Staff proposals for implementing the University Avenue Strategic Plan (UASP) are so confusing that the public, the commission, and even staff find it difficult to understand them, as is shown by each succeeding draft having additional mistakes and inconsistencies. The drafts have come so quickly that issues presented weeks ago have not been resolved, and have been buried by many new questions raised by the later revisions. Staff is pushing the commission to complete a final draft before the City Council recess in July, but neighbors and merchants are not convinced that the proposed zoning code changes will lead to the viable and vital University Avenue that the UASP promised.
Staff is demanding, in numerous ways, “flexibility” in application of the zoning code; they argue for the freedom to approach each project individually and evaluate it in it’s own context and particular details. While in principle this sounds admirable, past experience shows that developers are adept at finding the soft underbelly of the zoning code. For this reason the community is loathe to support language that leaves so much undefined and subject to change outside of the public view.
Blanket unlimited exemptions for certain preferred types of development leave neighbors unable to anticipate all the ways potential projects can grow far beyond what the UASP envisioned. While staff has incorporated minimum design standards for streetscape amenities, including sidewalk bulb-outs, minimal open space requirements, and a grudging recognition of what quality retail space requires, they have steadfastly refused to incorporate the core requirement of the UASP: that the maximum heights may be granted only “if all other solar, privacy, open space, signage, design, and parking standards are met” (P34, UASP).
It has become apparent, after two months of Planning Commission public hearings and five zoning code drafts that much of staff’s efforts are toward:
• A significant up-zoning in little noticed areas of the code.
• Avoidance of any hard and firm development standards that are not subject to easily met standards for waivers and modifications.
• Fine sounding platitudes for design standard incentives that richly reward large projects, fail to help small projects and impose a significant cost on merchants and adjoining neighborhoods.
Somewhere along the way, the UASP disappeared in the discussion of zoning code sections and sub-sections. The changes have resulted in a code that only a land-use attorney could love, because it will be a source of work for years to come, as each section is tested as to what it truly means when it is applied to a real design as every project moves through the approval process. With zoning language that will allow buildings even bigger than Acton Court, there will be an endless stream of projects being appealed to the City Council. It is sad that throughout this entire process the Planning Commission has refused to, even once, sit down and have an actual dialogue with the community. The community would like to know how we got so lost from the clear task set by the City Council; to implement the UASP design guidelines, not fundamentally change them.
Kristin Leimkuhler, Stephen Wollmer, Richard Graham and Robin Kibby are contributors to PlanBerkeley.org.