The zoning board should not be our nanny

2701 Shattuck

2701 Shattuck. Image from the developer.

There’s an apartment building being debated in Berkeley, and it’s not a bad proposal. At 60 feet tall, it would be about as tall as other buildings facing Shattuck. 2701 Shattuck would include 70 studio apartments (PDF), ranging in size from 307 to 344 square feet. It’s close to UC Berkeley, walking distance to Telegraph and BART, and adjacent to major bus routes. It will be built on what is now a fairly ugly vacant lot, and contribute $1.4 million to the city’s affordable housing fund.

Fifteen neighbors nearby aren’t happy with it. They cite the height and the proximity to detached housing nearby, common stuff. But they also cite on the size of the units and the relative lack of activities in the neighborhood. A zoning commissioner, Sophie Hahn, concurred, comparing the units to “penitentiary housing” and said there wasn’t enough room for “intimacy.”

Though I don’t want to speculate more on the concerns of massing and proximity, the others strike me as a damaging sort of condescension.

When I choose where I want to live, I look at a number of factors: price, transit options, proximity to my friends, job, and favorite neighborhood. As a single person who spends most of his time out at work or at some other hangout, I’m not so concerned about my home’s size. I need a bed, a desk, and a place to make and store food. A studio apartment in the right location will do me fine.

I am representative of one particular niche of potential renters. Other renters will be more concerned about proximity to transit, others about price, and others will want the space to entertain. As we grow our cities, developers should have the flexibility to build units and buildings that cater to the various niches of the rental market. Not everyone wants to live on a Mill Valley hillside, and not everyone wants to live in a high-rise off the Embarcadero.

We have our reasons for choosing the places we do, but it’s the height of arrogance to assume that our preferences apply universally. So when citizens say that studio apartments are “a new style of tenement housing,” I get upset. And when a policymaker (Sophie Hahn) says of studio apartments, “It’s a bleak, lonely, unhealthy life that I would have a lot of trouble endorsing,” that offends me, because she thinks that about my life.

The purpose of any market is to allow people to make their own decisions about what they want. I think beef tongue is disgusting. I have no idea why anyone would want to eat it. I mean, there must be something wrong with someone who wants to chew on something that has the texture of their own tongue. I also hate cilantro; it tastes like someone made nausea into a flavor and called it an herb. But advocate to ban these foods? Limit them to certain designated Mexican restaurants, perhaps, Vietnamese restaurants be damned? Of course not; it’s preposterous to even consider. I can make my own opinions without asking others to agree with me. That’s freedom.

So it’s not the place of any zoning commission to pass judgment on the lifestyles of the people who live in certain kinds of housing. Their purpose is to determine whether a project meets the zoning code, whether its visual and traffic impacts will unduly harm surrounding neighbors, and whether it will be a safe and sanitary place to live. Nor is it their purpose to determine whether a project is financially viable or not. It’s the developer’s job to determine that. And, in a free society, it’s nobody’s job but mine to determine whether my lifestyle is a bleak and lonely one or not.

Once government steps into personal preference, it becomes a nanny, tut-tutting our choices of home and neighborhood. Sophie Hahn, and the neighbors whom she agrees with, should stick to a critique of the building itself, not the people, like me, who they think are too depressed to live anywhere else.

Cross-posted with Vibrant Bay Area.

About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

23 Responses to The zoning board should not be our nanny

  1. Stephen Nestel says:

    I agree that people should have choices. I have to be somewhat sympathetic to the neighbors. Assuming that the apartment development will contribute fairly to the local tax base unlike non-profit developments that suck resources from the surrounding community, the issue of density DOES affect the surrounding community. It is a fair discussion for the neighborhood to decide what the community can support. A parking space is 220 square feet. The apartment is barely larger than that. It is safe to assume at least one car per apartment. More people means more traffic, more pollution and sadly, more crime.

    The micro apartments are roughly the same size as tenement hotel rooms. If you want to live there, it is your choice. I’d rather be surrounded by nature. There is no reason that we can’t have both.

    • The place will have 35 car spaces but 81 bike spaces. And yes, this will be for-profit. The history of failed proposals for this site, as well as the developer, say that any less density and it would need to be non-profit, given the constraints and costs of the site. I’d argue that, given the target demographic and the location, it’s not safe to assume 1 car per unit. And, given the price point ($1,000+ per month), it’s not safe to assume higher crime, either. The blight of that empty lot probably attracts more problems than would a restaurant and these units.

