The battle over development on University Avenue heated up Wednesday night when city planners presented proposed new zoning rules for the avenue at a public hearing of the Planning Commission.
At the behest of the Mayor’s Task Force On Permitting And Development, the proposals were ordered by the City Council last month to align zoning rules on University to the 1996-adopted University Avenue Strategic Plan. But University Avenue area residents and one public official accused planners of devising a proposal that would encourage the same massive, housing dominated developments that the strategic plan seeks to avoid.
“This is upzoning,” said Councilmember Dona Spring. “These buildings are getting taller.”
Despite a strategic plan that calls for four-story buildings along retail nodes with apartments over ample retail stores and sufficient parking, a series of new developments have topped five stories and ballooned to their property limits.
The culprit, University Avenue neighbors say, is the combination of a city ordinance requiring that any apartment complex with more than five units include affordable units and a state law that grants developers of mixed-use developments with affordable housing a 25 percent bonus.
Residents of the University Avenue area present at the commission meeting wanted city planners to reduce the allowable heights of buildings so that when developers received density bonuses, the highest those developers could build would be to the limits set under the strategic plan.
But in conversations with those residents following the meeting, Planning Manager Mark Rhoades said he didn’t interpret the request from council to include downzoning University. Rhoades said he was operating on the premise that density bonuses were not to be used as a tool to bring building heights up what is called for in the area plan.
The proposal satisfies a state law that went into effect in 2002. The law, Rhoades said, specifies that any change to city zoning rules can’t decrease the area’s housing capacity unless the city compensates for lost capacity in a different district.
The City Council has asked that the Planning Commission fast track the zoning changes back to them so that future developments believed to be coming down the pipeline would fall under their purview. Already four projects are making their way through the city permit process that are exempt from any zoning changes. Planning staff did not respond to most comments and questions at Wednesday’s meeting, but will provide more information at a second public hearing April 14.
The Planning Department’s zoning proposal kept most allowable heights the same, but raised them for the seven identified commercial nodes, which include intersections where University crosses California Street, Acton Street, San Pablo Avenue and Fourth Street. At these intersections, allowable heights for mixed-use buildings would be increased from 40 feet to 50 feet, commercial buildings from 40 feet to 45 feet, and residential buildings from 35 feet to 45 feet.
That didn’t sit well with the neighbors. “We want the envelope to be the strategic plan,” said Steve Wollmer. “Once the envelope is that large, there is nothing that can be done, and the extra space developers get comes out of the neighborhood’s livability.”
Another concern expressed at the commission meeting was the viability of retail and parking at the new buildings. Since only developments that include housing and retail are eligible to receive density bonuses, Richard Graham of Plan Berkeley said much of the retail spaces in the new developments were mere tokens. They are too small to attract viable businesses and lacked sufficient parking attract customers, he said.
Planning Manager Rhoades said the viability of the retail will come with increased residential density.
Developers were also concerned about the zoning proposal, especially a requirement that buildings “step down” towards the back of the parcel so they don’t tower over neighboring homes. Amy Davidson, project manager for Affordable Housing Associates, said that their step down project at University Avenue increased building costs by $30 to $60 a square foot. “We can’t afford to do another project like this,” she said. “We would look to another area.”
Chris Hudson, a developer formerly of Panoramic Interests, warned after the meeting that a proposal to forbid any housing on the ground floor, step down construction and other restrictions would make future developments infeasible. “What they’re proposing will stop private sector development on University Avenue,” he said.