped the original plan and are  now tasked to create a new one.   With Measure R now in place, the Berkeley City Council has a clear direction of what the voters want to see out of their Downtown.  But some opponents are downplaying the passage of Measure R.

Councilman Kriss Worthington–who is poised to win re-election in the 2nd round of voting in  Berkeley’s new ranked choice voting system–told the local blog, Berkeleyside, that Measure R’s passage is meaningless.

“It’s a meaningless measure now just like it was when it was proposed,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who opposed the measure along with Councilman Jesse Arreguin. “It doesn’t actively adopt any policies. If the City Council adopts controversial things in their downtown plan, what’s to stop the public from referendum-ing it again?”

As a follow up to Tuesdays victory for Measure R, I have to chuckle just a bit at these kinds of quotes.

Before I delve into taking this quote apart, I must preface this by saying I like Kriss Worthington.  He is a strong LGBT elected official who is not afraid to speak his mind, even if I disagree with him.  He takes on causes he believes in and fights them with true grit.  Worthington appointed me to the Waterfront Commission in Berkeley and was always available to help when I needed it.  But as much as I respect Worthington’s long service to his constituents and fortitude, I am still entitled to completely disagree with him.  And this is one of those times.

Measure R is either meaningless or its not.  It can’t be both.

First, Measure R is a product of both Councilmen Worthington’s and Arreguin’s efforts to put the old Downtown Plan to citywide vote.  The argument for this was that they wanted to let the people of Berkeley decide how to develop their downtown.  Well, if we keep with that logic, what does the passage of Measure R actually mean?  Keep this in mind as I will conclude with the answer.

The fact that Measure R, now passed by the voters, is all of a sudden meaningless is at odds with opponents arguments against voting “yes” prior to November 2nd.  Take Stewart Jones–the now former candidate for Berkeley City Council District 8–and his extremely distorted and inaccurate op-ed in the Daily Cal newspaper from October 15, 2010

Measure R is not simply a vision statement as some might call it because it does specify three important things. Masked in green rhetoric, Measure R raises height limits to 180 feet and even potentially taller with a density bonus, expands the downtown to threaten surrounding neighborhoods and guts the landmark preservation ordinance, to make it easier to demolish historic buildings.

One, Measure R never raised height limits to 180 feet citywide.  Two, Jones thought Measure was NOT a advisory measure (or vision statement as he calls it) but had some teeth to it and, if passed, sure to bring the 180 foot hammer of development down on Berkeley’s business core.  But if Measure R was meaningless “just like when it was proposed”, then why was Jones all upset?

From another opponent, The Berkeley Daily Planet, a local news site:

[Measure R] is an “advisory measure”, not the “downtown plan” it’s often claimed to be. It would give the Mayor and the City Council, which he’s trying to purge of all opponents, a blank check for developing downtown to provide maximum profits for his builder buddies. Although some civic groups like the Sierra Club were suckered into endorsing it, the campaign is being financed by Chicago developer Sam Zell’s Equitable Residential corporation, which is well on its way to buying up all of downtown Berkeley. Poison pill provisions make it easier to demolish old buildings, too.

After attacking a supporter of Measure R as an endaround from debating the measure on it’s merits, the Berkeley Daily Planet repeats an assertion by opponents that this was going to DO something and you should fear this meaningless measure, not to mention builders (does that include union construction workers too?).  But at least they admitted it was an advisory measure before making arguments that it wasn’t.

From the now re-elected Berkeley City Councilman, Jesse Arreguin’s response to East Bay Young Dems’ endorsement questionnaire (Disclosure: I serve on the Executive Board of East Bay Young Dems) when asked about his views on Measure R:

I oppose Measure R, because despite what the proponents claim, it is not legally a plan. It is a plan to have a plan. I have been working for the past 5 years to develop a new plan for Downtown Berkeley. Measure R needlessly delays adoption of a Downtown Plan for several years and does not give the voters any real say in the future of the Downtown. Measure R not only throws out 5 years of community process but it also provides no real assurance that we will get the affordable housing, open space and other community benefits that it promises. What Measure R really does is get voter acquiescence on several controversial proposals, such as weakening our landmarks law and making it easier to demolish older buildings, some of which provide real affordable housing. We all want a green and vibrant Downtown, but Measure R provides no assurance that we will get that. We should move forward now with adopting one of the many plans that we have developed and work towards revitalizing Downtown Berkeley.

