The City Council tonight (Tuesday, May 18) is scheduled to review and vote on the latest plan to transform the city-owned parking lot on Oxford Street (between Allston Way and Kittredge Street) into the largest affordable housing complex in the city and a mecca for environmental activism and education.
The David Brower Center, named after the Berkeley native who founded the Sierra Club, the ambitious and controversial development headlines a busy council agenda that includes the first public hearing on the proposed 2005 budget, a slew of public hearings on city fee increases, a review of possible tax measures heading to voters in November, and an effort to keep one controversial measure on prostitution off the ballot.
On the Brower Center, councilmembers are being asked to let city officials start negotiations on a binding contract with the nonprofit developers—Earth Island Institute and Resources for Community Development (RCD)—that would be activated once those developers secure financing for the project. After the developers raise the money, they would still have to go before Design Review and the Zoning Adjustment Board for approval of the details of the project. The developers hope to complete the project within three years, Berkeley Housing Director Steve Barton said.
Originally envisioned as one mega complex, the plan now calls for two five-story buildings at the site. One building would include retail space below the roughly 95-units of low-income housing, developed by nonprofit builder RCD. The second building would house the Brower Center over retail space and possibly an art exhibition space.
The split will allow the space for environmental-based nonprofits to be built to highest possible green building codes—a standard that the affordable housing segment couldn’t afford to meet, said Barton.
Underneath the buildings would be one level of underground parking to replace the roughly 105 space parking lot.
The city has agreed to turn over the parcel valued at $4.8 million to the developers in return for a renewable long-term lease at the underground parking garage, estimated to also cost in the neighborhood of $5 million.
Berkeley currently earns about $350,000 a year from operating the lot, said Barton. Under the current plan, the city stands to generate more money from the parcel by adding sales and property taxes from the new shops to the parking revenue.
That concept drew little opposition two years ago when a council majority selected the Brower Center proposal at the end of an era of flush budgets and scarce housing. Now with the city in the midst of a budget crisis, some people are questioning the wisdom of devoting the bulk of perhaps the most significant parcel of open land downtown to a project heavy with nonprofits that won’t pay city taxes.
Monday the Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhood Associations (BANA), listed among other concerns, the cost to the public by way of “grants, fee waivers, land cost writedowns, long term tax exemptions, projected sales tax and other revenues or lack thereof.”
Councilmember Gordon Wozniak described the trading of the land for the rights to the underground parking as a “substantial gift to the Brower Center. My main concern is basically they’re asking the city to give them the land for free.” Wozniak nevertheless complimented the goals of the project.
An arts component for the development—requested by the city—is undetermined. The current plan designates space for arts that could include a gallery and a screening room, but unless an arts groups comes on board, it could revert to more retail, Barton said.
He added that the buildings wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate a theater space recommended by the Planning Commission three years ago.
Currently the Brower Center exists only as a board of directors. The San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute, also founded by Brower, has taken the lead in planning the center and raising money, mostly through private donations. The group’s website envisions the center as a consortium of nonprofits that would include a museum in Brower’s honor and an environmental educational center.
Resources for Community Development is seeking federal and state funding for the housing development, targeted for lower and middle income families. Barton said the city has already pledged to provide Section 8 housing vouchers for one-quarter of the unit.
Budget and Fees
Tonight’s agenda will include six public hearings on fee increases, some of which promise to face opposition.
The city is proposing a 7.8 percent increase in registration fees along with several other fee increases and a new surcharge for Tuolumne Camp—a city owned camp site just west of Yosemite National Park.
Because of the budget crisis, the city’s three camps must all be self sufficient by fiscal year 2007. The plan raises fees at Tuolumne—the most popular and profitable camp—to offset deficits at Echo Lake Youth Camp and Berkeley Day Camp.
At a recent meeting, the eight-member Parks and Recreation Commission split on the proposal, with four members arguing that any increased fees at Tuolumne should go towards facility improvements at the camp.
Also on the council agenda is a proposal to increase rental fees at the city’s senior centers to raise $120,347. Councilmember Dona Spring said fees were already too high, shutting out small community groups from the spaces.
The council will also consider increased fees for garbage collection, sewer connections, city Internet transactions, and services at the permit center.
In addition to fees, the council will reconsider possible tax measures to take to voters in November. Spring hopes to win more money for a Clean Water Tax that would supply money to unearth city creeks as well as repair storm drains and keep already-daylighted creeks clean.
With nearly all the signatures collected for a ballot measure that would call on the city request that the state decriminalize prostitution and make its enforcement in Berkeley a low priority, the Sex Worker Outreach Project has agreed to withdraw their petition if the council adopts a compromise resolution. The resolution would make the same request of the state, but would keep enforcement of city prostitution laws a priority. In addition, the police would have to report incidents of prostitution arrests to the Police Review Commission and the council.