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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: The lumberyard mix-up

By Peter Loubal, El Cerrito, 5/17/2001

Most El Cerritans have the good sense to spend their free time fixing their homes, gardening, or doing fun things with their families. The morass of local politics is left to a handful of people who have a personal interest in such issues, or just enjoy the hurly-burly. But there is an occasional issue, like the Lumberyard housing project, which can do long term financial and quality-of-life damage to citizen's interests. Residents should know what it is really about, and get involved.

Understandably, landowners and developer see a project in terms of what maximizes profits and can be readily financed. Residents know a project won't be built if it doesn't produce an adequate profit, but should also know a project's effect on taxes, property values, traffic, parking, etc., and how it fits in with the character of their neighborhood, or their vision of their town's future.

El Cerrito's seven planning commissioners took a serious look at the pro's and con's of the proposed Lumberyard project. Two mainly ideologically motivated members liked what was being proposed, but five more pragmatic commissioners had serious reservations and did not approve the proposal. The issues and concerns deserve a deeper analysis than can be provided here, but this is just the start of the process. There is every reason to hope that the project can be modified to better benefit our City, while providing an adequate if maybe not so instant profit to the owner and developer.

The project promoters claim that the developer will drop the project if not given what he wants. Anyone who has bought or sold a house or car knows there exist profit and loss limits one cannot cross, but that negotiations occur best when the financial cards are openly on the table, in good faith. The City can do a lot to sweeten the deal if the project is modified to fit the needs of residents, but we're not there yet. So far, the project promoters have mainly used strong-arm tactics and manipulation, and that includes the two political support cohorts that have gathered around them:

1. The Chamber of Commerce Directors (and some Rotary Club supporters) claim the project is needed for San Pablo Avenue "to take off". This group is dominated by San Pablo Avenue property owners, who insist on their right to make as much money as possible. That's a worthy and very "American" goal. But residents need to make sure that other people's "profits" are not their "loss"

2. The "El Cerrito Democratic Club", "Sustainable El Cerrito", and the "West County Sierra Club
Chapter", all form a politics and ideology alliance that wants the project "because it will help alleviate the housing shortage, and promote transit, in-fill development, and new urbanism."

The "Chamber" and the " Democrats" tend to be political opponents, but have now joined forces to get the Council to approve the project. The Chamber wants planning commissioners "to explain their decision." The Democratic/Environmentalist group has sponsored a "Housing Choices for Livable Communities" discussion in El Cerrito, assembling a panel of politicians and experts to boost the project. It's not surprising when such groups promote their financial and political interests or ideologies. But then residents must look elsewhere to make sure that their needs are protected.

There's a lot at stake, and this tends to foster hypocrisy and manipulation. The most active project proponent is our Mayor, Larry Damon. He should have acted neutral, but instead went overboard with dire threats of economic doom if El Cerrito does not approve the project. He did all he could to keep the Economic Development Board from analyzing the fiscal impacts and long-range business consequences of possible project alternatives. He tried to discredit a consultant's report that favored more offices for the site. He strong-armed the Committee on Aging to hold back on a resolution for the project to have a proper affordable housing component. He contacted the planning commissioners after they rejected the projected to find out "what it would take to change their mind." This may have been a proper role for the owner/developer, but not for someone deciding an appeal. After criticism for being too partisan he now acts "more statesmanlike", but this is too late. Larry is a man who puts his money where his mouth is and his mouth where his money is. Anyone watching him huddle with San Pablo Avenue land owners will have seen that he does not just want to be one of them, but is one of them. Indeed, earlier this year, he helped finance a property about two blocks from the project, and could suffer a financial loss if the economic "bust" he predicts really occurs. He is being asked to recuse himself from any quasi-judicial role in the process, because of his financial involvement and excessive project advocacy.

Two project proponents on the "Progressive Democrat" side also deserve to be singled out. Letitia Moore is their favorite candidate to take over Larry Damon's Council slot. She spoke up eloquently and long, as Planning Commissioner, for project approval. Most tellingly, she by-passed any demand for the project to pull its full weight in providing low income housing, which was the gist of the Democratic Club resolution. Instead, she argued that the project does not need to provide enough parking for visitors. "Let them take a bus" says Letitia as she hops into her car to drive the two blocks to such meetings. El Cerritans may soon be voting either for Letitia or for Larry for Council. They deserve to know that she's an EPA attorney who solicits and accepts campaign contributions from her counterparts, who defend "polluter" interests. Residents, most of whom surely don’t like being cooped up themselves, will have a tough choice between these politicians who have both replaced the "Chicken in every pot" with a "Stacked pot for every chicken" slogan.

Another strong "Democratic Club/Sustainable El Cerrito" project supporter is Lori Dair. Unlike Letitia she's more interested in wielding political power from behind the scenes. Lori has achieved her life-long dream of living in a hillside home atop a canyon "where deer and coyotes frolic". Now, rather than accept that most of us prefer single-family owner-occupied homes and may need some financial help to be able to afford that, Lori promotes in-fill rental housing. For other people, of course. Many of us are renters some time in our lives, or have no choice. But an objective person would question whether a housing project on a congested State Route, which does little to help achieve a job and housing balance in our town, makes sense. Those who need housing, will not benefit from public funds being wasted on transportation, to make up for bad land use policies.

So we have Lori and Letitia, battling Larry for political control. Appropriately enough, all the names start with an L. Residents should realize that L also stands for Lies, Loss and Lunacy. These are strong but appropriate words. The project's CEQA document lies about the true impacts. There's no benefit and cost analysis to justify claims it will help the city tax-wise, (though the developer may produce skewed calculation for the appeal hearing). The proposed project is a "Looser", condemning San Pablo Avenue forever to mainly mass tenements. It is lunacy to promote "Economic Development" if we accept housing with just token commercial for a prime business area. The Lumberyard project should not be decided just by private political or financial interests and ideology, but also by its financial and quality-of-life impacts on the rest of us.

Let San Pablo Avenue landowners profit, by providing something our community really needs!

Run dates: 2001-05-17 - 2001-06-07

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