This Is How Homelessness Happens: Luxury Hotels in Berkeley

Nobody buys the hype about insanely tall buildings somehow saving the whales or solving the housing crisis. Insanely tall buildings full of luxury housing fill up with insanely wealthy people who rarely wonder why a town which once had a thriving black community now looks like a white country club.

by Carol Denney

Are you paying attention to housing and planning issues? You probably are, or you wouldn’t have picked up this publication in the first place. About 75 people who do care piled into the Landmarks Preservation Commission to stop the latest jumbo scoop of brassy luxury housing from being poured on top of a Berkeley city landmark on August 13, 2015. It was both thrilling and sad.

They were there out of a deep concern over a proposed mixed-use development with an 18-story luxury tower, 302 residential units and commercial space on the ground floor.

Part of the project would be developed on a city landmark site that includes the historic Hotel Shattuck Plaza. The development at 2211 Harold Way would be called The Residences.

As a community, we looked brilliant. Engineers, architects, a former mayor, former landmarks preservation commissioners, commissioners from other community commissions, respected authors, people who had lengthy backgrounds in historic preservation, and citizens with decades of civic involvement made an impressive case for denying developers a project which distorts almost every planning parameter in existence.

The proposed project would have no low-income housing. Critics contend it would deface the original landmark site, cast shadows in the downtown area and block views of other landmarks, create wind tunnels and inflate rents.

The ugly tower would no longer commune with the other landmark buildings nearby in any meaningful way.

It all adds up to 18 stories of profit for the well-connected handful of consultants and developers who can count on Silicon Valley techsters to fill even wildly overpriced condos and penthouses, even if the displaced cinemas are never replaced.

The beautiful souls who read through the zoning application materials, applicant statement, project plans, draft historic context report, geotechnical feasibility report, environmental site assessments, stormwater report, LEED checklist, etc., left the meeting collectively stunned after having spent many months diligently documenting the obvious flaws in the proposal and the even more obvious tricks that were played upon the process to fast-track matters and keep investors’ minds at ease.

This is how homelessness happens. Nobody in the room, probably not even the project’s threadbare handful of supporters, really buys the hype about insanely tall buildings somehow saving the whales or solving the housing crisis.

Insanely tall buildings full of luxury housing fill up with insanely wealthy people who rarely seem to wonder why a town which once had a thriving black community now looks like a white country club.

“The Housing Circle of Life.” Art by Carol Denney

“The Housing Circle of Life.” Art by Carol Denney


The project opponents are not entirely out of ideas to stop the project. The politicians who stacked the commission with people carefully instructed not to stand in the way of this project — no matter how silly it looks — can still come to their senses. What was referred to as “architectural poison” by one speaker doesn’t have to be permanently visited on this or any other town.

Berkeley, like other cities in the densely packed Bay Area, doesn’t have any more square footage to squander on the wealthy if it ever wants to help the rest of us get out of the rain. Rich people may sprout exponentially out of the tech world or sail in on personal jets from foreign lands, but somebody’s got to drive their taxis, teach their kids and pump their coffee drinks.

Square footage is finite, and we hit the breaking point on living in Modesto while trying to work in San Francisco a long time ago. We need planning that respects our architectural heritage, our cultural heritage, our community needs, and politicians who are willing to play fair instead of short-circuit our democracy for personal political gain.

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