The City Council decided Tuesday to approve three sections of the Draft General Plan by Dec. 18.
Despite the protests from some councilmembers, who said there was not enough time to properly consider more than two elements of the nine-element document, the council voted 5-4 to approve three before the end of the year.
Moderates on the council – Mayor Shirley Dean and councilmembers Polly Armstrong, Betty Olds and Miriam Hawley – proposed a recommendation that originated with the planning department staff calling for limiting the discussion this year to the housing and land use sections of the plan, which will guide Berkeley’s development for the next 20 years.
But after listening to numerous comments from the public and hearing two planning commissioners ask for speedy approval of the draft plan, progressive councilmembers prevailed and added the transportation element to the list.
The council is required by the state to approve only the housing element by the end of the year.
In addition, the council unanimously approved four amendments to the draft housing section of the plan. They included some alterations to the language of a policy to urge the University of California Regents to build more student housing and a policy to review annually the rate of new housing developed in Berkeley.
Councilmembers also agreed they would submit other proposed amendments to the plan in writing by noon today. They will be considered at next Tuesday’s council meeting.
Explaining why she wanted to include the transportation element discussion with housing and land use, Councilmember Linda Maio argued that the policies of the three sections are closely linked. Approving those parts of the plan together means the document will more likely remain internally consistent, she said.
However, Senior Planner Andrew Thomas had some concerns about the council amending various elements of the draft plan. During a presentation prior to the vote Thomas warned that amending individual sections of a draft plan could unintentionally create competing policies, which would render the document illegal by state standards.
Among the proposed amendments is one by Maio to amend the housing element in a way that would put affordable housing and open space on an equal footing as preferred uses for the Santa Fe Right of Way. Formerly accommodating railroad tracks, the Santa Fe Right of Way is a narrow undeveloped strip that stretches 14 blocks across west Berkeley from Russell Street to Virginia Street.
Dean said she has “serious concerns” about the amendment, noting that the draft plan makes no mention of the Public Parks and Open Space Preservation Ordinance, also known as Measure L, approved by voters in 1986. The ordinance doesn’t allow development on designated open space without voter approval.
“There is no mention of Measure L in the draft plan and that really dismays me,” Dean said.
But Maio said Dean is either shrewdly misrepresenting Measure L or misunderstands it.
“That’s either a red herring or there’s no basis for it,” Maio said. “We shouldn’t be pitting affordable housing advocates against open space advocates. A real leader would be forming a coalition to put affordable housing, bicycle paths and urban gardens in the Santa Fe.”
Maio added that there’s no need for housing advocates and open space advocates to disagree about because much of the narrowly shaped property doesn’t lend itself to affordable housing development.
Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowan said Measure L would not address development on the right-of-way because the council never designated the city-owned land as open space.
During the discussion on whether to include the transportation element in the approval process this year, former AC Transit board member Miriam Hawley, argued that several issues in the transportation element needed further discussion, such as the controversial two-year moratorium on parking studies downtown, the use of out-of-date bus ridership statistics and a poor explanation of a proposed shuttle system.
“There’s a lot in here that the council still needs to talk about,” she said. “I would feel more comfortable if we didn’t rush on this, especially given the controversy over the parking moratorium.”
During the City Council’s public hearing on the draft plan, more than 50 people, mostly downtown business owners and people who work in the downtown area, called the moratorium, designed to promote public transportation, unfair and imprudent.
Dean said the approval process was being rushed. “I don’t understand why we have to be jammed on the transportation element,” she said. “The Planning Commission has had the plan for three years and we’ve had it for only three months.”
Some of the other issues the council is expected to consider next Tuesday are the inclusion of the city’s 1997 Transit First Policy into the draft plan, height limits along transit corridors and affordable housing density bonuses.
Thomas said the council shouldn’t worry too much if each of the draft plan’s 600 policies are not reviewed before the document is approved.
“The beauty of this document is that it’s designed for flexibility,” he said. “There’s a built-in annual review and the council can make multiple amendments up to four times a year.”