Response to the March 29, 1999 letter from Toni Loveland, Chair, Northern Alameda County Group, San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club.
By Paul Kamen, Berkeley Waterfront Commissioner
Thank you for your letter expressing the Sierra Club's concerns regarding development in the Berkeley Marina.
As an occasional Sierra Club member, I believe I share your basic priorities for open space and the local and regional environment. However, sometimes these issues get painted with too broad a brush, and a closer look might uncover some other important factors that might lead one to a different conclusion with respect to some specific projects.
Air quality and traffic:
The objection to hotel development in the marina on the grounds of increased traffic and air pollution, aggravated by lack of public transit, cannot withstand scrutiny. This is not a pristine wilderness, it is artificial landfill near the center of an urban metropolis. Development here is better characterized as urban infill, not sprawl. Hotel demand is sufficiently strong so that we can predict with some certainty that an occupied hotel room in the marina will replace an occupied hotel room in some other location. And other locations are likely to be further from the hotel guests' daytime destinations, are likely to have less effective public transportation service, and are likely to impinge more severely on the open space resources of an alternate location.
Traffic in the marina is light by any standard, and the level of new development under consideration would not cause a qualitative change. There are already 375 rooms in the existing Radisson hotel, and we are contemplating between 50 and 150 additional.
The marina is served seven days a week and 17 hours a day by the 51M bus route, operating over 50 busses to the marina every weekday. A major bicycle and pedestrian access project is underway, and an Amtrak station served by 22 passenger trains daily is just a 15 minute walk from the marina. The marina is also a pick-up point for airport shuttle busses. How can one conclude that the marina is not supported by public transportation?
From the regional air quality and traffic congestion points of view, development at the marina is probably a good thing. Infill relieves the pressure to sprawl. My concern for sensible land use and regional air quality are among the reasons that I favor hotel development in the marina.
The value of diversity and the value of open space:
There is tremendous value in mixing widely divergent land uses. When urban uses are brought right up to the waterfront, mixed with open space, public service programs, and private recreational non-profits, the result is increased diversity of waterfront activities. This diversity in turn enhances access, by bringing people engaged in one activity into close proximity with new services and opportunities that they might otherwise have missed.
Dense commercial development, placed with these goals in mind, enhances the value of the open space nearby. Done right, the total is better than the sum of the parts, and it's far more valuable to far more people than the recreational monoculture of continuous open space.
Done wrong, development can be a disaster. In Marina Del Rey, for example, architectural features and cultural artifacts seem to conspire to give the new visitor the clear message that "this place is only for rich people." On the Berkeley waterfront, the message must be "this place is for everyone." Key elements are: free access to piers and the water's edge; a generous assortment of parks of all sizes; good non-automotive and transit access; a variety of public-serving organizations and services; and ample free parking. (And we have to swallow hard for this last one - as much as I'm philosophically opposed to doing anything good for cars, the fact is that a visitor faced with gates, fee lots, "customer only" parking, and "permit required" spaces will not have the impression of being welcomed to our waterfront parks.)
There are some private recreational organizations that have outstanding track records for providing access to specialized activities at extremely low cost to both the user and the city. The Cal Sailing Club is probably the most conspicuous example on the waterfront, but there is room for many more organizations structured along the same lines (i.e., a private non-profit cooperative, open to the public at very low cost). That said, the equestrian center you refer to is probably not an appropriate use of waterfront lands for a variety of reasons.
The terms under which new organizations operate on public land is one of the ongoing policy concerns, and we would like to look to the Sierra Club for guidance and support. But it will be necessary to put down the broad brush and pick up a sharp pencil.
It's important to consider what the public revenue stream from additional commercial activity can do - and also what we will be forced to cut back without this revenue stream. The stated goal in your letter appears to be a waterfront that is almost exclusively open space and park. Even if we considered this to be the most desirable kind of urban waterfront - which I don't - the economic realities dictate another approach. Parks and open space need money. Money from commercial development already funds some important public service activities at the marina: several parks, the Nature Center, low-cost sailing and windsurfing opportunities, and the no-license-required fishing pier, among many others.
You do the users of the Berkeley waterfront a disservice, in my humble opinion, by rejecting "commercial viability" in favor of expanding the park. The waterfront is already mostly park, mostly open, and mostly surrounded by many square miles of our best and most natural open space, San Francisco Bay. It is the "commercially viable" activity that allows much of this open space to be maintained as park, that allows access programs to be operated, and that allows people to use, enjoy, and learn from this open space.
The marina now operates at a deficit level that is roughly equivalent to the annual budget of Shorebird Nature Center and related educational and recreational programs. Are you willing to shut these services down in order to avoid "commercially viable" development?
The most valuable open space on the waterfront is the water, not the land. Low-cost access to water-related activities is the one thing that can happen at the waterfront and no place else. Bringing part of the urban edge down to the water enhances access to this open space resource through a number of mechanisms: architectural mitigation, generation of subsidy revenue, and diversification of both uses and users.
Your blanket call for more land as open space, at the expense of access opportunities that depend on development, is not the right approach. It is not economically sustainable and it lacks functional diversity. It is a response that might be appropriately applied to many inland development sites, and certainly to wilderness sites, but it represents a kind of terrestrial myopia when applied to the waterfront.
I would like very much to work with the Sierra Club as an ally as we define the development components of the Waterfront Master Plan. But it will be necessary to look beyond the limits of pre-defined policy. We must also look beyond the shoreline, and view the urban waterfront as a place that must relate to the city and to the water around it. Consideration of only the natural terrestrial environment is not enough.