After more than two years of public meetings and workshops, the City Council is expected to approve three sections of the Draft General Plan tonight. In question, however, is whether the council will move forward on four other proposed amendments, put forward by Ecocity Builders.
Once approved, the plan will govern development, housing and environmental management for the next 20 years.
While only the housing section of the draft plan faces a state-imposed deadline of Dec. 31, the council agreed two weeks ago to also approve the transportation and land-use sections tonight during its last meeting of the year.
Prior to approving various proposed amendments, the council will have to work through several controversial policies, including a two-year moratorium on studying the need for additional public parking downtown, a policy calling for the definition of “cultural use” for downtown commercial space – the inclusion of cultural space means a developer can builder higher than zoning permits – and a series of amendments proposed by the nonprofit Ecocity Builders.
Ecocity’s mission is to reshape cities and towns to environmentally benefit community centers and surrounding areas. At the heart of its strategy is the theory of increasing density in central locations, thereby allowing the restoration of surrounding natural resources, such as open space, creeks and wetlands.
Headquartered in Berkeley with about 200 members, Ecocity Builders submitted four policies to the City Council as possible amendments to the draft plan’s land-use section. According to Ecocity President Richard Register, the four amendments have been endorsed by more than 100 educational institutions, nonprofits and businesses.
The amendments would add language promoting energy efficient and environmentally sustainable building designs and increase housing density in the downtown and along transit corridors while restoring and daylighting creeks citywide.
Planning Commission Chair Rob Wrenn said many Ecocity proposals, such as creek restoration and green building practices, were already included in the Draft General Plan and that the four amendments had been rejected by the Planning Commission because the commissioners thought they were too complex to implement fairly and they presented a threat to the development of affordable housing.
While some aspects of the proposed amendments have been included in amendments put forward by councilmembers, Senior Planner Andrew Thomas suggested the council approve the land-use element of the draft plan and then convene a task force to study proposed amendments.
“The financial aspects for transfer development rights would be very complex, perhaps too complex for the council to simply add to the plan without more study,” Thomas said adding that the General Plan can be amended up to four times a year. “The task force can carefully consider the possibility and then make recommendations to the Planning Commission and the City Council.”
According to Register, one of the most important amendments is the Transfer of Development Rights policy. The TDR would allow developers to add as many as five floors to downtown developments in exchange for purchasing property on or near Berkeley creeks for the purpose of daylighting or restoration.
The Draft General Plan, as it is currently written, calls for the daylighting and restoration of the city’s five creeks as well as restricted development over and nearby waterways.
But Register said a TDR policy would additionally facilitate creek restoration by offering incentives to developers. The policy would increase downtown building heights from a maximum of seven stories permitted in the draft plan – and also in force today – to as many as 12 stories. Register also advocates increasing height limits on transportation corridors, such as University and San Pablo avenues, from four stories to seven or eight stories.
“Unless you add higher density to these areas, you’re not going to solve the environmental problems facing us in the future,” he said.
But Wrenn said during the 50 public hearings, meetings and workshops the Planning Commission held over the last two years, the public did not express a willingness to increase downtown height limits.
“Transfer Development Rights have shown success in rural areas but they won’t work so well in a built-up urban area, especially one where property values are so high,” Wrenn said.
Thomas agreed saying the exchange of increased building height for a section of restored creek is a “very complicated” thing to work out.
“It’s not like the affordable housing bonus where it’s cut and dry,” Thomas said. “In that case it’s very clear that if a developer includes 20 percent affordable housing in a project, the overall density can be increased by 25 percent.”
Thomas said there is no similar ratio with creek restoration and that is why he suggested a task force to study the issue and possibly come up with practical recommendations that might make the TDR policy, or a variation of it, possible.
Wrenn said another reason the TDR policy – and another Ecocity proposal that would have allowed developers to add floors to downtown projects by donating to an environmental restoration fund – was not added to the draft plan was a concern that the policies would compete with the city goal of creating more affordable housing by giving developers more choices for density bonuses.
“We didn’t want to dilute the affordable housing density bonus,” he said. “We really want to encourage first and foremost the development of affordable housing as we didn’t think the TDR was appropriate to that.”
Register argued that if the downtown height limits were increased enough, they could create more affordable housing and restore environmental habitat.
“If you don’t allow increased density, I suppose it’s true,” he said then added. “It’s a simple matter of allowing higher buildings in the downtown.”