Friday, November 06, 2015

Getting Berkeley wrong

2211 Harold Way

Becky O'Malley
November 06, 2015

If you’re lucky enough to have skipped J-School, and are one of the many Berkeley residents who have dropped their subscription to the San Francisco Chronicle, you just might want to take a look at a text-book example of lazy journalism in this morning’s issue: Berkeley Plaza housing needed, but meets with resistance

(Good luck, however, navigating their lame pay wall. I’ve been a subscriber for forty years, and I still have to reset my password EVERY SINGLE TIME I try to read it online.)

Columnist Chip Johnson has authored a classic single-source story, in which he appears to have talked only to the clever developer’s shill who’s fronting for the luxury housing development which has been approved by Berkeley’s developer-dominated Zoning Adjustment Board. He doesn’t even seem to know what the relationship of proponent Mark Rhoades is to the property owner, for example. 

He says that Rhoades is “the principal in the Rhoades Planning Group, which holds the contract for the Berkeley Plaza development.” Well, yes, Mark’s the front man, but the applicant is Hill Street Properties of Los Angeles, whose principal is a guy named Joseph Penner, who specializes in flipping entitled project sites. What “holds the contract” means to Chip is anyone’s guess. I don’t expect he has much business experience.

If he were a real reporter, which he’s not, he might have talked to some of the people who oppose the plan, or maybe even come to a meeting or two—after all, there were more than 30 of them. If he’d been at the last couple of ZAB meetings he might have noticed that at least one of the board members who voted against the project was clearly under 30, probably under 25. Instead, he bought into Rhoades’ pejorative characterization of opponents as “grey pony tails.” 

And by the way, Chip, the quote is “don’t trust anyone over 30,” not “over 40,” an error for which he seems to blame architecture critic John King, who’s not that dumb. 

While we’re on the subject of errors, let’s also notice that Chip locates this project as being near “the Ashby BART station.” Well, it’s true that BART stations in Berkeley are fairly close together, but someone who’s actually been here (which doesn’t seem to include Chip) might say that the building would actually be near the Downtown Berkeley BART station. Facts, facts, facts—it appears that Chronicle columnists these days are allowed to be immune to facts. 

Then there’s this quote: 

It’s exactly the kind of growth that progressives across the Bay Area have been screaming for for more than a decade — and now it doesn’t meet Berkeley’s architectural standards. This is an old story in Berkeley, and the lengths to which preservationists have gone to maintain historic buildings, which includes reducing original walls to paper-thin facades, are too often petty and frivolous.

Okay, Chronicle editors, if there still are any. I challenge anyone who’s still sentient at the old paper to produce even a single Berkeley instance of reducing original walls to paper-thin facades.” Makes a handy cheap rhetorical flourish, but it’s just not true. You could even ask John King if you don’t believe me. 

And then there’s that claim that “It’s exactly the kind of growth that progressives across the Bay Area have been screaming for for more than a decade.” No, Chip, evidently you don’t even read the Chronicle. That would be what progressives have been screaming about, not screaming for. 

Surely you noticed, in the recent San Francisco election, the substantial opposition to exactly this kind of “luxury market-rate” (translation: pricey) building, when what’s needed is affordable housing. Seems to me there was some kind of ballot measure about this, wasn’t there, which came pretty close to passing, didn’t it? Supported by progressives, remember? 

Another fast and loose with facts example: “from 1970 to 1995 they built only 600 new housing units,” Rhoades said.” Chip fell for the oldest trick in the “How to Lie with Statistics” book. Rhoades, as any 10th grade math student could tell you, deliberately selected the economic period of lowest growth. 1995 was twenty years ago—the relevant question is what’s been built since. 

From an excellent piece by Tom Hunt: “Over the last 8 years Berkeley has added only 14% of the housing goals set by the regional Plan Bay Area for moderate income and below but has added 89% of the goal for households making more than $92,566 (Above Moderate Income). If we don't build 1116 units of affordable housing before we build 125 above moderate income units, we won't build our way out of the affordable housing hole we're in.” Hey, Chip, take a look at these figures

And finally we come to the identified opinion part of Johnson’s rant. As a columnist, he’s hired to be opinionated, so we can’t quibble when he is. But we can call his opinions stupid if we want to, and we do. 

He opines:

The Berkeley Plaza project is a worthy, needed project packed with many perks included in the community benefits package offered by the developer. It’s a good deal for the city that includes a $6 million payment to the city’s affordable housing efforts and a pledge to refurbish the 10-screen Shattuck Theater, an anchor entertainment venue on Berkeley’s main thoroughfare. 

Six million dollars? Oh, come on. 

In an area where the median home price is now hovering above a million, just how many affordable homes would this project provide? 

As anyone who reads what passes for the Berkeley press—either or—knows, this particular project has been given a very special break on the in-lieu payment that the Berkeley city planning department is offering for all market-rate projects like this. And the developers will be allowed to pay up on the $6 million not when the $86 million building is permitted, as they’d have to do in San Francisco, but when it’s occupied, 3-5 years hence...

