Which mayor would transform Northside into a retirement community?

The biggest challenge for our campus community is housing. Faculty, students and staff all need to commute to the UC Berkeley campus, and many of us want to live within walking distance. A recently proposed development would exacerbate our housing crisis, perhaps for 100 years. The next Berkeley mayor could determine whether this proposal is accepted. I asked three leading mayoral candidates to weigh in.

The Pacific School of Religion is located right next to campus. Its massive six-acre property lies between Hearst Avenue and Virginia Street along Arch Street. It has agreed to redevelop this property in partnership with Mather LifeWays, an administrator of senior living centers. Under the proposed $400+ million redevelopment plan, the land would be used for 500,000 square feet of housing and facilities that would be restricted to people at least 60 years old, along with their on-site nursing staff.

The 60+ age requirement would exclude a large majority of UC Berkeley’s active faculty, students, researchers, advisors and staff. The consequences are simple matters of geometry: If UC community members aren’t even eligible to live on this land next to campus, they’ll be pushed farther away, which means longer average commutes, more cars and more congestion on city streets.

We can never create new land next to campus. Now that the Pacific School of Religion has determined that it doesn’t need the land itself, this large property should be repurposed for housing. The question for city officials is whether they will approve the proposal from the highest bidder, Mather LifeWays. There is little doubt that in the current real estate environment, if this proposal were rejected, other developers would bid for the land. Therefore, the city must choose: exclude most of the UC community from living in this area next to campus, or wait for a new proposal that creates housing available to everyone.

The mayor and City Council have great influence over this decision. In the mayoral forum Wednesday night, three candidates spoke about the housing crisis: Jesse Arreguin, Laurie Capitelli and Kriss Worthington. All three clearly advocated that developers should build lots of new housing in Berkeley. Arreguin emphasized the need for responsible development that respects existing neighborhoods and residents. Worthington emphasized his goal to create 10,000 new housing units in Berkeley. Capitelli emphasized the need to compromise with developers. After the forum, I sent each of them an email asking directly about the Pacific School of Religion redevelopment proposal.

Laurie Capitelli responded to me that this land would be a prime spot for senior housing. He also acknowledged that it would be a prime spot for faculty, student and staff housing. He then proceeded to make the case that more senior housing is needed for those who wish to move out of large houses but stay in Berkeley. That’s certainly true, but omits the fact that senior housing could potentially be built anywhere with a nice bay view; land within a three-minute walk from campus is extremely limited.

Kriss Worthington responded that as a Council member, he cannot comment on pending proposals. Instead, he pointed out that he has appointed more UC community members to city government positions than any other Council member. He has been working with Jesse Arreguin to expand Telegraph Avenue building height limits, so that denser housing can be constructed near campus. He said several new student housing projects have just opened this semester, with more on the way.

Jesse Arreguin did not respond, but he has a long record of advocating for community benefits when working with developers. During the mayoral forum, he talked about partnering with UC to request state financial support for building more faculty and student housing next to campus.

This proposed development would permanently affect Berkeley’s geography. All candidates agree that more housing needs to be built, but only Laurie Capitelli defended this problematic project, which would prevent so many of the people who work and study at UC Berkeley from living in this six-acre site right next to campus. I’ll be voting for Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington in hopes of protecting this unique piece of land for some future use that would benefit all Berkeley residents. Whatever you decide, please remember to vote in this important local election!

John Denero is a UC Berkeley professor in Electrical engineering and computer science.

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