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A Developer? In Berkeley? |  Patrick Kennedy has thick skin and a controversial plan for downtown. |
By Eve Kushner

A developer in Berkeley must be something like an environmentalist in Orange County: a person who needs extraordinary tenacity, self-esteem and optimism to persevere.

Patrick Kennedy—the prolific and controversial developer working in a town renowned for its educated citizenry and an ultra-democratic process that can thwart the most benign project—seems to revel in abundant criticism: In his glassy office on the Gaia Building rooftop, he has hung a newspaper’s caricature of him as a Neanderthal and an editorial cartoon that skewers him as a fat cat. He repeatedly and gleefully quotes criticism of his Gaia Building as “a Stalinist monstrosity, a monument to civic corruption.” And he touts his short memory and thick skin as his best defenses against ongoing criticism by those he derides as “anti-development forces masquerading as preservationists.”

A tall, dark-haired Harvard-educated lawyer who brings to mind Mr. Big, the smooth operator in Sex and the City, the 53-year-old Kennedy has angered many by building tall mixed-use structures, often at prominent intersections (take, for instance, the elaborate Bachenheimer Building at the T-intersection where Shattuck Avenue meets University Avenue). Some Berkeley residents view him as an ongoing threat to the small-town look and feel of the city.

Although he sold off all his Panoramic Interests properties in April for an estimated $150 million, is down to two staff members and expresses considerable frustration with the town’s activist “forces of ‘No,’” Kennedy doesn’t seem to be planning a quiet retreat to his home in Piedmont. Instead of backing off from the controversy he’s weathered for two decades, he’s fanning the flames by advancing a vision for Berkeley that’s bolder than ever: 20-story high-rises downtown, and lots of them.

“High-density housing right next to transit is probably one of the most important ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint,” says Kennedy, speaking with considerable passion. “If we want to do something environmentally sound, we would put more people in downtown Berkeley who want to be in downtown Berkeley.”

To date, the developer has completed 12 buildings in Berkeley and is currently remodeling the old Act 1–2 Theater. If Kennedy had his way, he would model Berkeley after a host of urban areas with dense and vibrant downtown districts: Cambridge, Vancouver, Greenwich Village, parts of San Francisco (Hayes Valley, for example) and Paris. Kennedy refers to Berkeley’s downtown as “underachieving” and “a bit rough” but sees University Avenue as a potential Champs Elysées. He’d like to build intermittent high-rises, rather than a wall of them, to maintain “view corridors.”

Austene Hall certainly opposes such visions. Active in Berkeley political issues for more than 15 years (and the lead plaintiff against Kennedy in an unsuccessful suit involving his Touriel Building), this Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association board member is also an ad hoc member of the downtown board. She feels that high-rises would completely detract from Berkeley’s small-town feel and that allowing one tall building would open the floodgates: “You end up with many tall buildings that overshadow, overpower, are not harmonious with and are non-contextual with our historic and really charming downtown,” she avers. Despite the current resistance to tall buildings as potentially detracting from the look and feel of Berkeley, Hall notes that in its heyday (1910–1930), downtown Berkeley included several six-story buildings, now demolished.

Kennedy seems bewildered by the forceful opposition to his ideas—especially since, he says, higher density in the city has proven to be positive and popular. The first developer to do any new construction in Berkeley after a lull from 1970 to 1990, he attributes opposition to lingering 1960s-era attitudes that cast developers as villains. “What I find kind of funny is that other cities are warmly embracing most of the stuff I’m doing: San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, Los Angeles,” says Kennedy about his high-density projects. “It puzzles me that Berkeley is unique in its antipathy.”


One of six children, Kennedy grew up in Lafayette and in then-rural Danville, watching tract houses impinge on the pristine fields near his home. His father, a lawyer who dabbled in real estate development, died of a brain tumor when Kennedy was just a baby.

Kennedy says his family straddled the community’s “redneck” and upscale “horsey” tendencies and lived next to Hell’s Angels arrested by the FBI for growing marijuana. “I thought that was the greatest thing to ever happen to us, because of the high drama,” says Kennedy. “Number one, having Hell’s Angels next door and, number two, having FBI agents in the living room. When you’re a 13-year-old kid, what’s better than that?”

Kennedy saw protests and riots in Berkeley during the ’60s and was excited by a city that contrasted sharply with his sleepy town.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics and English from what was then Claremont Men’s College and is now Claremont McKenna, Kennedy spent several blissful years in Oregon. “We were romantic college kids,” says Kennedy. “Instead of going off to grad school, I thought I’d do something a little different.” With friends and his first wife, he built a boat and house from scratch, as well as rehabbing a farmhouse. To earn money, he painted and sandblasted buildings, which taught him about the trades. The rest he learned from a Reader’s Digest book of home repairs and from doing it.

Kennedy simultaneously earned a law degree from Harvard Law School and a master’s in real estate development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1980s, then moved to his brother’s Berkeley apartment to study for the bar. But he quickly realized that he loved real estate development more than real estate law. He liked identifying properties, knocking around construction sites and transforming woebegone structures into functional buildings with vitality.

He and his brother restored a stately Julia Morgan in 1986 before he dove into the public sector, working for BART and getting a “PhD in bureaucracies.” By 1990, Kennedy had founded Panoramic Interests. To him, interests encompasses city planning and sociology.

Enamored of urban theorist Jane Jacobs’s ideas, Kennedy sent her book Death and Life of Great American Cities to Berkeley councilmembers so they would realize the potential of a denser downtown. “Jacobs happens to be one of my heroes,” says Kennedy, who has quoted her on the plaque outside his ARTech and Gaia buildings.

