Will Growth-Averse Berkeley Go High-Rise?

In response to meeting regional housing demand requirements stipulated by the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee of Berkeley, California, considers a high-rise development plan proposed by city staff.

"Should downtown Berkeley sprout a highrise-studded skyline, complete with 14 new 16-story 'point towers' as a solution to regional government demands that the city add new housing?"

"That was one of the solutions offered by city planning staff at Wednesday night's meeting of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee."

"The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) has issued preliminary figures that will form the basis of a new mandate that would force the city to prepare the way to add 2,700 new housing units over the next seven years."

"ABAG has decreed a 'smart growth' policy that mandates cities with major transportation facilities and job access to accommodate the lion's share of regional development."

"Under the proposed guidelines, the city would have to prepare for a total of 5,450 new housing units by 2035. Failure to comply could mean the loss of some state funding and programs."

"The high-rises-called 'point towers' because they are set back from lower street-frontages" -would each be as tall as one of the tallest buildings in the city.

"Looking at the point tower scenario, (Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee) member and architect Jim Novosel said 'density for density's sake sucks,' agreeing with fellow member Juliet Lamont that any plans should include greenery. Winston Burton agreed, and stressed the need to include larger, three-bedroom units among the affordable housing to be created."

Thanks to ABAG-MTC Library

Full Story: High-Rise Tower Plan Proposed for Downtown



Point Towers

I don't see the benefit of the proposed "point towers" (Vancouver style buildings, with a lower base and a tower rising in the middle of the street).

The illustration in the article shows a building with a five-story base and a 14 to 16-story tower that seems to occupy about one-fifth of the site. You could get the same density with a 7 or 8-story building - which would be much more human-scale than the sterile towers that they are proposing.

Proponents of the towers claim that they give better solar access to surrounding buildings - the same thing Le Corbusier and other modernists said to support his tower-in-a-park housing projects. I think that failure should teach us to build in a human scale.

Charles Siegel

I disagree with your

I disagree with your assertion that a 7 or 8-storey building (with a large footprint) is preferable. A matter of opinion, I suppose, but I prefer tall, slender towers anyday to big, horizontal boxes. Also, "sterile" is an adjective which can be used to describe any building type. Slender towers can be sterile or they can be visually interesting, just like any other building.

Moreover, a slender tower atop a 5-story base is not a "Vancouver-style" building. Typically, in Vancouver, slender towers (sometimes as high as 40 stories) rise above a 2-story base; this looks a lot better (and lets in more light to the street below plus is more pedestrian-scale) than a big, blocky-looking 7 or 8-storey building running along an entire blockfront.

Go for it Berkeley... but keep the base of the building LOW (preferably two, but definitely not more than 3 stories).

Christopher C.

I also disagree with Charles

After traveling to Vancouver I would totally have to agree with you Chris. I would much rather live among the dense point towers of Vancouver, than the darkened canyon streets of Chicago. Vancouverseque towers really give a light, airy, and open feel to the city. It always feels as if the towers are somehow further in the distance than they really are. Though I also agree with Chris in that the bases of these buildings should be lower than they are in the picture and the towers should be taller and more slender. Those renderings look quite bulky. Go for it Berkeley. Then again this could totally be a matter of personal taste. At least until some study attempts to quantitatively prove then benefits and costs of either schema.

Both agree and disagree.

I traveled to Vancouver as a grad student to study the urban form there. I really liked it and found the scale to be appropriate to the street, as commenters above noted; the way they do treatments at street level eliminates many things that deter ped traffic [as anecdotes about 'stroller congestion' illustrate].

I take Charles to mean 'human scale' at the 'willing to climb stairs scale'. A 30-story tower won't be used in 30 years if energy replacements aren't found and cities depopulate as a result. I must say, though, one tower in Berkeley (or Sac for that matter) could likely look like a sore thumb standing there alone.



Points taken, and points posed

Energy costs are a point well taken. Likewise it also appears that it would be more expensive to build a taller slender building in the first place (fewer units per floor, more structure required, greater elevator requirements, etc). But then in contrast you also get increased community wide benefits (sunlight, fresh air, an open feel, roof decks or green roofs on top of the tower bases). That’s why we need a study to compare these two schemas. And I also have to say that one tower in Berkeley could be viewed as an eye sore or an icon! Depends on how it’s done. I think any town which over does something risks becoming sterile and monotonous. Even Vancouver could be viewed in this way with its overwhelming preference for the use of point towers. The point is that there is value in variety.

