.Downtown Development Key to Berkeley Council Races

The outcome of Measure R and three council contests could have a significant impact on the future of downtown.

Measure R, a citywide ballot initiative concerning the development of downtown Berkeley, appears to be playing a pivotal role this November in the three contests for city council. Sponsored by Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, Measure R would overturn past council decisions that were designed to increase density in downtown and attract more residents to the city’s urban core. Arreguin contends that the measure would require developers to build greener projects in downtown. But opponents of the measure, including a majority of the council, contend that the ballot initiative is too restrictive and would block Berkeley from developing smart growth projects that limit greenhouse gas emissions.

As a result, the outcome of Measure R and the three Berkeley council races this year could have a significant impact on the future of downtown development.

In the District Eight race, candidate Jacquelyn McCormick is a strong supporter of Measure R and opposes dense development in the city. But her three opponents — George Beier, Mike Alvarez Cohen, and Lori Droste — all oppose Measure R and are in support of downtown development. The four candidates are vying to replace Gordon Wozniak, a longtime proponent of creating a dense downtown, who has decided to not run for reelection. District Eight covers portions of Berkeley south of the Cal campus and includes the Elmwood district. Wozniak has endorsed Alvarez Cohen, as have Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmembers Susan Wengraf and Laurie Capitelli, who also all support downtown development.

Cohen, who is the chair of Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board, also has detailed plans for increasing transparency and efficiency — such as employing online public forums and email listserves — to help deal with neighborhood issues. For the rest of the city, he envisions forming a hub of tech innovation to compete with Silicon Valley and the Peninsula. He advocates for increasing the number of hub workspaces in the city and creating a generally inviting place for startups and entrepreneurs. Through public-private partnerships, he hopes to build a support network that will keep entrepreneurial activity locally based, bringing in revenue that will thereby allow the city to improve its infrastructure and services.

McCormick, meanwhile, said she is adamantly devoted to supporting neighborhoods first, and only supports development if doesn’t have negative impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods. She expressed concern that higher density would clog neighborhoods with traffic and parked cars. She noted that although downtown Berkeley is along a transit corridor, many residents still drive to get there. “We are urban, but we are also suburban,” she said. If McCormick wins the election and replaces Wozniak on the council, it would change the balance of power on the council away from downtown density.

In an interview, Beier said his motivation for running is to invigorate the neighborhood adjacent to Telegraph Avenue. Beier, who has lived in the area for more than thirty years, and attended Berkeley as an undergraduate and graduate student, has run for the District Seven seat three times in the past, but redistricting has now placed his home in District Eight. Beier advocates for aggressive tactics on Telegraph, including the implementation of a blight tax on vacant storefronts. He also advocates for much more student housing, along with the development of condos that professors can own. “You can’t call yourself a progressive and be against housing,” he said. He also has wants People’s Park to become a hub for students, and suggests that a cafe or small amphitheater could be built at one end of the park — and that drug dealing be cleared out of the area.

Beier, who is president of the Willard Neighborhood Association, believes that students and District Eight neighborhood residents have aligned interests, and that their differences are misunderstood and overblown. “I think that we all want the same thing,” he said. “I mean, fundamentally, Berkeley is a university town.”

Droste, meanwhile, agrees that a livelier Telegraph area would bring tax revenues to the city and would increase public safety — and that in that sense students and neighbors have the same interests. But she hopes to foster better communication between the two communities. She also argues that as a gay parent of two young children who is also an educator and chair of Berkeley Commission on Status of Women, she would increase the diversity of representation on the council and offer a fresh perspective that Berkeley needs in order to unify its disparate subcultures.

Rather than being concerned about parking, Droste is interested in creating more walkable neighborhoods and decreasing suburban sprawl. She firmly believes that Measure R would result in a less green downtown area. She hopes to see more housing and office space in the downtown soon, so that people can both work and live in Berkeley. “A lively downtown will make for a safer Berkeley,” she said. “The economy will thrive, and suburban sprawl will be reduced.”

In District Seven, incumbent Kriss Worthington is facing challenger Sean Barry in a district that is now overwhelmingly dominated by UC Berkeley students thanks to redistricting. Barry is a staunch opponent of Measure R and a strong advocate for creating a denser downtown. In an interview, Worthington declined to take a position on Measure R — although he often votes with Arreguin, the measure’s primary supporter, and with Councilmember Max Anderson, who also supports the measure.

When redrawing District Seven, which includes substantial portions of the south campus area, councilmembers had hoped that a Cal student would run for the seat. However, none stepped forward. Barry, 27, contends he is the best suited to both represent students and offer well-informed proposals for the city. A Berkeley native, Barry attended both Berkeley High and UC Berkeley. He currently serves on the city Planning Commission and is vice chair of the Community Health Commission, and was the chair of the Waterfront Commission.

One of Barry’s biggest priorities is to reinvigorate the portion of Telegraph Avenue adjacent to campus, and to attract more non-retail businesses to the area. He envisions second-story office spaces lining Telegraph, something that has been stifled by a city requirement that upstairs offices be used by the businesses below them. His goal would be to create a Telegraph that serves a mix of people, not just students. That way, when students graduate from UC Berkeley, they’ll want to stay in the city rather than move away.

In an interview, Worthington said that he doesn’t think office space is a bad idea, but he said he wouldn’t place it in his top twenty priorities for the area. He said he wants to push for businesses to be able to stay open later, and for all-ages entertainment venues to move in so that students won’t have to leave the district at night, which would thus would bring more revenue to the area and make streets safer through increased foot traffic. Worthington also envisions a Free Speech Movement Walk of Fame — similar to the Hollywood Walk of Fame — as well as parklets outside of restaurants.

Worthington has a long history of working closely with students in his office, and has appointed more than one hundred students to city commissions in the eighteen years that he has held a seat on the council. He’s confident that he has strong student support, but he is notorious for butting heads with his fellow councilmembers. All of his colleagues on the council — except for Arreguin and Anderson — have endorsed Barry, as has Mayor Bates.

Barry said that he’s confident that the support he has from other councilmembers and the mayor will enable to him to better serve District Seven. If elected, Barry also will be another strong advocate on the council for downtown growth.

The final council district race on the November ballot involves District One, which includes northwest Berkeley neighborhoods and the Fourth Street commercial district. Councilmember Linda Maio, who has represented the district for the last 22 years, also strongly opposes Measure R and wants to see the downtown attract more residents and businesses. By contrast, one of her opponents, Alejandro Soto-Vigil, a rent board commissioner and aide to Worthington, has endorsed Measure R. He is highly concerned about affordable housing and hopes to increase the housing mitigation fee and encourage low-income inclusionary units to be built in new developments. Maio’s other opponent, Merrilie Mitchell, expressed overall opposition to development in downtown Berkeley when interviewed by the Daily Californian in July.


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