I have been reviewing the proposed zoning code amendments to implement the University Avenue Strategic Plan, and I am disappointed that the balance of a citizen written plan promoting redevelopment along one of Berkeley’s most neglected Avenues has been lost and instead the Planning Commission is being presented with a blueprint for a four- and five-story University Avenue. This plan will burden Berkeley with a distorted development pattern of over-size buildings with little hope of realizing the avenue’s retail potential and severe and unmitigated privacy, shadowing, and traffic impacts to the residential streets that adjoin the avenue. The zoning code amendments that staff are proposing do a disservice to the entire planning process, they consistently ignore the purpose and the goals of the UASP plan, they emasculate and/or ignore the plan’s protections for the existing business and residential neighbors, and they open areas of ambiguity that will be fought over in the planning process and the courts for years to come.
What staff presented to the Planning Commission and the public on March 24 is the most significant up-zoning Berkeley has experienced in many years. Every use type in the Avenue Nodes is increased by either five or 10 feet in height and one or two additional stories; in the University Avenue mixed-use areas, commercial and other-use use types are likewise granted an additional one story. Because these increases in height and number of stories can’t be accommodated within the existing 3.0 FAR (Floor Area Ratio), staff has unilaterally proposed increasing the FAR to 3.5 (before application of the state mandated density bonus). Acton Courtyard at 1392 University Ave. is an example of a recent project with a FAR of 3.19, but for a truly scary vision of the future University Avenue you need look no farther than the plans for 1885 University Avenue on http://planberkeley.org/1885ua_files/1885ProjHmPage.html which lords over the modest Berkeley Way neighborhood with a truly regal FAR of 3.67.
The clear intent of the UASP plan to require retail (with an explicit exemption for accessible dwelling units) on the ground floor unless hardship could be shown has become an open invitation to developers to fill the ground floor with parking, because the amendments include parking as the only other permitted use besides commercial/retail. Unfortunately, the parking will be required for the residents and workers, and where shoppers and business customers will park is not discussed. If this is the best Berkeley can do to encourage retail we may as well resign ourselves to driving past serried rows of iron-gated garages up and down University Avenue as we drive to the malls in Emeryville and Albany, because there will be nowhere to park along the avenue. Possibly the most egregious example of the planning staff ignoring the clear intent of the plan is the omission of the vitally important caveat about building height and stories:
“Sets minimum and maximum building height limits for residential, mixed-use, and commercial buildings within avenue nodes and avenue mixed-use areas. New buildings in avenue nodes will be required to be a minimum of two stories in height, and a maximum of four stores. Buildings in avenue mixed-use areas will be required to be at least two stories high and may be a maximum of three stories. These maximum heights may only be granted if all other solar, privacy, open space, signage, design, and parking standards are met.” (p. 34 UASP)
I find it curious that staff could determine and incorporate the maximum heights for each and every use type, but not the accompanying, absolute requirement that these heights can only be granted if the UASP standards are met. The way the code amendments are proposed, there is no requirement that any of these standards are met—in the findings, where words get appealed and litigated, the language is toothless, unenforceable drivel: Be generally consistent with the design guidelines contained in the University Avenue Strategic Plan, as adopted by the City Council in November, 1996. Even worse, the staff has taken it upon themselves to offer an invitation to one and all developers to apply for a ‘get out of (zoning) jail free’ card by fulfilling any one of five poorly drafted ‘public use’ exemptions from all neighborhood protections. I await the first developer who after graciously providing a few bike racks in front of their building demands a complete exemption from yard development standards that are vital to protect adjoining residential districts—if you think this is impossible, I challenge staff to show us what in the code the city could use to refuse the request.
I cannot tell you how appalled I am by planning staff’s work on this project. I had expected better from, and for Berkeley. The public hearing on these changes has been held open until April 14, I ask one and all to write to the Planning Commission and request that they reject the staff report, and direct staff to meet with the community to incorporate development standards that reflect the balance the community worked hard and long to build into the UASP.