Kennedy gives generously to city council campaigns—seven of the nine current councilmembers have received his funding. He has also displayed an uncanny talent for winning support from key players in Berkeley, such as environmentalists and people with disabilities. He certainly needed this support when constructing the Gaia Building, which has spawned no end of controversy and several lawsuits. Critics of various stripes complain that it is far too large, that it replaced a historic dairy, that Kennedy won approval for extra floors by promising cultural resources that never appeared (such as the Gaia Bookstore that gave the building its name) and that construction was shoddy.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington says some of the arts groups that were supposed to become Gaia tenants were surprised when Kennedy asked them to pay astronomical rents that they couldn’t afford. “That’s why I told the Shotgun Players when they were negotiating with him, ‘Get it in writing, down to the penny, every little tiny feature,’” says Worthington. “Kennedy then told them they had to pay for all this extra stuff. And so they ended up buying their own building down on Ashby, and they’re very successful.”

Kennedy comes to his own defense on Gaia, saying the building is indeed affordable for arts groups and environmentalists. He says he originally promised 10,000 square feet of raw space for Gaia Bookstore, but then the store went out of business and left him with an unfinished area. The extra floors are justified, he says, because 20 percent of the units are set aside for low-income tenants. (Before selling his properties, Kennedy was the largest landlord of Section 8 housing in the city). And yes, the building’s stucco had water-proofing problems, but that’s been fixed. Overall, he says, Gaia tenants are happy.

Kennedy has his critics, but he also has his fans, including eco-friendly Realtor Betsy Thagard, who appreciates his dream of a denser downtown. “Berkeley is incredibly lucky to have an intelligent, persistent, thick-skinned developer with both a vision for the greater public good and great architectural taste. We should be the envy of other mid-sized U.S. cities whose developers have only cared about their own bottom line,” says Thagard.


City officials say the concept of a denser downtown is already on the table. Jim Samuels, chair of Berkeley’s planning commission, says downtown planners have been debating three strategies for revitalizing the area: Leave downtown as is, letting the marketplace carry it forward; raise height limits to eight stories to achieve greater density; or maintain the current five-story limit but allow intermittent high-rises.

Surprised by Kennedy’s vision, Samuels says that developers who regularly build high-rises aren’t exactly lined up to do that in Berkeley. Samuels favors taller buildings in Berkeley but mentions that the two existing high-rises (the PowerBar and Wells Fargo buildings) have at times struggled financially—a fact that high-rise opponents routinely highlight.

In February, when city planner Matt Taecker spoke of density and transportation and illustrated his point via 14 hypothetical 16-story buildings, some people in attendance winced, says Samuels. “The threat of having those buildings was too much for some people. They just kind of collapsed,” he says.

Nevertheless, tall buildings are already in the works. With the backing of SNK Realty Group (which develops properties across the southwest), the nine-story mixed-use Arpeggio Building will soon go up on Center Street across from Berkeley City College. In addition, a 19-story hotel and conference center will possibly be built (it doesn’t have city approval yet) across Shattuck Avenue, where Center meets Oxford Street.

Of course, Kennedy knows gaining support for his plans won’t be easy, considering recent fights over the Brower Center, a mixed-use project containing Trader Joe’s, and the contested North Shattuck Plaza. “Many people here completely lack a sense of proportion,” says Kennedy about Berkeley. “You would think we were proposing Three Mile Island on a corner where we’re putting in a bagel shop and a four-story apartment building.”

Siting high-rises downtown would concentrate wealth in a small region, rather than ineffectually throwing money at projects around the city, Kennedy says. He says success will beget success and grow in concentric circles. For example, he expects the thriving arts district to spill its good fortune into adjacent areas. He views new construction as a tangible expression of optimism, arguing that if people see a $40 million building going up, “They’ll know they’re not the only ones who have some faith in the downtown.” Heartened merchants will follow, he says.

Kennedy insists that his high occupancy rates prove that people do want to live in the city center, despite what skeptics say. He feels that empty-nesters long to trade in houses and gardens for lower-maintenance condos downtown. And once residents care about it, the downtown will transform.

Councilman Worthington takes issue with this line of thinking. He notes that proponents of condo projects always argue that owners will have vested interests in protecting their environs. But, Worthington says, more than half of Berkeley condos are rented to students, so there goes that theory. Worthington makes no secret of the fact that his interests—affordable housing, for one—often run counter to Kennedy’s.

It seems that Kennedy thrives on being a thorn in Berkeley’s side. So says Kirk Peterson, architect of four Kennedy buildings: “I suspect he enjoys being in Berkeley, where he’s different from everybody else. In Walnut Creek, it wouldn’t be as exciting.”

A collegiate boxer, Kennedy may be looking for more rumbling in the political arena. Peterson wonders if Kennedy has floated out the high-rise idea just to provoke people: “He enjoys a good fight. It’s like a sport, a challenge.”

Kennedy will need all the fans he can find if he pursues his vision of high-rises, once again infuriating the 10 percent of Berkeleyans he calls “perennially offended, upset, outraged and angry.” He figures that regardless of a building’s size, “the amount of bile and controversy seems to be the same,” so he might as well do larger structures. He sometimes wonders about the value of such battles and “psychic trauma.”

But, he says, “On balance, especially once you get some distance, you see that it’s worth it.” Besides, he says, nothing compares to the thrill he gets from driving by one of his buildings and thinking, “But for my actions, that building would not be there.”

Eve Kushner is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Monthly.


Big vision: Developer Patrick Kennedy has made his mark on the East Bay with12 buildings and another in progress. His high-density plan for downtown Berkeley has its critics. Photo by Lori Eanes.