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Hotel Task Force Report Heads to Planning Commission

Friday April 30, 2004

The Berkeley Planning Commission’s UC Hotel Task Force wrapped up their last official business Tuesday, adopting the last of their recommendations on the biggest project to ever hit downtown Berkeley. 

Their report now heads to the full Planning Commission, for consideration at the commission’s May 12 meeting. 

The task force was charged with evaluating the proposal by UC Berkeley to build a massive hotel, conference center and complex of museums in the heart of downtown Berkeley in a two-block area bounded by Shattuck Avenue, Oxford Street, Center Street, and University Avenue. 

The task force meeting ended with applause for panel chair and Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn, who had resisted efforts by Mayor Tom Bates to have the panel hold off on its actions. Bates had originally sponsored the City Council measure creating the task force, but later complained that its activities might interfere with negotiations between his office and the university. 

“The Planning Commission established a subcommittee to get this rolling, and we certainly could include a recommendation that this task force be included in any city design studies on the development of the site,” Wrenn said, in pushing for a continuing role for the group. 

Wrenn and fellow Planning Commission subcommittee members Zelda Bronstein and Gene Poschman also voted unanimously to ask the city to allow the task force to be the forum in which developers unveil their completed plans for the project. 

The proposal to “daylight” Strawberry Creek was one of the last items left on the panel’s plate when they gathered Tuesday. 

While the task force had given two thumbs up to turning a block of Center Street into a pedestrian plaza, they extended only qualified support Tuesday for unearthing Strawberry Creek along the length of the plaza. 

While creek daylighting advocates Richard Register, Kirsten Miller and Juliet Lamont pushed for a strong endorsement of the plan, 15 task force members voted only a qualified approval and four members abstained. The recommendation adopted endorses daylighting only should it prove financially, technically, esthetically and environmentally feasible—and if a plan is in place to assure cleanliness and avoid social problems such as an increased homeless population. 

The panel gave quick approval to a call for the developer to build ground- and second-floor cafes, preferably with outdoor seating, on the Center Street side of the project, and to request that all parts of the complex be wheelchair accessible. 

The panel was more divided by a recommendation by Berkeley Convention and Visitors Bureau President Barbara Hillman and Chamber of Commerce CEO Rachel Rupert that would urge the developers to incorporate the largest possible number of rooms in their hotel. 

“There are hotel and motel rooms in the city, but the owners are not renovating them,” Hillman said. 

“The people who presently own hotels aren’t reinvesting in their property in terms of cleanliness and amenities,” said Rupert, who cited reports of cockroach-infested rooms in some of the city’s larger facilities. 

“We need a clean hotel downtown that’s close to public transit and capable of handling larger events,” she said. 

When Planning Commissioner Bronstein said she was “nervous about calling for the largest number of rooms,” Wrenn said he was inclined to go along with the request because it came from the business community. 

“I’m concerned about saying we should build the hotel as big as possible because we’ve got cockroaches at these other hotels,” said fellow Planning Commissioner Poschman. 

An angry Hillman shot back, “You’re going to do whatever you want.” After grabbing a breath, she explained that given the UC feasibility study’s recommendation of 200 to 250 rooms, the task force should endorse the higher number. 

Wrenn then offered a recommendation that “consistent with design principles” endorsed at the task force’s previous session, “we recommend the developer pursue the maximum number of rooms.” 

The proposal carried on an 11 to 6 vote. 

Next up was a vote on the 12-story hotel height suggested in the university’s initial proposal. Following a brief discussion, the task force voted 12-4 to recommend that it is “not necessarily appropriate to have a 12-story building.” 

With the last proposal adopted, the panel then voted unanimously to approve their report, and members of the task force’s drafting committee started crafting the final versions of the just-adopted proposals into their largely completed 13-page report. 

Bronstein urged all panel members to turn out for the May 12 Planning Commission meeting where the report will be presented, and Wrenn said he would select a group from the panel to summarize sections for his fellow commissioners.