Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Berkeley City Council Wakes Up and the Daily Planet Hates It

An interesting article appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet on Friday, March 28th (yes, I admit it, I have the Daily Planet bookmarked and I read the online version every day. It’s good for a laugh, if nothing else!), concerning a study of regarding matters that could have great impact on the downtown area.

The article, “Council Approves Controversial $40K Height-Profit Study,” begins with an odd recounting of what appears to be an even stranger occurrence, the performance of a song lauding Berkeley’s efforts to reduce its waste stream. From this unconventional jumping off point, however, the article gets down to the heart of the matter. Well, actually, that’s not true. It next describes a tax initiative to fund a new warm-water aquatic facility for seniors, and then documents the adoption of a “non-controversial” measure regarding condo conversions in the city, a measure that will “streamline the conversion process,” whatever that means in this bureaucratic nightmare of a city.

Finally, after covering these other matters, the article takes up the issue that the headline announces: the Height-Profit study. By a 6-1 vote, the Council approved spending $40,000 “for a study of the relationship between building height and developer profits.” After DAPAC rejected a staff proposal to undertake such a study, which will determine the economic viability of DAPAC’s proposed density adjustments to the downtown area, the Planning Commission took the issue directly to the City Council, which authorized the study. The lone ‘nay’ vote, Councilmember Dona Spring, would seem to have already undertaken her own economic analysis, claiming that this study is merely an end-run by developers seeking to build “point towers” around the normal funding process, and predicting that “they’ll say it’s unprofitable unless they go to 18 stories.”

While the Daily Planet’s coverage of the issues surround DAPAC can hardly be said to have shown themselves worthy of the vaulted Fox News tag-line, “fair and balanced,” this article seems particular offensive. After proclaiming how “controversial” the study is, the Planet decides to cover a few other matters before the city council before delving into the subject at hand, and then deigns to cover only the opinion of the sole opposing vote to the measure, hinting at a pro-developer slant to the Council’s decision in the process with the term “developer profits.” Fair coverage would have included a statement from a supporting Councilmember, and framed the greater issues surrounding the proposed density adjustment by considering the possible beneficiaries of high-rise towers in the area beyond the developers themselves.

The benefits of the newly approved study are self-evident: it will give the Council objective economic information regarding the realistic viability of the DAPAC proposal, which the Council can then use to modify the proposal as it sees fit. If the study finds DAPAC’s proposal economically viable for developers it could ease the plan’s adoption by allowing an up-or-down vote on the plan as it stands. If the study finds the plan uneconomical, however, the Council will at least have information on what height levels will be required for developers to turn a profit on new projects in the downtown area, allowing the subsequent debate to, at a minimum, be predicated on realistic assumptions. Considering Mayor Bates’ assurances that Berkeley has plenty of money in its budget, spending $40,000 on this study seems reasonable when its benefits are considered, especially given the enormous impact that the DAPAC plan stands to have. The Daily Planet’s brief, obscure, and one-sided coverage, however, leaves the reader with a sense of distrust for the Council and for the plan in general, and thereby does the city a great disservice.

Judith Scherr, Council Approves Controversial $40K Downtown Height-Profit Study, THE BERKELEY DAILY PLANET, Mar. 28, 2008, available at

No comments: