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News + PoliticsGrowth machine wins big in Berkeley

Growth machine wins big in Berkeley

Mayor who ran as a progressive sides with developer-friendly plan for Adeline Corridor.


On December 8, the Berkeley City Council made its most important land use decision of 2020: It approved the Adeline Corridor Plan, authorizing much greater density in a historically Black neighborhood that has undergone significant gentrification and displacement.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin supported a developer-friendly plan.

The plan area encompasses 86 acres along Adeline Street and Shattuck Avenue, stretching from the Oakland-Berkeley border north to Dwight Way. The stated intent is to facilitate the construction of 75,000 square feet of commercial space and 1,450 new homes, including 850 units on the parking lots at the Ashby BART station, which has yet to be rezoned.  

On December 31, I received two stunningly discordant accounts of the council’s action. The first appeared in a year-in-review email from Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín. Under the headline “Accelerating Affordable Housing Production,” Arreguín wrote:

“This year also saw the approval of the Adeline Corridor Plan, the culmination of over five years of public meetings and community input. Placing racial and social equity at the front, the Plan prioritizes the creation of affordable housing in the historically African American neighborhood of South Berkeley that has experienced displacement and gentrification in recent years.”

The second account showed up a few hours later in the Berkeley Tenants Union’s  emailed December 2020 Newsletter. The headline was “City Council Sells-Out Adeline Corridor to Corporate Developers, Destroys Years of Community Organizing and Trust-Building:”

Following years of organizing by BTU and Friends of Adeline* and dozens of meetings, the Planning Commission voted in September to approve a recommendation for the Adeline Corridor Specific Plan. Although far from perfect, the plan ultimately received the support of grassroots organizations like BTU and Friends of Adeline as an acceptable compromise. In exchange for allowing corporate developers to build additional stories in the low-income Adeline Corridor—thereby increasing their profit margins—the city would require them to provide additional on-site affordable housing to mitigate gentrification of the neighborhood (and the entire city). Creating this compromise required low-income communities that have been repeatedly harmed by the city government to trust the same government.

Unfortunately, on December 8 the City Council decided to destroy that hard-fought compromise and the years of trust-building. Without even providing anything in writing to the public beforehand, the Mayor moved to further increase the height limits WITHOUT any corresponding additional increase to the affordable housing requirement.

A substitute motion was made to adopt the compromise approved by the Planning Commission subcommittee, the full Planning Commission, and grassroots organizations like BTU and Friends of Adeline. This would have ensured that we got more affordable housing. However, only Councilmembers Bartlett, Harrison, and Hahn stood with the community and supported the substitute motion. Council Members Kesarwani, Taplin, Wengraf, Robinson, and Droste and the Mayor took the side of corporate developers and voted no on the substitute motion**; Council Member Harrison attempted to find a ‘middle ground’ between the two proposals, but all six of them refused to budge from the corporate giveaway they were supporting. The Council then adopted the mayor’s motion.

By increasing the number of high-income tenants without increasing the affordable housing requirement, the City Council has deliberately increased the rate of gentrification in the low-income Adeline Corridor (and the city as a whole). At a minimum, the City Council also irreparably damaged the trust of low-income residents who spent years working in good-faith negotiating a compromise only to be ignored in the end.

* To be clear, Friends of Adeline has spent significantly longer than BTU working on the Adeline Corridor

** Or abstained, which has the exact same effect as voting “no.” 

The BTU got it right, as indicated by the council’s all-too-brief discussion at the end of the long December 8 meeting (begins in video at about 3:53).

For a sense of how Arreguín operates, consider how he made his motion. First he praised Ben Bartlett, the councilmember who since 2016 has represented District Three, which includes the Adeline Corridor Plan neighborhood. Bartlett, said Arreguín, “was a founding member of Friends of Adeline and has really demonstrated great leadership throughout this entire process.” Then he pivoted: “I want to exercise my prerogative, and make a motion, and then recognize Councilmember Bartlett, who wants to make a substitute motion.”

Councilmember Lori Droste seconded Arreguín’s motion. Bartlett made his substitute motion, to adopt the community-backed plan, seconded by Councilmember Sophie Hahn. About a half-hour of discussion followed, during which Bartlett, Hahn, and Councilmember Kate Harrison spoke in opposition to the Mayor’s motion, calling it a last-minute betrayal of the long public planning process.

The vote on Bartlett’s motion lost 3-6, with Bartlett, Hahn, and Harrison voting yes.

Harrison registered the most extensive objections, melding her criticism of the midnight-hour addition of an extra floor with an array of pointed technical questions—above all, questions about the mayor’s failure to accompany the proposed addition with a corresponding increase in the percentage of affordable housing and the lack of an accompanying analysis. At the end of her remarks, she invited her colleagues to respond. Arreguín snapped: “My motion is my motion.”

The final vote was 8-1, with Harrison voting No.

I’ve sent the Berkeley City Clerk a Public Records Act request asking to see all communications that passed among the nine members of the Berkeley City Council during the December 8 meeting.

I asked Max Anderson, who represented District 3 from 2004 to 2016, to comment on the proceedings. “What they did,” he said, “was nullify the work that people have done for five years on that project in this city.” He was particularly disturbed by Arreguín’s behavior: “He made a motion before Ben, our representative, could put his motion on the table. That was kind of a sleazy political move.” Deploring the council’s “lack of political courage” and its acquiescence to “the monied interests,” Anderson said that “if it weren’t for the virus, we’d all be out in the streets.”

The media gives Arreguín cover

The approval of the Adeline Corridor Plan was covered by the Daily Cal, Berkeleyside, and the Chronicle. The Daily Cal story didn’t mention the dueling motions or the 8-1 vote. It spent most of its 455 words on cheery quotes from Councilmembers Hahn, Taplin, and Robinson praising transit-oriented development’s purported benefits to low-income workers and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Reporter Lauren Good ended her piece with complaints from Friends of Adeline members and longtime residents of the neighborhood Richie Smith and Edythe Boone, who said that the community’s desires had been disregarded.

This is what Berkeley Daily Planet Editor Becky O’Malley calls ping-pong journalism: A said X, but B said Y.

The Berkeleyside article was longer and more informative but also followed the ping-pong model. Supriya Yelimeli first cited Bartlett’s pride in the approved plan and then documented the failure of his substitute motion, as well as Harrison’s objections and final No vote.

Yelimeli also reported that in adding an extra floor, Arreguín followed the lead of the “pro-development” group South Berkeley Now!, which argued that “one extra floor….would increase affordable units by providing incentives for developers.” The organization’s website displays a letter to that effect, made in behalf of the organization’s Steering Committee. That was the ping. The corresponding pong: “With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, city consultant Rick Jacobus maintained that feasibility for the project would be in flux, and adding one extra tier may not make a huge difference in what developers are willing to build.”

San Francisco Chronicle reporter J.K. Dineen didn’t bother to ping and pong; he just told the Arreguín-South Berkeley Now! side of the story. His article began by invoking the hackneyed Berkeley-hates-growth trope: “The Berkeley City Council was about to vote on rezoning the Adeline Street corridor this month when the members did something unheard of in the city’s famously anti-development politics: They moved to add an extra floor of height to what builders could construct.”

Dineen then reinforced his jab at Berkeley: “For a city famous for blocking development, the 8-1 approval of the Adeline Street plan was a change point, said Matthew Lewis, South Berkeley resident and spokesman for California YIMBY, a pro-housing group. ‘This was a big shift and it was indicative of a change of tone we’re seeing in Berkeley on housing policies,’ he said.” Lewis, Dineen did not report, is also a member of the South Berkeley Now! Steering Committee.

Actually, Berkeley has been approving a fair amount of housing. But as indicated by the latest “Annual Housing Pipeline Report,” posted on the council’s July 28, 2020, agenda and covering 2014-2019, project approval does not guarantee project construction. Table 2, “Approved projects with more than 5 units: No Active Building Permit,” lists 23 projects totaling 1,790 units. For nine of those projects, totaling 609 housing units, the developer never pulled a building permit. In other words, a city can entitle (approve) a project, but it cannot force a developer to build what it has approved. Table 4, “Projects with more than five units, that received a building permit after 2014, and which have been completed,” lists 1,351 dwelling units.

The approved Adeline Corridor Plan was also lauded by Dineen’s other sources: Councilmembers Bartlett, Droste, and Taplin; Planning Commissioner and Bridge Housing executive Brad Wiblin; developer and former Berkeley planning staffer Mark Rhoades (a founding member of North Berkeley Now!); and Berkeley Planning Director Jordan Klein. Stating that “the Adeline plan passed easily,” the Chronicle story says nothing about the pushback from Bartlett, Hahn, and Harrison. Dineen did not publish any comment from Harrison.

Strikingly, none of the three stories included comments from the mayor.

My dialogue with Arreguín

On January 6, I emailed Arreguín, asking why he declined Harrison’s invitation to respond to her criticisms of his motion; and why, after a six-year public planning process, he moved to add an extra floor to the Adeline Corridor Plan. The next day, he replied. On January 13, I replied to him. Our exchange is reprinted below.

A few notes: RHNA (pronounced ree-nuh) stands for Regional Housing Needs Assessment, the number of housing units that the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) requires each region to accommodate in its zoning, divvied up among the region’s cities and counties by the region’s Council of Governments. The Bay Area’s COG is the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG); Arreguín is ABAG president. I sat on the Berkeley Planning Commission from 1997 to 2004.

Arreguín’s reply:

Hi Zelda, I wanted to confirm receipt of your email. I need to go back and watch the video to listen to the exchange between me and Councilmember Harrison so I can refresh my memory and accurately respond to your question. 

In response to your first question, I made the motion to add the extra story in the new Adeline Zoning after it was suggested by Councilmembers and presented by staff. The additional story will result in either a greater number of affordable units on site as a result of a greater number of overall housing units. It may also result in potentially more money to the Housing Trust Fund, which is needed in order to fund permanently affordable housing in the Adeline Corridor, including a 100% affordable project at Ashby BART and other projects including preservation of existing rent-controlled housing. Also, Berkeley will be expected to plan for anywhere between 7,000-9,000 additional units over the next 8 years as part of the new Regional Housing Needs Allocation. Allowing a one-story increase in the Adeline Corridor will result in a modest increase in development potential beyond the heights proposed in the draft Plan and zoning, and help the City show meet its RHNA requirements and have a compliant housing element. I have a different perspective in that I don’t think a one-story increase is a violation of the public process, since a variety of densities were discussed during the planning process, and ultimately the City Council makes the final decision on area plans and zoning.

As an aside, in your many years on the Planning Commission, I am sure the City Council made changes to proposed areas plans once they were presented to the Council. With the exception of adding one story, all of the other elements of the Planning Commission version were adopted. 

Once I review the video, I will respond to your second question. 

Thank you.

My reply back:

Hi Jesse:

You still haven’t gotten back to me about your brush-off of Kate Harrison, so I’m assuming that you’re not going to.

As you note, “ultimately the City Council makes the final decision on area plans and zoning.”  But the issue here is not whether the council has such authority, but whether in a specific instance, it exercised it in a manner consistent with democratic governance. In the case of the Adeline Corridor Plan, it did not.

Your characterization of the planning process is exclusionary and disingenuous.

It’s exclusionary because it references only councilmembers and staff, disregarding the Planning Commission and members of the public. The commission passed its recommended Adeline Corridor Plan by an 8-1 vote; and the commissioner who voted No did so only because she wanted a stronger affordable housing component. Numerous members of the public participated in a nearly six-year public planning process that culminated in the commission’s vote.

(Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by your invocation of the council’s authority: In July you joined Councilmembers Bartlett, Droste, Kesarwani, and Robinson in endorsing Scott Wiener’s failed SB 902 (now back as SB 10), which would have authorized California city councils to override “any local restrictions on adopting zoning ordinances enacted by the jurisdiction, including restrictions enacted by a voter initiative…”).

It’s disingenuous because the call for an extra floor came not only from your colleagues on the council but also from Berkeley’s Yimbyfied growth lobby, in this case represented by the Berkeley Now! groups. The South Berkeley Now! website displays a letter dated December 2 and addressed to the “Mayor and Council, City of Berkeley” re “Adeline Corridor Plan—Request for one-story increase in allowable height.” In the week before the December 8 meeting, the council was flooded with emails making that request.

If you and the five colleagues who joined you in voting down Ben Bartlett’s substitute motion wanted that request to be considered as part of the public planning process, you should have sent it back to the Planning Commission, where it would have been analyzed and presented at a public hearing. Instead, you exploited your legal authority to override the commission and amended the plan without giving the public at large a chance to weigh in.

Respect for a democratic planning process is the key issue here, but I’m going to address other points you raise in your reply to me. You argue that “an additional story will result in either a greater number of affordable units on site as a result of a greater number of overall housing units” and “may also result in potentially more money to the Housing Trust Fund.” That reasoning ignores the larger concern: upzoning inflates real estate values, because it allows more profit to be extracted from the same space. The danger of such inflation ought to be uppermost in the minds of policymakers who are dealing with a community that has suffered extensive gentrification and displacement. The concluding episode of the Adeline Corridor Plan process shows that in the minds of the council majority and the Yimbys, that danger is trumped by the growth imperative.

Which brings me to your citation of Berkeley’s prospective RHNA allocation of 7-9K housing units as a reason to add a story to the Adeline Corridor Plan (a rationale that was also pushed by South Berkeley Now!). As the Embarcadero Institute has shown, HCD’s HCD’s huge new RHNA numbers are based on major errors. Those mistakes aside, the state ought to be rethinking its calculations in light of the massive uncertainties created by the COVID pandemic. In any case, the inflated numbers are setting up California cities for failure. As you know, failure means that SB 35 will kick in, mandating by-right (no public process) approval of housing, including market-rate housing.

As president of ABAG, you ought to be leading a fight to defend the prerogatives of the Bay Area’s cities and counties. Instead, you’re fronting for a state agency that’s preempting local land-use authority. The December 17 agenda of the ABAG Executive Committee lists letters from 46 cities in the Bay Area questioning the methodology that ABAG has provisionally adopted to assign allocations throughout the region. There’s nothing pro or con from Berkeley. As ABAG president and Berkeley mayor, you have a double responsibility to inform our city about the game that HCD is playing. You should have placed the RHNAs on the council’s agenda and encouraged a public conversation about HCD’s regional allocations and ABAG’s methodology. Instead, you’re using the disputed methodology to justify your peremptory motion on the Adeline Corridor Plan.

That you invoke the council’s authority to rationalize your action shows how much you’ve changed since you were a councilmember. I’m not just talking about your attitude toward development; I also mean your attitude toward power and accountability. Back then, you were willing to risk losing a fight that you were waging on principle.

In 2009, you forced the Bates council to rescind the Downtown Plan that it had passed, by leading a petition drive that got enough signatures to have put the thing on the ballot. That was brave and righteous. The Downtown Plan came out of Bates’ “secret-sellout” of the city’s lawsuit over UC’s long-range development plan; the suit said nothing about a new plan for Downtown. In 2014, after Bates and his cronies had gotten the voters to approve an “advisory” measure on Downtown whose loopholes offered huge giveaways to developers, you teamed up with Sophie Hahn and led the campaign that put Measure R on the ballot. It lost: The big real estate interests (for starters, think Sam Zell) poured money into the No campaign—and asking voters to consider a 28-page zoning ordinance wasn’t the shrewdest move—but, again, it was a principled move.

Now it’s: I know I’ve got the votes, so I don’t have to answer my critics.

“Arreguín Sees the Light on the Density”

That’s the headline over a story that appeared in the East Bay Express in February 2019. The writer, Steven Tavares, told how Arreguín had abandoned his “progressive brand of Nimbyism,” manifest in his 2016 attack on Jerry Brown’s Trailer Bill 707, the failed precursor of Scott Wiener’s failed SB 827 and failed SB 50. Brown’s measure, Tavares explained, “would have upzoned areas around transit hubs for high-density housing projects.” Arreguín, then a Berkeley councilmember, “famously called the bill…‘a declaration of war against our neighborhoods’.” But in January 2019, Arreguín, now mayor, “strongly supported an 180-story, 274-unit market-rate housing development near the Downtown Berkeley BART station. Arreguín,” wrote Tavares, “had seen the light.”

Indeed, he had. And as demonstrated most recently by his amendment of the Adeline Corridor Plan, he’s continued to see it.

What exactly is the source of that light?

