City Council to hear discussion of parking, height limitations
The City Council will devote its entire meeting tonight to the Draft General Plan, and it appears that parking and downtown height limits will be the major topics addressed during the public hearing.
Once the hearing is closed, the council will hold three additional meetings to discuss the plan. Possible amendments are likely to be on the table. The council is required by state law to adopt the housing element of the plan by Dec. 31.
The General Plan is a document that includes goals, objectives and policies, which govern land use, transportation and environmental management during a 20-year period.
The 191-page draft plan, prepared by the Planning Commission, is the result of two-and-a-half years of public discussions and input from hundreds of Berkeley citizens and a variety of city commissions and boards.
The council held its first hearing on the Draft General Plan last Tuesday. If the first group of speakers is any indication, the most controversial issues in the plan are a moratorium on parking studies in the downtown and height limits on buildings..
“Parking is shaping up to be the big issue,” said Senior Planner Andrew Thomas. “But I’ve also heard groups that want increased height limits have been gearing up as well.”
YMCA Director Fran Gallati is concerned the Draft General Plan is too restrictive on the possibility of creating more public parking in the downtown area.
Gallati said downtown is going through a renaissance with the expansion of the Berkeley Repertory Theater and the opening of the Aurora Theater. He said in the near future, the renovated Berkeley Central Library, the Freight and Salvage Coffee House as well as a variety of restaurants, cafes and art houses will be opening in the downtown areas increasing the need for parking.
“The demand for parking in the downtown is going to increase,” Gallati said. “I don’t want to lose our ability to provide services because we were short sighted.”
The draft plan calls for a two-year moratorium on parking studies while the city tries to implement a variety of policies recommended in the Transportation Demand Study. The study, released in March, suggests reducing the number of all-day parkers thereby freeing up parking spaces for short-term parkers who are more likely to patronize restaurants, theaters and other downtown businesses.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington said during last Tuesday’s public hearing the claims of a parking shortage in the downtown area were exaggerated.
“I challenge anybody to show me a time when all these spaces are filled, especially when the arts groups say they need them,” he said.
In fact the Berkeley Daily Planet counted 79 empty spaces on the sixth floor of the Center Street Parking Garage at 12:45 p.m. Monday.
Gallati argued it would take more than one day to make a meaningful assessment of the parking needs in the downtown area. He said parking congestion depends on events scheduled in the downtown area and added that there are 2,000 to 3,000 people who use the YMCA every day. He hears complaints about a lack of parking throughout the day, he said.
“What I do know for sure is that we have a lot of people who drive, seniors, people with children and women who are concerned about safety,” he said.
Gallati added that the YMCA does what it can to promote alternate transportation. He said there is a 20-space bike rack for employees and members are given a pamphlet that outlines bus stops, BART stations and bike routes to the downtown.
Councilmember Dona Spring, who represents the downtown area, said she supports reducing all-day parking in existing spaces. To balance the draft plan’s policy on parking studies, she has submitted a amendment recommendation to council that would ensure no existing public parking downtown is lost.
“I think the council wants parking to be available for business patrons in the downtown area,” she said. “The whole goal was to figure out how to get the commuters out of their cars so they are not filling up garages or feeding meters all day.”
Another issue likely to be discussed is a call for increased height limitations in the downtown area.
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, the agency will submit a petition with more than 100 signatures from nonprofits, educational institutions and businesses, said Ecocity Builders President Richard Register.
The draft plan sets a height limitation in the downtown area of no more than seven floors. If the Ecocity amendment is approved, it would allow 10- or 11-story buildings, Register said.
According to Thomas, during the drafting of the General Plan, the Planning Commission avoided increasing height limits because the subject was so controversial.
“The Planning Commission was faced with relentless public comment that was opposed to increased height limits,” he said. “It was very clear the opposition to it was very strong.”
In fact, a group of residents calling itself the Berkeley Party, is in the final revision of a proposed Zoning Ordinance amendment that would lower the existing height limits. They are proposing limitations be reduced to between 28 and 35 feet along certain sections of San Pablo Avenue. Currently, the height limits are 50 feet.
“There are single family homes just behind San Pablo Avenue,” said Berkeley Party member Carrie Olson. “Since many of us buy our homes to live the rest of our lives and don’t expect to have a 50-foot wall altering the quality of our lives.”
Olson said the Zoning Ordinance amendment could be voted on in November 2002, provided they can gather the 4,000 signatures necessary to put it on the ballot.
Planning Commission Chairperson Rob Wrenn said somewhere between the Ecocity amendment and the Berkeley Party amendment is what’s best for the city.
“The Berkeley Party amendment goes against the public process,” he said. “Lowering the height limits along the San Pablo corridor would allow virtually no development.”
The City Council meeting will be held tonight at 2134 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers. The meeting will also be broadcast live on the KPFA Radio, 89.3 and Cable B-TV, Channel 25.