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Plotting Berkeley’s future

By Juliet Leyba Daily Planet Staff
Friday November 10, 2000


The Planning Commission’s draft of the General Plan provoked comments by some 70 citizens at a Wednesday night public hearing on the document, according to Planning Commission Secretary Karen Haney-Owens. 

Comments addressed building height and density in downtown Berkeley, the exclusion of the arts from the city’s building bonus guidelines and traffic and congestion. 

“It was a very good meeting with a lot of discussion. It was much more interactive than the first one,” Haney-Owens said of the second public hearing on the document.  

Finding an appropriate density and height for the downtown area remains the priority issue for the Planning Commission, with the current draft calling for three to five stories with a bonus of up to two floors for including affordable housing units.  

The General Plan is the city’s roadmap for development for the next 20 years. Earlier drafts of the revised General Plan called for building heights to rise above 12 stories in the downtown area. 

There appears to be general agreement that the downtown doesn’t need “sky scrapers” or to be “Manhattanized” but people differ on where and when a building can go up to six or seven stories.  

For Planning Commissioner Susan Wengraf the real issue behind the height and density controversy is protecting neighborhoods from negative impacts while creating more affordable housing. 

“I feel that our building height should reflect the size of our city. I’d like to see downtown remain at five to seven floors. I do, however, think there are many other opportunities elsewhere in the city for height and density development.” 

Developer Patrick Kennedy agreed. Kennedy said that he doesn’t think that downtown needs high-rises but argued that downtown is an area where you can have “some height and density” to make it more alive. 

“I’ve been pushing for Parisienne style density. Five to seven floors with room and opportunity for the arts culture to expand.” 

According to the commission the height limit for downtown will remain at five to seven floors. 

Members of the Berkeley arts community expressed concern regarding the lack of affordable space in Berkeley and said they fear that the trend of being evicted and displaced that is currently underway in San Francisco may spread. 

In an effort to focus in on affordable housing the commission changed the requirements for bonus floors. An earlier draft made bonus floors available to developers who set aside some space in new buildings for housing, retail and arts and cultural organizations. The new draft omits retail and arts and cultural organizations and a specifically requires affordable housing units in order to build bonus floors.  

For every 5,000 square feet of affordable housing created the developer can add a “bonus “ floor to the building with a height cap of seven stories. 

Patrick Dooley of Shotgun Players, a local performance group, argued against the commission’s intentional omission of arts and cultural organizations from the provision and made a case for reinstating it. 

“The bottom line is that it takes away real opportunity for the downtown area to have a real arts community.” 

Dooley, who said his company moved eight times last year, added that his company is ready to grow but that escalating rents are preventing them from doing so. 

“Affordable housing is the right thing to do but you need affordable arts space too. I think it’s shortsighted to exclude arts from the plan.”  

Commissioner Susan Wengraf agreed and said that she would like to see the provision include arts and cultural organizations. 

“We need to support our art community. I would like to see more effort made to help these groups survive.” 

Commissioner Robert Wrenn disagreed, however, pointing out that the provision had been used only once in 10 years and that it is not needed. 

“My feeling is that we really have to focus on affordable housing. I feel that adding arts and cultural organizations to the provision would dilute the impact of an affordable housing bonus.” 

Haney-Owens said citizens came to the public hearing with concerns about the city’s growing traffic and congestion. Residents who live on “collector streets,” streets that collect cars and lead them to bigger and more heavily traveled streets voiced concern about noise and pollution. 

“There is a link between density, height, affordable housing, and the traffic and congestion issue,” Haney-Owens said. “Every new building brings more people and more cars and we were unaware that residents living on collector streets had concerns. 

Haney-Owens added that the commission will be addressing their concerns at a later date. 

“Height and density remains the number one issue with traffic and congestion being secondary,” Henry-Owens said. 

A Draft Environmental Impact Report on the plan is scheduled to be released in January 2001. The report will be followed with public hearings offering community members another opportunity to make comments and suggestions.