Profile: Land Use Giant Alice Suet Yee Barkley

by Steve Shih on April 14, 2005

Next time a tiny 65 year-old Chinese lady walks by with a English Mastiff, say hi because she could be San Francisco’s staunchest land use attorney Alice Barkley, a friend and advocate to any family navigating the treacherous waters of the city’s planning process. A native of Hong Kong, Barkley graduated from the University of California, Hastings’ Law School and has been working in land use for the last 25 years.

“I think over the last 25 years the planning process has certainly changed a lot. I think it has gotten much more political which I regret,” said Barkley. “The land use process, in my opinion, is driving families out of the city.”

Barkley has many examples of families trying to modify their houses to improve their lives at home only to be frustrated by a planning process that is both convoluted and incredibly contentious.

One family she worked with was trying to turn two 1000 square foot one-bedroom units into a three-bedroom 2000 square foot home for their four children. Barkley saw no problems with getting the project a green light that is until they came before the planning commission who said no to the project on the basis that it took away too much living space.

“I felt so bad when I came out of that hearing what was I going to tell them. It’s that kind of thing that does not make it fun anymore. Housing policy should deal with families and individuals. No neighborhood should have the ability to veto what someone is doing there. A neighborhood is a living organism it evolves and changes you can’t put it in a time capsule,” said Barkley.

But according to Barkley some of those changes haven’t really been for the better.

“I love the city, but unfortunately I don’t think that the city is better than before, I find that this city in the last few years especially in the land use area as become much less tolerant. The city has become much more racist but they dress it up, its just hidden in sophisticated land use rhetoric,” said Barkley. “Whose projects are being objected to? It’s the minorities, now it’s usually against an immigrant family. Every time there is a low-income housing project, no matter where, there is opposition.”

Ever the advocate, Barkley first came over to the U.S. as a 16-year-old architect student at the University of California, Berkeley and did much of her early work in Chinatown designing buildings and helping seniors.

UC Berkeley was also where she met her husband, a fellow student and coffee jerk at Cafe Espresso. Barkley remembers the time as a kind of second growing up.

Now widowed, she spends most her free time taking care of her two cats as well as occasionally dog sitting her friends English Mastiff Maggie.

“When people see me walking down the street with Maggie they usually cross to the other side,” Barkley said ruefully.
She is also the part owner of a pet supply store on Fillmore Street and can be found there working the counter every so often on the weekends.

“It sort of brings you back to reality, it’s a very different perspective on how difficult it is to make it as a small business person in this town,” she said.

Now approaching 65 years old, Barkley says she’ll probably cut down her hours at the law firm Luce Forward, but at the time of this interview, around 10 pm, she had just returned home from a hearing and dinner with a client, and was cleaning cat puke all while opining on the state of San Francisco planning.

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