Honeslty, I questioned using this quote because there are many parts of this response that need a response of their own.  Namely Arreguin’s claim of affordable housing as it relates to Measure R.  But that’s going to have to wait for another day because that is a post in itself on the issue of affordable housing.  But tangent aside, Arreguin appears to assert Measure R as a substantive measure that Worthington asserts was meaninless to begin with.

The overall pattern here is that, as Kriss Worthington asserts Measure R’s thunderous passage by the people of Berkeley is meaningless because the measure itself was always meaningless, then why was every opponent treating Measure R as the Ten Commandments sent down by the Flying Spaghetti Monster, demanding strict adherence.  Every opponent framed their opposition as “Don’t vote for Measure R! If you do, this bad thing will happen for sure!”

Measure R is either meaningless or its not.  It can’t be both and opponents chose to give it a great deal of meaning in the months and weeks approaching election.  Just because it passed doesn’t mean you can change your minds.  No takesy backseys.

Giving the people what they want, apparently.

Despite opponents uncivil and harsh language towards Measure R (in the same breadth they claimed the same from supporters), the people of Berkeley voted in favor of it.  They liked it so much that they passed it overwhelmingly at 64%; an envious margin of victory for any thing or any one on a ballot.  And this is what is really important and something I hope opponents like Arreguin and Worthington keep in mind as discussions of a new official Downtown Plan takes shape.

Supporters of Measure R did recognize and did admit that it was an advisory measure.  However, it was never meaningless, either in conception of its final form.  Measure R gives a voter-approved road map (some might call it a mandate at 64%) to create a plan that is beneficial to Downtown Berkeley.  And what is it they want to do, you ask?

Measure R had two, relatively specific provisions in it.  Two provisions that, as you can read from above, oppenents took strong issue with.  The first was on height limits and the second is on the streamlined permit process, called the Green Pathway (The green pathway section can be read here.  It’s too big to post it all in this post).  Below is the section on height limits.

Section 4. Guidance for Council Decision-Making

A. In order to advance Berkeley’s green future, and foster needed economic development and revitalization, the People of the City of Berkeley hereby advise the City Council that planning efforts for the Downtown should include consideration of a limited number of new buildings, as follows:

1. A maximum height in the Downtown Area of 5 stories (60 feet).

2. Exceptions to maximum height of 60’ include:

a) A total of 5 new buildings in the Downtown Area as follows:

1) 2 -residential buildings in the Core, with commercial on the ground floor, no taller than existing 180 foot buildings;

2) 1 hotel with conference facilities in the Core not to exceed 180 feet; and

3) 2 buildings not to exceed 120 feet, which may be mixed-use (residential/commercial ground floor) or office buildings.

b) Buildings up to 75 feet with a use permit on Shattuck Avenue from Hearst Avenue to Haste Street and along University Avenue from Oxford to Milvia Streets.

3. On Martin Luther King Jr. Way, limit height of new buildings adjacent to or confronting existing residential buildings

Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington like to bring issues to the voters.  They wanted to do that with the original plan because they wanted voters to have a direct say on how they want Downtown Berkeley to develop.  And why not?  It’s a good idea.  Voters should have a say.  Well, here you go!  This is exactly what Arreguin and Worthington should appreciate.  Opponents went out of their way to tell Berkeley voters that Measure R was going to raise height limits and create a streamlined permit process that would encourage more development.  And the voters took a look at that and said “Great!”  They do want 5 towers in Downtown Berkeley.  They do want a streamlined permit process that encourages affordable housing.

Again, I hope that Councilmen Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington keep in mind what the voters approved this past Tuesday as they begin to draft a new plan for Downtown Berkeley.

Roobs is a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles pursuing a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning with concentrations in Transportation Planning & Policy and Urban Design & Development.  Roobs lived in Berkeley for 6 years.  He is a former Waterfront Commissioner and graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Legal Studies and Sociology.  Roobs worked as a clerk and paralegal for 5 years for the firm, Katzoff & Riggs in Emeryville, CA that specialized in real estate development law.

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