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Plan calls for more housing less parking

By John Geluardi, Daily Planet staf
Friday October 05, 2001


After two-and-a-half years of public hearings, workshops, and roundtable discussions, the final draft of the Berkeley General Plan has been sent to the City Council for one last round of public comment before approval. 

The General Plan is a document of goals, objectives and policies that govern a variety of city polices on issues such as land use, transportation and environmental management.  

The Planning Commission sent the document to the council in early July. Planning Commission Chair Rob Wrenn, Senior Planner Andrew Thomas and Housing Director Stephen Barton presented an overview of the plan to the council on Tuesday. 

Berkeley’s General Plan has not been updated since 1977 and Thomas said many of the goals of the 1977 plan remain in the new draft although they reflect updated methods, concepts and theories. 

The council will hold two General Plan public hearings, one on Oct. 30 and another on Nov. 6, after which the council is expected to approve the plan.  

The plan sets an ambitious goal to create 6,400 permanently affordable housing units over the next 20 years through acquisition of existing housing and new construction. Currently there are 1,600 units of affordable housing in Berkeley. The plan also reaffirms policies of dense infill development in the downtown area and along transit corridors.  

The plan requires a two-year moratorium on creating new downtown parking and requires better use of existing parking. The plan also promotes traffic calming design features such as sidewalk bulb-outs for residential neighborhoods. 

The plan set height limits of seven stories in the downtown core, an area bounded by University Avenue and Milvia, Kittredge, and Oxford streets. Other downtown areas are limited to five stories. The Civic Center area is limited to four stories. 

Thomas said, with the exception of two elements, the plan was unanimously approved by the nine-member Planning Commission.  

“Parking and rent control would have held up the entire plan if the commission had not voted on them separately,” he said. 

A recommendation that the city be required to maintain the existing level of parking in the downtown area failed by a vote of 4-4, with one abstention. And a recommendation to strike a clause making it city policy to support the repeal of Costa Hawkins, a state law that weakened rent control laws, was retained in the plan by a 5-4 vote. 

The council first authorized work on the plan in February, 1999. Since then, 12 city commissions, seven outside agencies and hundreds of citizens have participated in the development of the plan.  

Wrenn said Berkeley’s commissions and residents have a wide range of opinions that required the plan be adjusted and modified to accommodate as many perspectives as possible.  

“A lot of issues were discussed in the development of the General Plan and there were a lot of compromises on most of those issues,” Wrenn said.  

Parking, which business interests say is vital to the health of the downtown economy, is expected to be the most contentious issue discussed during the coming public hearings.  

“I’ve always believed we need to do three things downtown,” said Mayor Shirley Dean, “strengthen transit, better manage existing parking and build new parking.” 

Parking opponents, however, argue that creating more parking is expensive, creates more traffic and takes up valuable space that could be used for housing. 

Dean proposed a controversial plan for a 500-space parking garage underneath Martin Luther King Civic Center Park at her State of the City Address in May. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who opposes new parking, said city money that goes into subsidizing parking garages should be rerouted to public transportation. 

“For the cost of destroying Civic Center Park with an underground parking garage you could provide the major employers with bus and BART passes for all their employees including university employees,” he said. 

Wrenn said one solution might be to encourage long-term parkers, such as people who park in garages near the university and downtown, to take public transportation, which would free up space for short-term parkers who drive downtown to frequent businesses. 

“One way to do that is to increase the cost of long-term parking,” Wrenn said. “When you get up to about $13 -14 a day to park, you start to think the bus isn’t so bad or maybe it might be nice to ride a bike to work once in a while.” 

Councilmember Dona Spring said she wants the plan to encourage affordable housing development by allowing higher buildings and denser construction for those who build deeply affordable housing. The state already gives density bonuses to developers who set aside 20 percent of their units to those who earn 80 percent of area’s average income. Spring said she would like to add even more density for developers who set aside units for families earning no more than 60 percent of the area’s average income. 

“It is my highest priority to provide affordable housing to people who are really struggling to get by,” she said.  

Councilmember Miriam Hawley said the city has to be careful where the money comes from to build or acquire new affordable housing. She said if tax payers are too heavily burdened, the cost will be passed along to Berkeley residents, which would make the area even more expensive to live in. “We have to be careful how many times we go to the well,” she said. 

Worthington said he would like the plan to add stronger language to encourage the university to build more student housing. He said university officials promised they would create hundreds of units in a long-range plan that was drafted in the 1980s. 

“We have to demand the university keep its word and the current language of the Draft General Plan doesn’t appear to go far enough to that end.”