Southside Plan talks focus on expanding housing

By Matt Artz, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday May 10, 2002

The Planning Commission continued to methodically digest the Southside Plan at its Wednesday night meeting, ruminating over several amendments aimed at liberalizing zoning rules and discussing the just- releasedstaff review of the plan’s impacts on land use and housing. 

The plan will set guidelines for development, safety, traffic and transportation in a roughly 30-block area immediately south of the UC Berkeley campus, bounded by Bancroft and Dwight ways and Prospect and Fulton streets. The area is home to about 12,500 residents, most of whom are UC Berkeley students. 

The preliminary staff review raised as many questions as it tried to answer. The report, which was not released to the public, estimates that implementation of the plan would increase the area’s housing stock by roughly 3,000 units. 

However, several commissioners questioned the report’s methodology. The planner based his estimate on a “scorched earth” scenario, in which the entire area would have been rebuilt under the proposed zoning laws. 

Since this scenario is unlikely, commissioners questioned whether the projections were too optimistic. 

“It’s an odd way of calculating development,” said Commissioner Gordon Wozniak, who cited that existing development and the protections granted to historic buildings could limit opportunities to increase the housing stock. 

One amendment approved Wednesday could help to alleviate the student housing shortage.  

The commission voted unanimously to drop language requiring no more than one person for every 350 sq. ft. in group living arrangements, such as student co-ops, fraternity houses, and boarding houses. 

Faith Stein, UC Berkeley ASUC Tenants Rights Director agreed with the decision citing that in such arrangements, the residents do not need so much space, since they share a common kitchen and living area. 

The deleted requirement had blocked the construction of proposed student housing developments, according to Andy Katz, ASUC Director, City Affairs Lobby and Housing Commission. 

The commission also agreed to relax zoning rules regarding soft story buildings. These complexes, built above parking garages to accommodate drivers, are considered more earthquake-prone than other structures.  

The amended plan will be designed to permit property owners to retrofit or rebuild structures to their existing heights, even if the buildings are in a zone that only permits three-story buildings. 

“We don’t want to demolish existing housing,” said Commissioner Wrenn, “but we need to find a way of allowing owners of these buildings to rebuild the existing number of units to existing heights so there is no disincentive to deal with seismic problems.” 

To satisfy the concerns of various residents, the Plan establishes a “step down” approach towards zoning in which the several areas immediately south of the UC Berkeley campus, and along Telegraph Avenue would be targeted as high-density areas, zoned to permit five-story buildings, while the neighborhoods closer to Dwight Way would require smaller buildings and less intensive development. 

“The plan strongly wants to encourage the development of additional housing for students and university workers near the campus and on Telegraph,” said Wrenn. 

To facilitate this in designated high density areas, the plan includes removing parking requirements for new buildings, changing the set-back rules, allowing buildings to be located closer to the curb and to one another, and utilizing a state incentive program whereby developers that designate an specified portion of a building’s floor space for residential use and a specified percentage of residential units for low-income housing, will be permitted to exceed the current four story 

height limit and build a fifth floor. 

There is still a long road ahead before the plan’s ultimate approval.  

Before a finalized plan can go before the City Council, it must undergo an independent environmental impact report, followed by a new round of public hearings. 

Commissioner Wrenn had hoped that the commission would finish the plan by September, but due to repeated staffing turnover, he acknowledged it probably wouldn’t be ready for the environmental report until October, and wouldn’t reach City Council until early 2002. 

The Planning Commission will resume discussion on May 15, tackling some of the plan’s unresolved transportation issues.