In a series of narrow votes reflecting conflicting visions of the city’s future, the City Council approved the housing, land use and transportation elements of the revised Draft General Plan on Tuesday.
Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn summed it up as he left the council chambers: “This is a plan that will promote affordable housing and alternate transportation and at the same time attempts to maintain what is unique about Berkeley.”
After making some last-minute changes to the three proposed elements, the council approved each individually by a 5-4 vote.
While many of the policies were agreed upon by the entire council, the close votes demonstrated fundamental political differences between the council’s progressive majority and the moderate minority on issues of affordable housing, rent control and public parking.
The council distinguished itself from the Planning Commission, which unanimously approved all but two of the 600 policies, which are contained in the plan’s nine elements.
“There were too many broad policies around rent control, parking and the core of the downtown that made the three elements unacceptable to us,” Mayor Shirley Dean said.
Councilmember Linda Maio said she thought the moderates would have voted with the progressives more because so many of the amendments they had submitted were adopted. “Especially in the transportation element because 95 percent of the amendments were made by the mayor and Councilmember Hawley,” she said.
According to Senior Planner Andrew Thomas, the council approved what are generally regarded to be the most important elements of the General Plan on Tuesday.
“The two biggest issues in Berkeley that the Planning Commission, planning staff and the community have wrestled with while developing this plan are housing and transportation,” Thomas said. “Those are the two areas where people feel as though their quality of life is being threatened.”
The council will consider six remaining elements, which include economic development, environmental management and disaster preparedness, early next year.
The General Plan, which took the Planning Commission two years and 55 public meetings to develop, is an overarching document that gives city planners a navigation tool to chart the city’s future development. From the General Plan flows zoning ordinances, development codes and city budgets, which serve to make the plan’s nonspecific policies defined and binding.
According to Thomas, the revised Draft General Plan is very similar, with a few exceptions, to the former plan adopted in 1977. “This plan doesn’t make any great changes but it does put greater emphasis on affordable housing, which is a major concern statewide,” he said. “It also includes updated language such as ‘encourage transit oriented development,’ phrases like that didn’t exist in 1977.”
Thomas added that the plan has a annual-review feature that was not in the former plan. He said the review will give the Planning Commission and the City Council an opportunity to amend the plan to adapt to changing community needs.
Before approving the three elements on Tuesday night, each council faction had submitted lists of proposed amendments. The idea was that differing amendments would be discussed with the intention of reaching compromise.
In the end, the progressive council faction got support for the development of low-income housing, rather than mixed income housing, on two developable pieces of land. And it pushed through continued support for the removal of a state law which guts rent control.
The moderate housing proposals would have changed the language regarding the development of affordable housing on city-owned land such as the Oxford Lot and the Ashby BART air rights to include tenants of a mix of incomes.
Another proposal would have deleted city support for the repeal of the Costa Hawkins Rent Control Act, which permits landlords, whose apartments are under rent control, to raise rents to market level when apartments become vacant.
On Wednesday, Worthington said he felt very strongly the moderate proposals were designed to weaken city efforts to provide housing for working and low income families.
“Their solution is to take money from low income people and that is not a positive step,” Worthington said. “And the Costa Hawkins Act has single-handedly increased rents in Berkeley by 40 to 50 percent destroying rent control as an excellent tool for maintaining a stock of affordable housing.”
But Dean said it was never her intention to weaken affordable housing. She said that they proposal included mixed income levels because that make up meets less resistance from neighbors.
“We hear it time and time again at the council and at the Zoning Adjustments Board, people are more comfortable with mixed-income housing,” she said.
Hawley argued there was no point in wasting resources locally on a fight on the state level to repeal of the Costa Hawkins Act since there was no support for the move on the state level.
Ultimately a list of housing amendments proposed by Maio and Councilmember Dona Spring were augmented by four moderate amendments and then adopted into the draft plan’s housing element.
The adopted plan calls for new parking only after measures to support transit are tried.
During the debate, the council remained sharply divided on the issue of a proposed two-year moratorium on studying available public parking in the downtown. The downtown is on the verge of an increase of businesses and city services and merchants, residents and Berkeley High School employees are concerned that there won’t be enough parking to accommodate employees and visitors to the downtown area.
But supporters of the recently completed Transportation Demand Study have called for not creating new parking facilities before existing parking can be better utilized. The TDM study calls for measures to encourage people who work in the downtown area to take alternate transportation to work.
The adopted amendment, proposed by Maio, removed the moratorium form the policy but replaced it with wording that calls for the TDM measures that will encourage people to not “warehouse their cars all day in downtown garages” before any public money is spent to develop new parking facilities. Her amendment also establishes a task force to set a reasonable amount of time to allow the measures to work.
“We have to get people out of their automobiles and I don’t mean just in Berkeley,” Maio said, “we have to do it nationally and internationally.”
Hawley argued, however, that, even though the moratorium was removed, the policy is short sighted. “I was hoping we could have adopted a policy that was reasonable,” she said. “We need an access study that includes everybody and not look at the issue in a limited way.”
The council also approved a transportation policy that precludes the development of a proposal by Dean to build a garage with up to 500 spaces under the Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center Park. The approved policy, submitted by Spring, identifies the Center Street Garage for expansion if it is determined additional parking is required.
After the council approved the third element Planning Commissioner Chair Wrenn, who has put hundreds of hours into developing the plan over the last two years, was elated and, fist in the air, yelled “ALL RIGHT!” as he left the Council Chambers.