Confusion Surrounds University Avenue Zoning Plan

Friday May 14, 2004

With less than a month left to decide how to shrink new buildings on University Avenue, city staff presented a highly detailed draft zoning overlay to the Berkeley Planning Commission Wednesday night that disappointed some commissioners and residents and left others scratching their heads. 

“We’re puzzled,” said Commissioner Gene Poschman. He joined the call for the staff to provide three dimensional models that could help provide a better view of how future buildings would look on the ground. 

Working off recommendations from the Planning Commission, Principal Planner Alan Gatzke presented new zoning rules filled with possible exemptions and incentives for developers that could keep the size of new buildings on the avenue a guessing game. 

“Only a land-use attorney or an Enron energy trader could love the latest draft because of the endless ways to game the gullible,” said Stephen Wollmer, a cartographer and Berkeley resident, who last month took his own stab at drafting a plan. 

If the latest plan is complex, so is the task before city planners. After repeated outcry from residents that new buildings on University were so tall and bulky that they encroached on adjoining neighborhoods, the City Council ordered staff to fastrack new zoning rules that conform to the 1996 University Avenue Strategic Plan.  

The strategic plan called for building heights of three stories along the avenue (with four stories allowed at selected intersections targeted for retail development), but it never contemplated a state law that Berkeley developers have used in recent years to blow through those limits.  

For buildings that include affordable housing, the state law allows them to build 25 percent more space than allowed under zoning requirements. Residents have argued the rule inevitably results in buildings too big for their surrounding neighborhoods. 

After months of debating an acceptable building envelope to constrain the size of developments, the debate Wednesday shifted to what types of projects would be exempt from the restrictions and what types of incentives developers would receive for improvements to retail spaces and sidewalks. 

The staff provided an extensive list of exemptions for projects that would be free from zoning rules, but no restrictions on how massive those buildings could grow. 

“This creates all sorts of loopholes,” said Plan Berkeley’s Richard Graham, who labeled the draft “a horrible setback.” 

Among the types of projects that would qualify for a waiver include public buildings such as a library or a school, a housing project with 50 percent affordable units, a senior housing project, a project that complies with environmentally friendly building standards, a project that includes 50 percent more retail space than required by the city, and a project that includes more commercial parking than required. 

The language set off alarm bells for residents and commissioners. Of the four buildings in the pipeline for University Avenue, two are more than 50 percent affordable. The largest plot on the avenue is the adult school owned by the Berkeley Unified School District, which has signaled its intent to redevelop the property. 

City Planning Manager Mark Rhoades promised to return with guidelines for the exempt properties. “We’re not talking about 10-story buildings. That was never the intent,” he said. 

The issue of incentives for developers also proved controversial.  

Principal Planner Gatzke laid out a menu of improvements to retail space and pedestrian amenities that developers could make in return for increased building size. The incentives included public plazas, setbacks for wider sidewalks, light fixtures, courtyards, and flexible ground floor space that can be converted to retail uses. 

Wollmer charged that some of the incentives were not proportional to the improvement offered and amounted to a giveback to developers.  

The slew of exemptions and incentives also raised concerns that the zoning overlay was becoming too complicated for its own good. 

“The goal of the process should be understandable standards,” said Robin Kibby also of Plan Berkeley. “You shouldn’t have to schedule an appointment with a zoning officer to understand development on University Avenue.” 

Although it wasn’t debated, the latest draft didn’t include a proposal from Commissioner Susan Wengraf that would have reduced the allowable size of buildings. The goal of Wengraf’s plan was that even when developers used the 25 percent density bonus for buildings that included affordable housing, the project would not balloon larger than what was called for in the strategic plan. 

Gatzke said the Wengraf proposal would produce minimum building sizes too small to be within the spirit of a state law that prohibits a city from diminishing its development capacity. 

The current recommendation from staff would allow developments that could grow bigger than the standards in the zoning ordinance when the state density bonus was included. Gatzke said the increased size could be accommodated by an extra floor along the street frontage of the building. Under his calculations, with a density bonus, a three-story building would become four stories and a four-story building in one of the intersections targeted for retail would become five stories. 

City staff is charged with coming back to the Planning Commission in two weeks with written responses and recommendations based upon concerns raised at Wednesday night’s meeting.