UC Hotel Plans Pose Major Challenge for City

By JOHN ENGLISH Special to the Planet
Friday December 12, 2003

Pivotally located smack between the downtown BART station and the edge of campus, the proposed UC Berkeley hotel/conference center/museums complex could bring important benefits or major headaches—perhaps both. It certainly poses a wide range of difficult, and interrelated, issues. 


The Project’s Basic Features 

The plan would involve redeveloping most of the block bounded by Shattuck, Addison, Oxford, and Center. The university already owns the eastern half of the block—with a parking garage on the Addison side and the old UC Press building (now used by the Printing Services Department) on the Center Street side. UC has a tentative deal to buy the Bank of America property on the block’s southwest quarter, which now houses the bank’s rambling one-story building and sizable open parking lot. The redevelopment’s first phase, likely to occur on the bank land, would include constructing a hotel with roughly 175-225 rooms and some 15,000-20,000 square feet of meeting space, as well as a replacement for the branch bank and considerable enclosed parking. This would entail a long-term ground lease from the university—or possibly resale of the land by UC. The second phase would include constructing, likely on the block’s eastern half or so, new homes for the Berkeley Art Museum, the Pacific Film Archive, and the Hearst Museum of Anthropology.  

The RFQ (Request for Qualifications) sent to potential developers includes a tentative site plan and east-west section drawing showing a “presently preferred” scheme for the block—although this is considered subject to major changes later on, during the project’s detailed planning.  

Less widely known is that the project would also involve redeveloping much of the next block to the north, including the UC open parking along the north side of Addison, the one- or two-story parts of University Hall, and the one-story commercial building at 2154-60 University Ave. that UC is presently acquiring. In their place, the plan currently foresees “a parking structure primarily for university use, ground floor retail, and perhaps office space for university users.” 


Urban Design and Preservation 

The Berkeley General Plan says it’s very important to maintain the special physical character of our historic downtown and ensure that new construction is compatible. 

One aspect of that involves protecting specific historic buildings. Of particular concern here is that the Moderne-styled UC Press building is on the SHRI (State Historic Resources Inventory). Could at least parts of this quite notable building be incorporated into the new complex? Also of direct concern is the 1911-vintage structure at 2154-60 University Ave., which is listed as a “significant building” by the city’s Downtown Berkeley Design Guidelines.  

Furthermore, many historic buildings closely adjoin the project site, and could be seriously affected by what happens on it.  

As for the project’s new buildings, how should they be massed? For what it’s worth, the RFQ’s section drawing shows something 12 stories high at the corner of Shattuck and Center. Would a narrow tower that high be acceptable at this particular corner, partly because of precedent set by the nearby historic Wells Fargo tower? Or should the hotel be much lower and wider? Should the project’s tall elements be elsewhere on the block, even partly over museum space? Should building form be terraced, with a series of roof gardens? All these options need exploring. 

Would the project create huge monolithic structures clashing with downtown’s “grain” of mostly moderate-scaled buildings and storefronts? How could the new construction be massed—and detailed—to avoid undue mismatch? 

Would the museums be designed as a nowadays typically grandstanding, idiosyncratic Big Statement? Or would they—in addition to embodying green building principles—seek excellence and uniqueness by instead graciously fitting into, and reinforcing the character of, a unique historic downtown? 

The RFQ’s site plan shows an “arts courtyard” apparently rather hidden at second-floor level within the southern block’s interior. But what about public open space where it’s most useful, namely, at street level adjoining the sidewalk? According to the site plan Bank of America’s current plaza on Shattuck would disappear, and the block’s only real street-level open space would be a tiny, and likely sunshine-challenged, plaza at the northeast corner.  

Would the new buildings’ ground-floor usage enhance the pedestrian experience? The situation could be bleak along the north side of Center Street, where the RFQ drawings don’t specify any use directly relevant to foot traffic except for the bank at the Shattuck end and a “museum cafe” at the Oxford end. Along the rest of this crucial frontage, would pedestrians find only the Berkeley Art Museum’s doorless sidewall and the face of a sprawling parking garage? Also of special concern is the future pedestrian experience on the project-impacted north side of Addison and south side of University Avenue.  


Parking and Transit 

The RFQ seems to envision a large amount of parking even within the project’s southern block. The section drawing shows beneath the new bank office a presumably dedicated basement garage, served by a driveway evidently descending from Center Street: a driveway arguably inconsistent with the potential (which interests Mayor Tom Bates) for converting that street into pedestrian open space. And east of the driveway, it shows an apparently huge garage that—partly at ground level and then partly below grade—would continue, below the museums, all the way to Oxford. 

Many Berkeleyans will likely object strenuously to having so much parking right beside the downtown BART station, at the heart of a city supposedly committed to minimizing use of the private automobile. They’ll probably argue that, instead, the project should be conceived and designed to actively support use of public transit. 

As just one example, could the hotel/conference center give a transit-friendly strong hint by having its main entrance feed directly to and from a bus stop with ample shelter and seating? As another, could there be a direct underground passageway from inside the project to the BART station’s mezzanine?  


Strawberry Creek 

At a Dec. 2 meeting, several attendees urged that the project should include daylighting Strawberry Creek. Though sympathetic to creek restoration, the Mayor felt that the hotel/conference center/museums project shouldn’t be asked to pay for it. Daylighting advocates responded by suggesting that the project should include extra uses so as to enable such payment.  


Fiscal Concerns 

The hotel/conference center evidently would pay transient occupancy tax to the city. However, UC and apparently the mayor assume that (at least if UC retains fee ownership) it would be exempt from ad valorem property tax and would, instead, be subject to a less burdensome relative called “possessory interest” tax. At the Dec. 2 meeting Mayor Bates said it appears the latter would at least equal the property tax that Bank of America currently pays. But as the bank’s land is now very underbuilt, shouldn’t the comparison be made, instead, with the property tax the bank might pay if it retained the land and fully developed it? Furthermore, it seems that the city attorney’s office has been seriously reviewing the city’s legal situation on the property tax. 

Relevant in any case is Measure N, enacted by Berkeley voters in 1988. That measure declares as city policy that all development by public agencies should pay taxes and fees, comparable to those paid by private citizens and businesses, to support their fair share of city services. It is supplemented by General Plan statements like the Land Use Element’s call to “[s]eek ways and means, and commit additional resources, to ensure that the University of California complies with voter-approved Measure N.”  

This concern extends to even the transportation-services and other “impact fees” called for by the General Plan. For instance, the Housing Element says to “[a]pply [housing mitigation] impact fees to new hotel or conference center uses as well as to office, retail, and industrial uses.”  


Role of the City and Community 

The RFQ says nothing at all about the city’s role in the project planning process. In contrast, it prominently cites—supposedly as an advantage for developers—the university’s “exempt status as a state agency.” Will the city and citizens be relegated to what, in the last analysis, amounts to mere commenting?  

But would the hotel/conference center really be exempt from city regulations? It’s not clear that it would be, and it seems that the city attorney’s office has been studying this question. 

Measure N mandates that all land use plans, development, and expansion by public agencies should follow city laws. This theme is supported by General Plan statements such as “Use all available means to ensure that the university and other public agencies abide by the rules and laws of the city.” 

Whatever the ultimate legal situation, the city has now activated General Plan language calling for a “Planning Commission task force” regarding the project. The council has asked the commission for an initial report, including recommended project criteria, to be submitted by May. 

In a recent letter to the Berkeley Daily Planet, Planning Commission chair Zelda Bronstein emphasized that in order for the project to greatly benefit Berkeley, “the community at large must have ample opportunity to participate in the planning process.”