I suggest that it’s as much Arreguín’s realization about his (hoped-for) political destiny as any newfound perception of density’s wonderfulness.

Aged 36, he’s spent his entire professional life as a politician. Many people, including myself, expected Droste, a Yimby favorite, to run against him for mayor in 2020. Instead, she endorsed his re-election bid, which figures: Arreguín had gotten endorsements from her big-name supporters, such as Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf— and then some, most notably Gavin Newsom.

Those endorsers may believe that Arreguín will continue his pro-growth policies at the regional and state level. And they will be watching how he operates at ABAG.

When the Metropolitan Transportation Commission executed its hostile takeover of ABAG in 2016, ABAG was already a greatly weakened agency. Last year, the MTC-ABAG old hand who engineered the takeover, then-Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, made a successful run for State Senate. Joining among many others Scott Wiener, David Chiu, and California Yimby, Arreguín endorsed Cortese’s bid.

Now run by MTC, which is effectively an arm of the Bay Area Council, ABAG is a shell of its former self; it doesn’t even have its own staff. Nevertheless, that shell could serve an ambitious young politician looking for a way to advertise his loyalty to the growth machine.

In 2019, a fight erupted over David Chiu’s AB 1487. The bill effectively made MTC a one-stop transportation and land use regional planning agency. For the first time, MTC would have the authority to directly fund housing and to levy a variety of revenue-producing measures on Bay Area cities. In January 2019, Arreguín had been elected ABAG Vice-President at his first meeting as a full member of the ABAG Executive Board.

Arreguín publicly defended AB 1487 at its committee hearings in Sacramento, seated at the table reserved for bills’ designated supporters and opponents. He also participated in closed-door negotiations about the measure, defending their exemption from the transparency requirements of the state’s Brown Act with the claim that the privacy had facilitated “a much more open and productive conversation…with our MTC counterparts” and Assemblymember (and bill author) David Chiu’s staff. AB 1487 passed, authorizing the creation of the Bay Area Housing Finance Authority.

The bill’s mandates have yet to be implemented; polling early in 2020 showed that even before COVID hit, Bay Area voters would not vote for new taxes to fund BAHFA. But the legal authority is there, waiting to be activated when conditions seem propitious.

Many people expect Arreguín to run for higher office. Nancy Skinner, who represents Berkeley in the State Senate, will be termed out in 2024. I surmised that Buffy Wicks, who represents Berkeley in the Assembly, would run for Skinner’s Senate seate, and that Arreguín would run for the 15th District Assembly spot. But I recently heard (not from Arreguín) that Wicks wants to stay in the Assembly for the legally allowable 12 years, and that Arreguín will go for the empty Senate seat. He’d have potentially more competition in the Senate primary than he would in an Assembly race. But he’d also be coming in with substantial advantages: prominent endorsers, a solicitous press, and a credulous electorate that pays little attention to state and regional housing politics and even less to Berkeley civic affairs.


Arreguín finally responded to my second email. Here is his response:

Hi Zelda, having watched the end of the 12/8 Council meeting and the exchange between myself and Councilmember Harrison, here is my response:

Councilmember Harrison did not want to allow developers to pay any impact fees at all. She wanted all on-site inclusionary units. 

My concern with just requiring units in the project is:

1) we get more affordable units through the impact fees, because we can leverage outside funding;

2) we have many needs in the Adeline Corridor for Housing Trust Fund monies – Ashby BART including calls for a 100% affordable housing project, South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation, churches that want to build affordable housing on their sites, and acquisition and rehab projects through the Small Sites Program. We do not have nearly enough funding to support all these projects, and so we desperately need additional fee revenue to help fund these affordable housing projects. 

With the tier system the bulk of the affordable housing requirement will be through units on site, with the residual in fees. 

To address Councilmember Harrison’s concern about fees funding projects in other districts, I proposed and it was included in the motion that we will develop a policy to dedicate affordable housing fee revenue from projects in the Adeline Corridor to affordable housing in the Adeline Corridor only. I will be working with city staff to develop this policy this month. 

Thanks, Jesse, but you said none of this in response to Kate Harrison’s objections to your motion. And regardless of the merit of her or your positions, your motion breached the democratic planning process for the Adeline Corridor Plan.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram


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