Public interest in the Draft General Plan waned to a steadfast few at Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting at the North Berkeley Senior Center.
Only one Berkeley resident took advantage of the 30 minutes allotted for public comment.
But those in the room who know Martha Nicoloff, a former member of the Planning Commission, straightened to attention when she stood to speak.
This week the commission met to amend and approve the land-use portion of the Draft General Plan, the last section of the city’s nine-part guide for planning over the next 20 years. Nicoloff came to share her views on Berkeley building heights.
Nicoloff read off several reasons why building heights shouldn’t be increased, and after the meeting, she confirmed that the initiative she and other Berkeley residents attempted to put through last year, a Berkeley height limit ordinance, will be brought out again this year.
“We have the right, according to the secretary of state, to set height limits ourselves,” Nicoloff said.
“Last year the city attorney turned us down because she said we would need a charter amendment, which meant in a very short time we would have needed to get something like 7,000 signatures. So this year we’re going to go by initiative, which requires only 5 percent of the requires only 5 percent of the vote in the last mayoral election.”
The people writing the amendment are from all over the city, Nicoloff said.
“We’re proposing height limits in feet for every district,” Nicoloff said. “Some districts will remain the same, but there are some districts that are (currently) excessive.”
“We want to get (the initiative) perfected as far as we can, maybe within the next week or so, and then send it to the larger community.”
Nicoloff noted that the initiative has been a powerful tool for Berkeley citizens to act upon their concerns and hopes for the city.
“We’ve done other initiatives in the past,” Nicoloff said. “I was co-author of the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, which passed with a very healthy majority in 1973.
“We did a measure for parks that said if the city wanted to reduce any parks for recreation, they would need to put it on the ballot. We did a plan to install a street-diverter system. And they all went through.”
Nicoloff feels strongly that lower height limits are essential to the character of the city.
“I think people come to Berkeley because they enjoy the small town atmosphere, and because it makes a more pleasant environment for students to study here,” Nicoloff said. “So I think it’s in the interests of the community to keep the heights down.”
The question of building heights, however, is not isolated from other questions, such as how to provide enough affordable housing.
“People want all the parking, they want affordable housing, and they don’t want to raise building heights,” said city planner Andrew Thomas.
It’s hard to figure out a way to have all three. Developers say that lower building heights will mean higher rents for those who live in the buildings, otherwise, they argue, building is not profitable enough.
“Everybody agrees we want affordable housing,” Thomas said, “but the question is how do we do it.”
The Planning Commission has settled upon a set of bonuses that will reward developers who provide additional affordable housing. There will also be arts bonuses for projects that include certain amounts of facility space for fine and performing arts in the Draft General Plan.
“On the avenues we’re going to stick with the existing height limit,” Thomas said.
“The downtown is becoming the test area for how we will administer the density bonus.”
Becky O’Malley said she can see the value in what the affordable housing bonuses will do.
“The important thing is that you encourage affordable housing by knocking the maximum height down by a story,” O’Malley said, “so that there is an incentive for these developers to build additional affordable housing.”
When it is submitted for community approval by Nicoloff and others, the height limit initiative will “definitely” address the problem of how to have affordable housing and still keep heights down, Nicoloff said in a telephone interview Thursday morning.
And just as Nicoloff considers lower heights essential to the character of the city, O’Malley thinks Berkeley might be a different place if affordable housing becomes increasingly scarce.
“What people may not realize is that there will be a limit to the amount of space available in the future, and if you don’t specifically reserve some space for people who are not rich, we’ll have only expensive housing, And that will make for a very dull city,” O’Malley said. “That’s not why we moved to Berkeley.”
The Planning Commission will look at the final draft of the completed Draft General Plan beginning June 13, before submitting it to the City Council for approval.