The controversy over who will represent Berkeley’s interests in the early stages of development of the proposed downtown UC hotel complex—the Planning Commission, the city council, or the mayor alone—continued to simmer even as the Planning Commission’s Hotel Task Force moved forward with the stated blessing of the UC hotel’s project manager. The mayor, a city councilmember, and representatives of both the task force and UC all weighed in on the representation issue at this week’s task force meeting in exchanges that ranged from the testy to the “let’s all get along.”
UC Senior Planner Kevin Hufferd told some 60 participants in the task force’s first public meeting at the North Berkeley Senior Center Wednesday night that “I welcome the task force getting involved in the process at this time. This is a perfect time for the community to bring their ideas forward.”
That was in considerable contrast to Mayor Tom Bates, who had requested that the 25-member task force should delay any action until he completes the first-round of private negotiations with UC representatives involved with the project. Bates told meeting participants that he was “skeptical about the [task force] process getting started” at the present time because “these issues are so complicated.” The mayor had earlier told the Daily Planet that it was UC that objected to the task force’s immediate involvement.
And Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district borders on the proposed downtown hotel site, complained at the same task force meeting that he was being kept out of the loop. “No one from the university or city staff has given me a single piece of paper about this project,” Worthington said. “What I’ve heard comes from individuals, or what I’ve read in the Daily Planet.” Worthington said that he had, in fact, received information from the Planning Commission, but made a distinction between that group and paid city staff.
Shortly afterwards, Hufferd made his way across the room to put a stack of project documents into Worthington’s hand.
The major contention between the city and the university over the hotel project is whether the project is subject to Berkeley’s zoning code, and must therefore go through the city’s normal development approval processes. Hufferd said that while there will be “substantial community input one way or the other, we are trying to craft a new development approval process that is separate and different from what UC has done in the past.” Hufferd did not elaborate on what that new approval process might be. He also said that the hotel project will generate taxes to the city “equivalent to if it were completely privately-developed.”
Following the meeting, Planning Commissioner and task force chairperson Rob Wrenn downplayed one of the major issues in Assistant City Attorney Zack Cowan’s legal opinion memo to Mayor Bates concerning the hotel complex. In the memo, which was leaked to the Daily Planet and published in the newspaper’s Feb. 17 edition, Cowan had advised that the city’s zoning code be changed to accomodate UC’s wishes for the hotel. The major contention about the zoning code is that its downtown height limitations would not permit UC’s desires for a 12 story structure. “I’m not opposed to changing the zoning,” Wrenn said. “The real question is: change what to get what? There has to be some tradeoffs with UC—some quid pro quo—on some mitigations that we will get in return. And the real question of the building is not so much how tall it will be, but the details of the design. We have to be absolutely certain that it looks nice.”
Several meeting participants questioned UC Project Manager Hufferd on exactly what that design might be, Hufferd said that the project was in its preliminary stages, and no exact project design was presently being considered.
While the bulk of the first task force meeting was work-related and non-controversial, taken up by detailed presentations of proposals to set up a pedestrian mall and to daylight Strawberry Creek along Center Street, Bates clashed with meeting participants in the meeting’s first five minutes. The mayor said that while he was a longtime supporter of creek daylighting, he was “now becoming a skeptic” about proposals to do so on Center Street. Bates cited potential problems with the nearby BART station, as well as with proposed Seagate properties that would border the creek. And when Bates announced that he was going to have to leave the meeting following his opening remarks, a creek restoration advocate complained that this would mean the mayor would miss a detailed presentation on the creek daylighting proposal which had been prepared at the request of the mayor himself, and which was designed to answer some of his concerns.
“I’m sorry,” the mayor snapped back. “I have a life. It’s not convenient for me tonight.” Bates pointed out that some of his staff members would remain to hear the presentation.
Several audience members took exception to the mayor’s remarks that “We’ve got to rachet down our expectations about what’s going to come from this hotel project; we’re not going to get everything that we want; this project is not going to solve all of Berkeley’s problems.”
Hotel Project Manager Hufferd announced that while UC had selected the project developer from a list of four finalists, the university was not yet ready to reveal the name until negotiations with the developer are completed. He said an announcement was expected sometime around the first of March, and also said that the developer had not yet selected a project architect.
The Planning Commission task force, which is chaired by Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn, is expected to make recommendations to the city council on the UC hotel complex project sometime in May.