      But let the conversation and decision be about these things, not judgments about the health or bleakness of my lifestyle. I’d go so far as to argue that judgments like these are what make housing so expensive, exacerbate homelessness, and make nonprofit homeless shelters worse. We need micro units, we need mansions, we need luxury apartments, affordable pigeon holes, Eichlers, detached homes and townhouses. But that’s a post for another time.

    • Alex B. says:

      “It is safe to assume at least one car per apartment.”

      Based on what? I don’t think that assumption is valid at all.

  2. V_Taylor says:

    Sorry, I have to agree with the critics on both counts. Knock a floor off it (or use the front half of the top floor as a shared outdoor space); and set a bottom limit for the square footage for a single-person apartment/studio.

    Re this statement: “…neighbors … should stick to a critique of the building itself, not the people, like me, who they think are too depressed to live anywhere else.” This is just silly. No one is saying anything about the potential tenants. They are saying that tiny living spaces might not promote mental and physical health.

    A metaphor more apt than food choices might be labor laws. We’ve put in laws that help insure comfort and safety of workers, not to be nannies, but to set a floor on working conditions and thus beat back the relentless power of greed. Did people work those jobs before the laws went in? Sure, because that’s what was available and they had to work somewhere, even if it meant their 10-year old was working a 10-hour day 6 days a week, or that the workers got no breaks and were locked into the factory. This is a similar situation. Minimum floor area standards would beat back the relentless greed of landlords who otherwise would create 10×12 rooms with the shower over the toilet and a 1×1′ sink and call it a studio – and people would live in them because they had no other choice at that end of the housing spectrum. Some definitions would mean that even at the lowest end of the rent scale, the dwelling units available would be meet basic human needs.

    RE cars per unit, I’d assume that the parking spaces would be rented separately. Thirty-five sounds like too many parking spaces to me. Tenants will most likely be students with no need or desire to own a car, or low- and very low-income people who can’t afford a car. Throw car-share and bike-share pods into the mix, with plenty of secure bike parking. Maybe once they cut the parking spaces in half, they can find room to enlarge the living spaces a tad.

    RE the development becoming non-profit – OK. Fine. What’s the problem?

    I agree that we need all kinds of housing for all kinds of people, and all mixed together. But I also think there should be definitions, based on research, of the minimum amount of space (and amenities and natural light and access to the outdoors) required to define a space as livable.

    Having said all that, it sounds like the proposed units are about 18′ square. That’s a pretty good size, actually. With good design and adequate soundproofing surrounding each unit, they could be very nice and meet the needs of a large number of folks who want to live in that area.

  3. Franz Listen says:

    Bravo! I am absolutely with Dave on this. It is why the worst argument being wielded against new housing in Marin is the paternalistic notion that new housing would be too close to the freeway and therefore not good for the health of its inhabitants.

    Dave once responded that there were potential ways to mitigate that issue in building design. However, the larger point is that we should not be dictating to people how to manage trade-offs in their lives.

    An enormous number of EXISTING employees and residents in this County are within the pollution shadow of the freeway (which according to Dave can extend as far as 1.5 miles). However, nobody seems interested in either lecturing or protecting these people – which includes me – verifying the disingenuous of the air quality concern.

    With all due respect to V. Taylor, we do not need research to determine the minimum size of a space to be “livable”. It is not a scientific question. It’s a question of personal preference and individual choice within a competitive market.

    Dave is absolutely correct that apartment size mandates do not come for free. Rather, they raise the the cost of housing and end up harming the very people they purport to help.

    • There was a push in the early 20th century to make small spaces more sanitary, but it became prescriptive (must have a window as a fire escape) rather than descriptive (must have a safe fire escape route). The end result was a ban on the lowest-income styles of housing: flophouses (for-profit homeless shelters, essentially), residential hotels, and (in many Marin cities) studio apartments. The minimum unit size in California is, IIRC, 140 square feet not including the bathroom and closet space.

      The my mantra for regulation is, “Regulate, to the extent possible, the effect, not the cause.” With housing like this, that means using the noise ordinance to fight undue noise; using residential parking permits and parking pricing to fight parking overflow; adding car-sharing and bike-sharing to fight traffic; and so on. But leave it up to people to decide whether a 340 square foot studio is enough for them or not.

  4. Stephen Nestel says:

    Valerie, The issue of non profit is a HUGE issue. Non profit developments are a huge , financial drain on the community. But since Dave says this is for profit, let’s not go there. I would not like to live in this “dorm room” accommodation but would allow the development provided that off-street parking was provided. I don’t believe for a second that that the tenants won’t need a car. Sure they may be students or workers on campus today. Tomorrow, their careers may take them across town or across the Bay Area not easily served by mass transit. Should the tenants limit their opportunities to locations they can only reach by bike? I don’t think that is realistic. The fallacy of Smart Growth theory is that people are relatively static or only wish to travel along public transit routes. The exact opposite has been happening for decades. The economy is more dynamic and dispersed than ever before. We should plan for reality.

    • To my mind, the decision of what parking spaces to provide should be up to the developer and whether to pay for them up to the tenant. There are some who will need a car as they get jobs around the region, but others won’t. There’s no reason to force those car-free people to pay for an amenity they will never use, and there’s no reason for the government dictate the amenities a developer must provide.

      • Valerie Taylor says:

        “…there’s no reason for the government dictate the amenities a developer must provide.”
        Well, governments do dictate what developers must provide (toilet, fire escape, two means of egress, etc.). and parking requirements were created because people demanded that when developers built something, they also provide parking spaces for anticipated autos because they didn’t want the streets clogged up with autos orbiting and parking in their ‘hood

        • Valerie Taylor says:

          (Just to finish that thought) but the calculations on how many spaces to provide need to be customized, and the cost of the space should be borne by the user of the space, not all the residents.

        • Neil says:

          I wouldn’t put a parking space in the same category as toilets and the others, unless you think that driving is a basic human function…

        • Franz Listen says:

          In economics jargon, we need to start thinking of parking as the pure private good that it actually is. That’s the only way that it can be managed efficiently and not oversupplied. We need to get away from the idea that parking is a common pool resource and that individuals, retailers, home builders, etc. must contribute their fair share of pavement to exist as if we’re all part of some asphalt commune. The concerns that people have about spillover parking mainly boil down to not wanting to take responsibility for managing parking under their control or wanting a free lunch.

        • There are better ways to manage the effects of insufficient parking than to provide more of it for free. On the developer’s level, a car-sharing service, with subsidized membership, would reduce the demand for parking. Bike-sharing and transit passes would help, too. On the government’s level, a residential parking permit for homeowners would stop the circling. By targeting the effects of insufficient parking, we can address the deeper problems (need for easy transportation, the demand by homeowners to use their curb space, traffic caused by circling) without government intruding into the real estate market.

          I wrote about this issue in the context of Palo Alto, but the principals are the same.

    • Katie says:

      “sure they may be students or workers on campus today. tomorrow, their careers may take them across town”

      I don’t think grads would live in the same apartment they lived in as students, for an indefinite period of time. I recently graduated from cal, and I don’t know a single person who still lives in student-dominated housing to commute halfway across the bay. student-populated housing has a high tenancy turnover rate; on top of that, proximity to bart almost eliminates the need to own a vehicle–especially if you’re a student.

      If studio apartments are supposedly ‘bleak, depressing, and unhealthy’, universities should all burn down their campus-provided housing lol. “lack of activities in the neighborhood”–are you KIDDING me?? this is Berkeley, not the boonies of suburbia; there’s always something to do within walking distance, or just a short bus/bart ride away. With an insane number of undergraduates mingled in with the rest of the population, Berkeley NEEDS this.

    • Erica_JS says:

      Yes, today’s students are tomorrow’s young adults and their needs will change. But when they move out, NEW STUDENTS WILL MOVE IN. That is the nature of rental housing, especially in a college town. I am frankly baffled by this way of thinking, that every housing unit must meet the needs of every single person at every stage of their life. If that was true, we would outlaw not just dorms, but also retirement communities.

  5. letsgola says:

    The same thing has come up with NMS Properties in Santa Monica; during the last election cycle I saw mailers decrying the “prison cell” style development. Having visited a friend who lives at one of the properties, that’s just laughable – they’re pretty nice.

