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Height initiative makes November ballot

By Kurtis Alexander, Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday July 10, 2002

Berkeley leaders appeared uncomfortable about a law that would impose strict height limits on apartment buildings, offices, and shopping centers within city limits. But at last night’s City Council meeting, state election rules outweighed city sentiments and forced councilmembers to approve a height limit ordinance for the November ballot. 

Proponents of the ordinance, hoping to keep buildings small and neighborhoods intact, had gathered 44 more than the 2,000 signatures required to take the proposal to voters this fall. 

Voter approval would mean a reduction in current height limits for new buildings by at least one story in most of the city and up to three stories in high-density residential neighborhoods and commercial strips. Current height limits vary drastically according to zoning districts. 

Shoring up nearly a month of study, city planners concluded that the ordinance goes against the grain of the city’s general plan and reduces incentive to create more open space, parking and housing in Berkeley. 

“It would reduce by 40 to 60 percent the zoning capacity for producing housing,” said senior planner Tim Stroshane. 

The height limits, instead of allowing developers to build up, would prompt developers to build out in order to attain building sizes that are financially viable, Stroshane explained. In such a process, opportunities for open space and parking would be lost, he said. 

But authors of the ordinance Howie Muir and Martha Nicoloff, and their more than 2,000 supporters, have embraced the argument that more building in Berkeley is simply unnecessary. 

The number of people living in Berkeley has dropped in the last 30 years and the population density is already greater than in many other cities, including Los Angeles, proponents say. 

The proponents’ written statement, in addition to citing problems associated with population growth, notes that taller buildings block sunlight, create wind tunnels and eliminate views of the hills. 

The desire to retain a neighborhood-feel in Berkeley has fallen in direct opposition to the demand for affordable housing. 

City planners said that if the ordinance is adopted, the city will have a difficult time meeting state quotas for affordable housing. Developers of affordable housing typically use upward development to make their project profitable, they said. 

“We are mandated to give some concessions. Height is the easiest concession to make,” said City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque. 

City planners concluded that if the initiative is passed, to meet state requirements, the city may be forced to make greater financial subsidies for affordable housing.