Draft General Plan examines anticipated impacts on downtown
The City Council closed the final public hearing on the long-awaited Draft General Plan and, as expected, downtown public parking concerns dominated the evening.
The council devoted the entire meeting to the Draft General Plan and heard comments from nearly 80 individuals, businesses, nonprofits and representatives from the city’s boards and commissions.
After closing the hearing, the council was scheduled to ask planning staff for factual clarification on some policies, as well as request additional information on issues raised during the hearing. But because of the late hour, the council decided to submit their questions to staff in writing no later than next Tuesday. The council intends to approve the plan at its Dec. 18 meeting.
The council heard comments about cooperative housing, free shuttles and the ability of the city’s antiquated sewer system’s questionable ability to handle a greater load if there is significant development. But by far, the most controversial issue on Tuesday night was a parking policy in the draft plan.
The majority of speakers expressed concern about policy T-35-D, which calls for a two-year moratorium on parking studies downtown.
Many of those who spoke in favor of downtown parking studies were people who worked in the downtown area, including Alan Miller, vice president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and sents city of Berkeley employees.
Representatives of the Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition and a variety of individuals, including a 77-year-old man who said he frequently rides his bike to the gym “to pump iron,” spoke in favor of the study moritorium.
YMCA Director Fran Gallati said he is concerned that with the increasing numbers of theaters, music venues and schools in the downtown that a lack of available parking will discourage people from patronizing downtown businesses. Gallati said that not even studying the possibility of new public parking was “shortsighted.”
“My job is to look out for the long-term health of the Y,” he said. “I think it would make sense to conduct a parking study simply to find out what the parking needs are in the downtown.”
Councilmember Miriam Hawley agreed with the pro-parking speakers.
“It seems the plan is not asking for a moratorium on parking, but a moratorium on thinking,” she said.
Bicycle Friendly Berkeley organizer Sarah Syed argued that without the parking-study moratorium, the city would not be able to focus on implementing policies that would better utilize existing parking.
“People who call for more parking don’t consider the increase in traffic,” she said. “The fact is that the city has to prioritized,” she said. “Every dollar that goes into a parking study is a dollar taken away from alternative transportation programs and pedestrian safety.”
Syed added that deleting the policy would be a “slap in the face” of everybody who participated in the Draft General Plan development.
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 Management 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.
The TDM encourages long-term parkers, who are usually commuters who work in the downtown area, to take other means of transportation to work. The city has already instituted a free bus pass program, known as the Ecopass, for all city employees. And there are plans in the works that would expand that program to Berkeley Unified School District employees as well as larger businesses.
The Draft General Plan, prepared by the Planning Commission, is a document of over 600 policies that will govern development, transportation and environmental strategies in Berkeley for the next 20 years. The document has been in the making for the last two-and-half years and it reflects the input of five city commissions, businesses, nonprofits and hundreds of individuals.
But of the more than 600 policies the Planning Commission unanimously approved, there were two the commission could not agree on, rent control and parking. However the rent control issue was not mentioned during Tuesday’s meeting.
Other issues that were brought up were arguments for and against increased building height limits in the downtown. The president of Ecocity Builders, Richard Register, argued for height increases that he said could free up developed land in other parts of town for public open space.
Register suggested that building heights be increased to between nine and 11 stories. Currently seven stories is the maximum in the central part of downtown.
Martha Nicoloff, a founding member of the Berkeley Party, a group of residents who are interested in city development issues, called for decreased height limits. She said she is working on a petition for the November ballot that would reduce height limits along San Pablo Avenue, in the downtown and in the Berkeley hills.
Public Works Commissioner Linda Perry said the city should be mindful of the city’s “looming infrastructure problem” while approving the increased housing development in the Draft General Plan. “The city’s sewers, streets, sidewalks and public are locked in a death spiral,” she said, quoting a budget commission report. “I Know it sounds dramatic but it’s true.”
Perry went on to say the city has accrued millions in deferred maintenance costs.
Senior Planner Andrew Thomas said that a study of the city’s sewer system showed that it can handle a population up to approximately 130,000. He pointed out that in the 1970s the sewer system served 120,000 residents. The 2000 census results show that Berkeley has 102,000 residents.