Planners See Two New University Avenue Plans

Friday April 30, 2004

University Avenue neighbors, who for years, to no avail, have been pushing for a change in zoning rules to limit the size of new buildings on the avenue, now have two new proposals drafted to address their concerns. 

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Planning Commission, planning staff presented a revised zoning overlay for the avenue that would restrict the size of new buildings to what many vocal neighbors have said was called for in the 1996 University Avenue Strategic Plan.  

“Tonight for the first time I have hope,” said Kristin Leimkuhler, of Plan Berkeley, a neighborhood group advocating stricter development standards.  

The newly proposed zoning overlay, requested by the commission at its previous meeting, goes much further to satisfy the demands of residents than the original proposal staff offered in March. Though the March plan also shrinks the building envelope, opponents argued that developers could still use the state density bonus law—that allows them to build 25 percent more space for developments that include affordable housing—to construct oversized buildings that block the sun and push up against neighboring properties behind the avenue.  

The new plan reduces the size of buildings further so that if a developer requests a density bonus, the total size of the building will grow no larger that what was called for in the planning staff’s March proposal: three story buildings along the avenue, four stories in selected intersections with strong retail potential and extensive building setbacks from private homes behind the avenue. 

Zoning on University emerged as a hot button issue last February when the Mayor’s Task Force on Permitting and Development made new zoning rules for University one of its top recommendations. The City Council has asked for a new zoning overlay to be returned for its consideration by July 13. 

A second new plan emerged, not yet analyzed by staff, at Wednesday’s meeting. Stephen Wollmer, an electronic map expert and Berkeley resident, submitted a proposal that would graft different zoning rules together for new buildings on University. Ground floor commercial space would be zoned with the standard currently used on the avenue, which requires minimal building setbacks and assumes ground floor retail with apartment units above. The second and third floors, however, would be zoned with guidelines used for residential neighborhoods, in this case meaning they would have stricter front and side setbacks. 

Wollmer argued that when developers employed the density bonus, they could build out from the stricter setbacks so the building wouldn’t get too tall or bulky.  

Smaller buildings, though, have consequences.  

A staff analysis presented Wednesday showed that both the staff proposal presented in March and the latest one would released Wednesday would decrease housing capacity on University Avenue. Under the existing zoning rules, the city had calculated in its general plan that it could build 618 units (773 units with the state density bonus) on 17 identified opportunity sites. The March proposal drops that number to 558 (698 with the state density bonus) and the latest proposal lowers it further to 519 units (649 with the state density bonus)—a 16 percent reduction.  

State law prohibits the city from decreasing its housing capacity without compensating for it. To keep capacity relatively stable, city planners identified two new opportunity sites on University Avenue, one at 1375-9 University and the other at 1627 University. 

After the staff presentation members of the public and planning commissioners spoke less about the zoning proposals and more about various facets of the plan, especially how to create viable retail opportunities on university.  

The 1996 strategic plan specifically called for mixed-use buildings with housing above ground floor retail along the avenue, but residents and planning commissioners asked the staff to study allowing residential only buildings in areas not identified as strong retail opportunities. 

Several storefronts at newly developed university avenue sites have remained vacant, said Principal Planner Alan Gatzke . Residents, who believe many of the storefronts were built as a token gesture to win city concessions, questioned if the retail spaces called for in the plan could be viable.  

“University Avenue doesn’t have the foot traffic to support pedestrian oriented business,” said Tom Hunt during the public hearing.  

To make retail space more attractive, several planning commissioners requested that the ceiling height for storefronts be increased to 15 feet and asked staff to consider requiring more commercial related parking at the intersections targeted as retail opportunities. 

Planning commissioners agreed that projects that consisted of only entirely affordable housing or senior housing should qualify for bonuses to build beyond the zoning requirements. They debated, but failed to reach a consensus on, which type of landscape improvements could qualify a developer for a similar break.  

Gatzke said he would incorporate the input in a new draft when the planning commission returns to the subject on May 12.