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Public to comment on Draft General Plan

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Tuesday October 30, 2001

The City Council will hold the first of two public hearings tonight on the Draft General Plan that, once approved, will govern city development for the next 20 years. 

City staff and planning commissioners expect some aspects of the draft plan to elicit controversy, including downtown parking, rent control and a proposed amendment by a nonprofit environmental development group that calls for the possibility of increased height limits downtown. 

The 191-page draft plan, prepared by the Planning Commission, is the result of two and a half years of public discussions and contains input from hundreds of Berkeley citizens and a variety of city commissions and boards.  

The council won’t weigh-in on the plan until after the second hearing on Nov. 6. The state requires the council to approve the General Plan by Dec. 18, the last council meeting of the year. 

The General Plan is a document of goals, objectives and policies, which govern land use, transportation and environmental management. 

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

The Planning Commission unanimously approved the draft plan on July 11. But among the 600 policies approved, the commission was unable to agree on two issues: parking and rent control. 

The draft plan calls for a two-year moratorium on public parking studies, while seeing whether the city can make better use of existing parking.  

Business owners and arts groups in the downtown area believe a lack of new public parking will harm both existing businesses and the burgeoning Downtown Arts District. 

“We know that there is going to be more demand for short-term parking and the draft plan is asking: ‘Can we accommodate (automobiles) with our current parking supply before taking on the very expensive proposition of building more?’” Thomas said. 

Thomas added that the council may amend the draft plan to add a provision requiring that no downtown public parking is lost. 

He pointed to a city transportation report, the Transportation Demand Management study, which calls for getting traditional long-term parkers – usually people who work in the area – to take public transit or some other form of transportation, thereby freeing up parking spaces for theatergoers, shoppers and restaurant patrons. 

Another controversial issue might be a single sentence in the plan that supports the repeal of a 1995 Costa-Hawkins Bill. This state law allows landlords to increase residential rental rates when rental units become vacant. The policy in the draft plan would have no direct impact on the state law, but some city landlords object to its inclusion in the General Plan. 

Furthermore, Ecocity Builders, a nonprofit agency dedicated to creating open space in urban areas by increasing residential density along transportation corridors, is asking for four amendments to the plan. To support the proposed amendments, Ecocity Builders will submit a petition with more than 100 signatures from nonprofits, educational institutions and businesses, said Ecocity Builder President Richard Register. 

One amendment calls for establishing a Transfer of Development Rights policy. A TDR would allow developers to increase height limits in the downtown in exchange for purchasing and razing existing buildings in environmentally sensitive areas, over creeks for example, and then turning over the restored open space to the city. 

The draft plan sets a height limit in the downtown area for no more than seven floors. If the TDR amendment is approved, it would allow 10 or 11 story buildings Register said. 

“Biodiversity is extraordinarily important for the health of the Bay and for teaching our children how life systems work,” Register said. “If we are going to restore creeks we are going to need to remove occasional buildings and with a TDR policy you can also increase housing.” 

According to Thomas, the Planning Commission did not include the TDR policy in the draft because it did not want to create controversy by increasing height limits in the downtown area. 

“They didn’t want to get into the question of raising the height limits because the issue had been so controversial,” Thomas said. “This is the fourth draft of the plan and the first two recommended raising height limits but the public response against it was very strong. People came unglued.” 

The plan sets an ambitious goal to create 6,400 permanent affordable housing units during 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 in-fill development in the downtown area and along transit corridors.