"""This is slightly different semantics, but in most cases it's equivalent. I'd actually be surprised if PEAK didn't already have some binding option to do this."""
Yep. conf_dir = binding.Obtain('htdocs') is the simplest way to do what you described in PEAK; if conf_dir is used without being set, it will take on the value in htdocs at the moment it was looked up (and stays set to it thereafter, unless changed). There's no private_attr because PEAK is smart enough to be able to ensure that the descriptors know their attribute names. If conf_dir is set directly or via the constructor, then it won't try to "obtain" the htdocs attribute.
"""it's overboard to say that all possible initialization code could be removed"""
Maybe. Maybe not. Fewer than 10% of PEAK's classes even have an __init__ method, and most of those are in very "low level" classes. If you look at "component" and "entity" classes only (high-level constructs used to model services or business objects), you'll find almost no __init__ methods at all. (And I only say "almost" so that I won't look silly if somebody happens to find one or two out of PEAK's 2200+ classes.)
"""it's a whole different way of thinking about object instantiation, and effects the language significantly. So, these are the reasons that high-level declarative extensions to Python worry me, even though I understand the motivation, and I can certainly see how it could be useful."""
I can understand that. In a sense, something like this "wants" to be part of the language; you should really be able to do the equivalents of binding.Make, binding.Obtain, and binding.Delegate with syntax or builtins. But, if what you're looking for is the best technical solution to the problem, PEAK's descriptor patterns are the way to go, whether you use PEAK's implementation or not. If you're trying to deal with the educational/political issues, then you should just write the boilerplate __init__ methods and quit trying to "fix" them, because the fixes will just have a different set of educational/political issues, in addition to being a technically inferior solution.