    More often than not, this is how the zoning/permitting process works. It is rarely about public health or safety; often about soft weasel words like “sensitive neighborhood”, “buffer zone”, or “harmonious”, or things that could obviously be determined by the market anyway like “what Berkeley needs”.

  6. Wanderer says:

    Like Dave, I find the notion of “too small” apartments to be laughable. If tenants find them too small they won’t be rented. But there are plenty of apartments this small and smaller in Berkeley, San Francisco, and around the country. Of course they will have to meet building code/safety requirements and have a toilet, ventilation etc. It’s reasonable for the government to say that units should have toilets, it’s not reasonable to set a minimum size. How big would that be? Who would set it? On what basis?

    Parking is another issue where rational discourse goes out the window. Many Berkeley residents don’t own cars, especially in central locations like this one.

    If I own a car, why would I rent an apartment without a parking space? I don’t know what the on-street parking situation here is at night, but let’s assume that it’s parked up with homeowners who appropriate street spaces rather than use their driveways and garages, as in many Berkeley neighborhoods. So if I have a car and are renting an apartment why would I rent in a parked up neighborhood? Why can’t tenants be given the choice of whether to rent apartments with parking spaces (the overwhelming majority in Berkeley) or without them? The neighborhood could institute Residential Permit Parking. Basically the neighbors are saying that the tenants have to bear the costs of building parking spaces so that they the existing residents (the great bulk of whom have off street parking spaces) can be guaranteed empty parking spaces at all times.

    Would the neighbors rather have these tenants living in, say, Concord, and driving into Berkeley instead?

  7. Stephen Nestel says:

    The essential argument made by most posters is “hey, I ride a bike, therefore I shouldn’t have to have a parking space.” I agree with this sentiment but still find it socially irresponsible to allow a developer not to provide parking as the inevitable result of compact living will result in many more cars in their neighborhood. For those occupants that don’t have a car centric lifestyle they can rent out their parking space. Like it or not , we live in a mobile, dynamic society. There is no guarantee that a tenant will not need a car at some point. Hey, I love bikes and have lived the lifestyle of bike commuting and shopping. It was fun and healthy. I get it. I also, have had physical setbacks where such transportation would be impossible. That is life. Where ever you have apartments without sufficient parking, you have on street parking problems. A developer should not be allowed to avoid social responsibility to save on his costs by not including parking in his development.

    • Valerie Taylor says:

      Steven, you may not be aware but across the country, municipalities are reducing and in many cases completely eliminating parking requirements from building permits. In San Francisco, they have even implemented parking maximums, so that a developer may not put in more than a certain number of parking places per units. This is in recognition of the well-founded understanding that people who live near transit will take transit; and if provided with Carshare pods and great pedestrian and bicycle connections, can and do live quite happily without owning a car. I don’t blame you for assuming that everyone needs to own a car, many people who have lived in the suburbs for decades feel this way because that’s how they live. But the wave of the future, particularly among younger people, is to abandon car ownership and its accompanying expenses.
      The seminal work on parking and its cost to society is “The High Cost of Free Parking” by Donald Shoup. I hope you find a copy and read it, I think you’ll find it very interesting.

    • On-street parking problems are best resolved by properly managing on-street parking rather than requiring off-street parking. Residential parking permits for existing residents that apartment-dwellers are ineligible for is the bluntest instrument available, but may be useful here. In fact, if paired with demad-priced parking along Shattuck, it could be a sensible solution to your concern about creeping street parking problems. A similar solution is proposed a bit closer to home, in the Montecito neighborhood.

      I don’t want to say that parking minimums don’t solve a problem; far from it, they were designed to solve just this problem. Rather, I want to say that they aren’t a good solution because they have all sorts of knock-on effects that have nothing to do with parking, which is what Donald Shoup’s book (and research) is all about.

  8. Stephen Nestel says:

    Where do you charge your electric car if you don’t have a parking space? If you are any of the hundreds of trades, professions or businesses that need fast convenient transport, you need a car. Short sighted “eco optimism” that everyone will transport themselves by bicycle, will not make it so. I swear there is nothing more foolish and short sighted than to bet the future on being “car-less” . Not everyone works in cubicle farms in cities. The other 90% needs to make a living. Even Portlanders are getting frustrated:

  9. Pingback: Anti-smart growth advocate defends urbanism | The Greater Marin

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