High-Rise vs. Human Scale

By human scale, I mean a scale that promotes human contact. In towers-in-a-park projects, people in the upper floors can see the distant view but cannot see what is happening right in front of their building; these projects seem impersonal because of this lack of human contact. Point towers try to fix this by setting back the towers and having human scale buildings at the sidewalk: of course, it is better to have this lower base than only towers, but the towers themselves are still impersonal.

Jan Gehl has the best discussion of this topic, and there is a scan and excerpt from his writing on my blog at http://preservenet.blogspot.com/2006/11/why-high-rises-seem-faceless-and.... Though he is less known, I think Gehl is as important a critic of modernist urbanism as Jane Jacobs, and I recommend his books to anyone who has not read them.

Even if you want towers elsewhere, you should consider that Berkeley is a special case because it is one of the few places left in the US that has a traditional skyline, with midrise fabric buildings and a symbolic structure (the Campanile) rising above them - as the cathedral rises above the fabric buildings of a medieval city and as the church spire rises above the fabric buildings of a Vermont town. Washington, DC, is the largest city in the US with this sort of traditional skyline (with the Capitol dome and Washington Monument rising above the fabric buildings), and I believe Berkeley is the second largest in the US. (Can anyone suggest of a city that beats Berkeley for second?)

I think John Galen Howard's urban design for Berkeley should be preserved rather than being marred by a highrise, just as Vermont towns should not be marred by highrises, and just as St. Petersburg should not be marred by a highrise (see http://www.planetizen.com/node/22320), because it is a historically important urban design and because this sort of traditional urban skyline has become rare.

Finally, consider how ordinary people react to high-rise towers. The committee in Berkeley rejected this proposal (one member said that it "sucks"). I think they would have been much more receptive to proposals to build infill in downtown at the intimate scale of traditional European cities. You can get plenty of density at this traditional scale, as in Paris and other European cities.

I think the same is true of most Americans, who could be attracted by intimate, human scale neighborhoods even if they are high density. The New Urbanists have been successful because they build intimate-scale nieghborhoods, even though they are denser than sprawl suburbs. I think we could be equally successful if we built intimate-scale urban neighborhoods; a good example is Santana Row in San Jose (though it should be transit-oriented).

Note that I am a long-time supporter of smart growth, and I have spent lots of time fighting Berkeley NIMBYs (see the related link of the original post). But I don't think we serve the cause of smart growth by adding high-rises to what is now a fairly human-scale downtown. This sort of thing will just convince people that the only alternatives are impersonal highrises or auto-dependent sprawl - and if those are the alternatives, I think most Americans will go for sprawl.

Charles Siegel

Humane scale.

But I don't think we serve the cause of smart growth by adding high-rises to what is now a fairly human-scale downtown.

Good point, sir. Viscerally, Charles, I don't think a high-rise is right in that context, but I like them in Vancouver.

And I may, if I think about it, agree that the towers themselves are impersonal, but isn't the point that people move to downtown for the vitality and the amenities, and are drawn to the street where there is abundant human contact (again, in Van and not Berkeley)? Sure, they retreat to their towers, but go down to the street again and again.

Note to suburb-loving libertarians: I say 'they', as I don't live downtown. I like the rural lifestyle and my big garden, and I plan for a wide range of housing and don't expect to cram everybody, including SFD-loving two-hours-a-day-in-their-cars-freedom-loving-having-a-wide-range-of-auto-choice-suburbanites into only one housing "choice".



High Rises Redux

And I may, if I think about it, agree that the towers themselves are impersonal, but isn't the point that people move to downtown for the vitality and the amenities, and are drawn to the street where there is abundant human contact (again, in Van and not Berkeley)?

I think it is possible to have both human-scale buildings and abundant street life and vitality, as in traditional European cities. Plenty of street life in Paris or in NY's Lower East side, even though the buildings generally only go up to 6 stories (with some notorious exceptions in Paris, but there is lots of street life in the old mid-rise neighborhoods).

That sort of traditional urban neighborhood is my ideal, but I have to admit that the genii is out of the bottle, and it is too late to preserve traditional scale in downtown San Francisco, Vancouver, and (in fact) in most city centers in the world, with a relatively few exceptions that have not already been high-rised. In these places, I am not against building more high-rises, in a way that promotes street life - for the usual reasons of reducing sprawl and auto dependency.

Many people do like these high-rise neighborhoods, but I think we also have to accommodate large numbers of people who would not want to live in high-rise neighborhoods but would be attracted by traditional-scale neighborhoods.

Thanks, Dano, for agreeing with my point about preserving Berkeley's historic skyline. There will be a battle soon about a proposed convention center that is even taller than these point towers. When I tell people that Berkeley is the second largest city in the US that still has a traditional skyline, they stare at me and obviously don't know what I am talking about.

Charles Siegel

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