At the place of “It Can Happen Here,” what almost happened here, happened there. Columbia, Maryland and Berkeley, California have been intertwined since Columbia’s founder, James Rouse, gave a speech at Berkeley detailing his basis for building Columbia. Catherine Bauer, the woman who chaired the conference at which James Rouse spoke, taught both Bill Finley (Columbia’s Chief Planner) and Mort Hoppenfeld (Columbia’s Chief Architect) in graduate school.
Both cities have a population of approximately 100,000. Both are adjacent to two large cities; Berkeley has Oakland/San Francisco, Columbia has Baltimore and Washington. Although the Lawrence-Berkeley National Lab is closer to downtown (approx. 1 mile) than NSA is to downtown Columbia (about 8 miles), both Federal centers employ many people in their respective communities.
Fast forward to today, and we find both Berkeley and Columbia looking at their downtowns. The Berkeley City Council passed zoning legislation in the Summer of 2009 to redevelop their downtown and the Howard County Council passed zoning legislation in the Winter of 2010. In both cases, residents opposed to the zoning mounted referendum petition drives. In Columbia, the petition failed, in Berkeley, the petition succeeded and was placed on the ballot as “Measure R.”
Now Berkeley has an interesting structure to their referendum questions. As part of the ballot process, the Measure is listed on the city website. Also included on the website is an impartial analysis of the Measure by the City Attorney, as well as arguments for and against the Measure.
The short form of the Measure reads as follows:
Shall the City of Berkeley adopt policies to revitalize the downtown and help make Berkeley one of the greenest cities in the United States by meeting our climate action goals; concentrating housing, jobs and cultural destinations near transit, shops and amenities; preserving historic resources; enhancing open space; promoting green buildings; and calling for 2 residential buildings and 1 hotel no taller than our existing 180 foot buildings and 2 smaller office buildings up to 120 feet?
As linked above, all of this is still on the City of Berkeley website, and provides a pretty-good understanding of the question. I will leave it to your individual Google searches to fill in some of the background information, but one of the interesting parallels between the Columbia community and Berkeley community was the use of social media and new web tools. As with Freemarket’s use of Xtranormal to highlight the Fox/Beams race, it appears that some enterprising folk in Berkeley used the same software. This gave the virtual impression that although these races were a continent apart, Fox/Beams, and the Berkeley Resident/Nimby Robot were each having a discussion in front of the same virtual building.
I bring this up because, as with most elections, there has been quite a bit of navel gazing about what the election means. Those that peruse the HoCo blogs have certainly read some of the search for meaning from the Republican point of view. But there has also been some soul-searching amongst others in the community. Voter apathy? Federal workers? Voters not understanding the message?
A recent column written by San Francisco columnist John King may shed some light on both communities.
Measure R hit all the buttons of 21st century urban environmentalism: The ballot question framed the issue at hand as "concentrating housing, jobs and cultural destinations near transit, shops and amenities" to "revitalize the downtown and help make Berkeley one of the greenest cities in the United States."
The measure also would make room for three buildings of 180 feet - equal to office buildings of the same height from 1925 and 1969 - and opponents responded as though Sears Tower was being shipped to Shattuck Avenue. The ballot arguments warned of "empty promises with destructive proposals" and "a developer-backed plan ... allowing outsized development to overwhelm surrounding neighborhoods." Man the barricades!
For those Democrats that live in District 4, some of the above passage may sound like pieces of mail that began showing up late this summer. Mr. King goes on to present an interesting hypothesis that may provide some insight here in Howard County. His column begins:
"Generation gap" is a phrase past its prime, like a guy who thinks he's still hip because Levi's are still his look.
But it rings true in the Bay Area of 2010, especially with regard to attitudes about the shape our cities and suburbs should take.
More and more, there's a disconnect between the established view of how we should grow, and the values of people who weren't even born when activists first battled "Manhattanization." The (mostly) gray-haired guardians who radiate the certainty that They Know Best have dominated the debate for decades, but they can't defy the calendar. With every passing year, the old certainties look a bit more ... old.
Broadly speaking, I think Mr. King might be onto something; however, I do not believe that theories on how cities can sustainably evolve break down solely along generational lines. What is now clear is that there is more than one viable theory on how a city can grow responsibly. Mr. King closes with that in mind:
This shift rubs some old-school environmentalists the wrong way, Madsen admits. But as the Berkeley vote shows, it's in sync with younger people who like the idea of filling "their" downtowns with people and life.
"The options aren't the cul-de-sac or Manhattan," Madsen suggests. "What you see in Berkeley is a bit of what we see happening all over the Bay Area. ... People are saying there's a different urban form they'd like to see come to fruition."
I don't want to oversell the transition now under way.
There always will be growth-wary neighbors, at times justifiably so. Some people in their 60s love towers; some people in their 20s loathe them. Nor do I buy the premise that every additional housing unit in San Francisco or Berkeley means one fewer home on distant farmland. Families don't choose between a McMansion in Brentwood or a 20th-floor condo on Rincon Hill.
But here's the difference: This generation of activists has moved beyond the simplistic mind-set that change is to be resisted. Its definition of urbanity doesn't start with the notion that the essence of San Francisco as a place - how it should look, how tall it should rise - was defined once and for all in 1969 or 1984.
One veteran who accepts the shift is John Kriken, a longtime urban designer with the international firm Skidmore Owing & Merrill who also now teaches at UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design.
"Kids today have grown up with a much greater awareness of sustainability issues and the role that density plays in protecting land from indiscriminate use," Kriken says. "They see the bigger buildings, and they're not fearful of them."
This doesn't mean today's younger activists are right and the ones of Kriken's era were wrong. It's that - news flash! - times change.
"For every generation that chooses the city, the beginning point is now," Kriken says. "The 'real San Francisco' is today. They don't carry the images in their head that I have in mine, or that my friends have in theirs. They don't have the baggage of all the past battles."
And you know what? That's a good thing.