The Berkeley Daily Planet

An earlier post on this issue.

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London Breed and Sunshine

From the Westside Observer:

Dr. Maria Rivero & Dr. Derek Kerr

For those who are driven to govern, transparency doesn’t come naturally. Nudging City governance out of the shadows often relies on open government advocates. For example, the 2013-14 Civil Grand Jury report, Ethics in the City: Promise, Practice or Pretense, recommended amending the Sunshine Ordinance to require that Supervisors’ business calendars be publicly disclosable. Since 1999, the Ordinance had required only the Mayor, City Attorney and department heads to disclose who they met and where. Although the Jury found that “nearly all” Supervisors voluntarily provided their meeting calendars, some officials “failed to list the subject matter and the attendee’s names” making it difficult to track lobbying activities and influence peddling.

London Breed, who clenched the Board presidency in January 2015, has viewed requests for her calendars as intrusions. When sunshine activist Michael Petrelis requested them this April, he was initially told the “voluminous” records would take time to assemble. Instead of delivering the calendars, Breed’s legislative aide sent a startling e-mail: “Supervisor Breed has not maintained a calendar since February 1st, 2015. Per the charter rules, Supervisor Breed is not required to keep a calendar.”

...On June 16, 2015 the Supervisors amended the Sunshine Ordinance to require the disclosure of their daily appointment calendars, including meeting locations and attendees. Breed demurred, “I’m not necessarily a fan of this measure.” Surprisingly, the tough-talking Supervisor who confidently attends District 5 community gatherings, cited “concerns about my personal safety” and “establishing a pattern of my whereabouts.” Plus, “it took my staff several days to separate my public and private calendar.” 

Breed made a motion to withhold the location of Supervisors’ meetings and to wait for the Department of Technology to organize their calendars. Her motion died for lack of a second. The Board voted 10-1 in favor of disclosing its calendars. Breed voiced the sole “No.” On July 7 the board finally, and unanimously, passed the amendment. The Mayor signed it into law on July 15, but Breed’s displeasure smoldered.

Though not a member of the Rules Committee (Avalos, Tang, Cohen), Breed materialized at the September 10 meeting “in place of Supervisor Cohen.” The agenda included the approval of a journalist and a lawyer applying for the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF), the 11-member body that adjudicates sunshine complaints. Both applicants were nominated by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) that is mandated 2 seats on the SOTF. Still working in the City, both nominees had recently moved to Oakland so they needed residency waivers from the Supervisors.

After Hoodline editor Eric Eldon gave his presentation, Breed launched a meandering interrogatory about “conflicts of interest” when journalists serve on the SOTF. Note: voters approved assigning 3 journalists to the SOTF: from the SPJ, New America Media, and local press. Breed wondered if Eldon’s “professional opinion” as a reporter who pursues City records might conflict with “making the right decision.” Unappeased by Eldon’s ethical strategy for countering potential bias, Breed declared, “Let me be more specific; I have a different opinion about the calendar requests…there’s a thin line between public information and being nosey…I don’t think it’s appropriate for the public to know my whereabouts 24 hours a day.” 

Then, the litmus test: “Do you think that public officials should have to share their calendars if requested?” Since her question had been affirmatively and legally answered in July, it was deployed to render applicants into supplicants. Eldon maneuvered out of Breed’s trap by crafting thoughtful, ego-soothing responses, including, “I would listen to the advice of the City Attorney” and “I can’t say I’m decided on that.” Incidentally, Breed had been wrangling with the SOTF since June, when she was found in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance for dodging a hearing on her calendar hoarding.

The other SPJ nominee was Mark Rumold, an Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney who litigates transparency and surveillance issues in the National Security arena. After serving on the SOTF for 9 months, he had to resign upon moving to Oakland. He presented his credentials and goals in a straight-forward way, without fawning. Breed didn’t bother to ask him a single question, then groused; “I’m not completely familiar with Mr. Rumold…” Apparently, he hadn’t kowtowed for her blessing before the hearing. To show who’s boss, Breed “hesitantly” approved Rumold’s residency waiver.

All three Supervisors okayed the candidates, but Katy Tang’s mute passivity was a marked departure from her energetic obstruction of SPJ nominees in 2013-14. Joining a Board vendetta against the SOTF, Tang had applied her own litmus test: supplicants had to vow to abide by City Attorney opinions in sunshine disputes. She also imposed a “diversity” standard on SPJ candidates that she waived for City Hall shills. Press coverage set off a political imbroglio for Tang, and may explain why she ceded this year’s litmus test to London Breed.

Dr. Maria Rivero and Dr. Derek Kerr were senior physicians at Laguna Honda Hospital. They repeatedly exposed wrongdoing. Contact:

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Kevin Drum, Mother Jones

Drum: "Not bad for a program that, I'm told, is in a death spiral and will implode any second now."

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