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UC Hotel Panel Moves Ahead After Mayor Seeks a Timeout

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday January 23, 2004

The Berkeley Planning Commission’s examination of the proposed UC Hotel-Conference Center-Museum Complex project was thrown into temporary confusion early this week when Mayor Tom Bates formally asked the panel to delay creating the project task force Bates himself had sought less than two months ago. 

“While the proposal [for a 20-member task force to examine the hotel/conference center proposal] has considerable merit,” Bates wrote in a Jan. 20 letter to the commission’s four-member hotel complex subcommittee, “I believe it is premature to initiate at this time. ... I would prefer to see major decisions [on the project] be made as part of an overall framework and not done piecemeal. We risk setting up a confusing and cumbersome process that endangers the success of the hotel/conference center project.” 

Bates chided the task force proposal for “not address[ing] the role of the Zoning Adjustments Board and the Design Review Committee in reviewing the project.” Noting that “the city and the university are currently engaged in negotiations,” with a UC/city joint draft proposal expected “in the next month or two,” he “respectfully request[ed]” that the task force “not make decisions about the review process” until then. 

Last November, Mayor Bates formally recommended to the that “council direct the Planning Commission to examine the [hotel complex project] and report back to Council no later than May 2004 with preliminary recommendations.” Bates wrote that a Planning Commission Task Force was mandated by the city’s General Plan, and noted that Planning Commission Chair “has activated this provision [of the General Plan] and is working to schedule the first task force meeting.” 

The issue was left in limbo after Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn, the Commission subcommittee chair, made adjustments and clarifications to a proposal he had written setting out guidelines for creating the UC Hotel task force. 

Bates aide Cisco DeVries said he couldn’t answer for the mayor and said he’d pass on the revisions to Bates, now in Washington, D.C. for a meeting of the National Conference of Mayors. 

At the beginning of last Monday’s subcommittee meeting in which the mayor’s letter was released, Wrenn said subcommittee members “understand that we are not trying to supercede ZAB,” adding that his adjustments to his proposal made it plain that the task force “is going to be looking at the front end of the project while it’s in its first stages, while ZAB and Design Review will be involved once concrete proposals have been presented to the city. We [the task force] are not going to be part of that end of the process.” 

Wrenn called the dispute a “misunderstanding by Mayor Bates” of the task force’s role in the development of the hotel complex. After the meeting, he said the Planning Commission “has a role in the hotel complex development, and we can’t just be told to stand to the side while all of this goes through.” He said holding off on an examination of the project at this point would essentially mean that the Planning Commission would have no role in shaping the development. 

Asked if he thought his proposed clarifications would satisfy the mayor’s concerns, Wrenn said “I hope this resolves it, but I don’t know.” He said he plans to move the task force plan forward. 

DeVries and Planning Commission Chairperson Zelda Bronstein held a brief, animated discussion over the mayor’s request outside the elevator shortly before the Jan. 20 subcommittee meeting. Bronstein declined to comment on the content of the discussion, but she was heard making the point to DeVries that she believed she had activated the task force at the city council’s official request and in full compliance with the city’s General Plan. 

UC Berkeley proposed the hotel/conference center/museum complex for a downtown Berkeley block at the edge of the campus bounded by Shattuck Avenue, Oxford Street, Center Street, and University Avenue. 

The university contends the project is exempt from Berkeley’s zoning ordinances and review—a claim that is reportedly the subject of some of the negotiations between the university and city officials.  

Kevin Hufferd, who is managing the hotel complex project for the school, says he is not participating in those negotiations, but calls them “sensitive.” 

In response, councilmembers unanimously authorized creating the planning commission’s hotel complex task force on Dec. 9. 

Since then, a subcommittee consisting of Commissioners Wrenn, Bronstein, Gene Poschman and Susan Wengraf has met with an ad hoc group of interested Berkeley citizens almost weekly in a second floor conference room of the Berkeley Planning Department. Participants have discussed a wide range of topics, including traffic mitigation issues, community accessibility, benefits and detriments to the city, and possible proposals to turn Center Street into a pedestrian mall and to open the currently closed Strawberry Creek in that block. Mayor Bates and UC Project Manager Hufferd regularly attend and give updates to participants. 

Wrenn sent out a memo last week outlining a plan to formalize the ad hoc nature of the task force, offering a detailed list of what the task force will look at, setting out a meeting timetable, and calling for the nomination of “about 20 people” to serve on the task force—subject to the planning commission ratification. In response, Bates requested that the task force be put on hold. 

Participants at the Jan. 20 subcommittee meeting nominated close to 25 people representing architectural, ecological, business, transportation, and labor interests for planning commission approval at their Feb. 18 meeting.