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Southside Plan Deal in Works

Tuesday July 08, 2003

After five years of debate and dozens of public meetings, UC Berkeley and the city planning staff have come to a tentative agreement on the future of the area just south of the university campus, according to a Planning Department memorandum. 

The Southside Plan, which goes to the Planning Commission for a vote Wednesday night, would clear the way for new office and housing development amid the restaurants and record shops of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue, while restricting growth in the residential areas to the south. 

The university, as a state entity, is not required to follow the plan but has pledged to use it as a guide. 

If approved by the Planning Commission Wednesday, the new plan will undergo a lengthy environmental review and probably won’t make it to City Council for final ratification for at least a year, according to Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn. 

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington raised concerns about the university’s successful push for a series of new concessions that allow a mix of housing and office space on three university properties along Channing Way instead of requiring housing alone. 

“The university has fought every step of the way to try to undermine the construction of housing,” said Worthington. “It’s absurd.” 

Students need more options in an expensive housing market, Worthington said, and placing students near campus promotes travel by foot and by bicycle, limiting the number of cars that flood the area. 

But Tom Lollini, UC Berkeley’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Physical and Environmental Planning, said the university has sunk almost $250 million into Southside housing in recent years.  

The marquee project, four new residence halls between College Avenue and Bowditch Street, known collectively as Unit 1 and Unit 2, will provide 890 new beds when they open in 2005 at a cost of roughly $123 million, according to the university. 

Lollini promised more housing in the near future, but said the university does have other needs. UC Berkeley is considering a number of new research and staff support facilities along Bancroft Way, he said.  

The recent amendments to the Southside Plan, which also include increased building heights in commercial areas, have their roots in a controversial push by new Planning Commissioner David Stoloff to bring the university’s concerns with the plan front and center. 

Mayor Tom Bates, elected in the fall, appointed Stoloff, a former UC Berkeley planning official, in an attempt to repair what he called a poor relationship between the university and the commission. 

Stoloff then called for a special meeting with university officials in February, allowing them to voice their concerns. Several commissioners, who had already passed a draft of the Southside Plan in June 2002 considered the move an affront. Nonetheless, the meeting went forward and Lollini followed up with a March 20 letter to the city outlining the university’s proposed amendments. 

Wrenn, who heads a sub-committee on the Southside Plan, expressed disdain for the university’s methods, but said he was generally satisfied with the outcome. 

“If at first you don’t succeed, just come back again and take another shot—take advantage of some new commissioners,” he said, describing the university’s tactics. “But I don’t care, as long as we get a good plan.” 

Lollini said the university felt left out of the process in recent months and praised Bates and Stoloff for moving the document forward. 

“I think the change in leadership in the city has been very helpful on this,” he said. “An opening was created in this conversation and it served all of us well.” 

Bates said he was pleased with the outcome. 

“We’re very happy that we’ve reached an agreement that seems to resolve the problems that have been festering for a long time,” said Bates. “I think this bodes well for working with the university in a positive way.” 

John English, a Hillegass Avenue resident who has followed the process closely, said the city wound up with a solid plan after years and years of endless debate. 

“I think it basically is going in the right direction,” he said. “ [But] I’m almost bored with the subject, I’ve been with it for so long.”