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Some controversy awaits planning director

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Tuesday August 07, 2001

The planning director, named July 24 by the City Council, will be stepping into a department often characterized by controversy. 

“I think it will be a great opportunity (for new director Carol Barrett) to reconstruct, rebuild and reshape a department that has to deal with a vast number of issues and problems such as land use, property inspections and interpretation of zoning regulations,” said City Manager Weldon Rucker. 

The department, with an $8.5 million budget for fiscal year 2001-02, has 70 full-time employees and consists of five divisions. 

The Office of the Director oversees the permit center and the redevelopment agency. Advance Planning manages future planning for transportation, housing and capital improvements. Current Planning, perhaps the most controversial division, reconciles applications for development with zoning regulations and neighborhood concerns.  

The Building and Safety Division inspects projects under construction, existing buildings and capital improvements for safety violations. The Toxics Management Division manages the disposal and storage of toxic materials and strives to prevent pollution by residents, businesses and city agencies. 

The department has been headed by Acting Director Wendy Cosin for 18 months. Liz Epstein, the former director, took a yearlong maternity leave, then decided not to return, leaving Cosin in charge until the city could find a permanent director.  

Barrett is currently the assistant director of the Planning and Zoning Department in Austin, Texas. One planning official described the new director as a “seasoned professional” with a reputation for being highly ethical. Barrett recently completed a book entitled “Everyday Ethics for Practicing Planners.” 

The perception of Barrett as highly principled might be helpful to the image of the Current Planning Division, recently drawn into a series controversial development proposals.  

Three projects, the Beth El proposal for a synagogue at 1301 Oxford St., a four-story, mixed-use building at 2700 San Pablo Ave. and a five-story mixed-use building at University Avenue and Acton Street were all approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board or the City Council despite strong neighborhood opposition.  

The approvals caused several residents and at least one councilmember to speculate that the Current Planning Division has been inappropriately influenced by developers. 

“I think there’s been a lot of inconsistency in how the zoning ordinance and area plans have been applied to particular developments,” said Councilmember Dona Spring. “The reports that planning staff have been giving us might as well be written by the developer.” 

Spring argued that whenever a certain aspect of a development proposal requires a discretionary interpretation of the zoning ordinance, planning staff will favor the developer. 

Juliet LaMont, a member of the Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association, which opposed the proposed Beth El project, said her experience with the planning department wasn’t a pleasant one.  

“The reports we received were generally late and had big problems with misinformation, inaccuracies and bias,” Lamont said. “When we went to hearings staff misstated dates and the law itself. I don’t know if it’s incompetence, sheer bias or a combination of both.” 

Acting Deputy Director Vivian Kahn said there have been many changes in communities due to home additions and other remodeling projects. In addition she said many Berkeley homeowners have everything they own tied up in real estate and they are very nervous about new projects affecting the value of their property. 

Both Cosin and Kahn deny that the department has ever been an advocate for developers. 

“We don’t see ourselves as advocates for developers, we see ourselves as analysts of the zoning ordinance,” Kahn said. 

Mayor Shirley Dean said there has been confusion among members of the public because of inconstancies between the zoning regulations and the various neighborhood plans. She said that one of the primary concerns about the city’s proposed General Plan, which has been an ongoing project since 1987, is that it is consistent with the zoning ordinance and state building codes. The General Plan was approved by the Planning Commission in June and is expected to be considered by the City Council in September. 

Dean said some neighbors might believe the Current Planning Division staff is writing reports that favor developers but sometimes when a development decision doesn’t favor the neighbors they can unnecessarily blame the quality of the information.  

Howie Muir, of Neighbors for Responsible Development, which opposed the 2700 San Pablo Ave. project, said he also had concerns about Current Planning Division information.  

“There’s problems with getting staff reports in a timely manner,” he said. “Sometimes they’re available only three or four days before a decision is going to be made.” 

Cosin said the staff reports are complex documents, often filled with technical information. She said it would be very difficult to get them out sooner with so many projects going on simultaneously. 

Developer Patrick Kennedy, who has had several projects approved in Berkeley in recent years, including 2700 San Pablo Ave. and the Acton Apartments at University Avenue and Acton Street, said the Current Planning Division has been doing a good job of neutrally interpreting the zoning ordinance. 

“My experience with the planning department is that they don’t play favorites with anyone,” he said. “In fact it seems as though they bend over backwards to do accurate work because everything they do is second guessed by the neighborhood groups.” 

Cosin said it’s unfortunate that the department is mostly known as being in the middle of development controversies. She said the other things the department does often get overlooked such as the seven redevelopment projects that were approved by the City Council on June 19. Those projects include the development of a transit plaza at Berkeley’s train stop, the paving of Second Street and the development of three live/work spaces at 1631 Fifth St. 

“It’s really a shame,” Cosin said, “most people don’t know all the things we do.”