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University Avenue Strategic Plan Nears Final Stage

Friday May 28, 2004

Ready or not, here come new zoning regulations for University Avenue. 

At a heated fifth, and second-to-last, public hearing Wednesday, a majority of the Berkeley Planning Commission signaled it was content with bulk of the current staff proposal and proposed amendments that would potentially increase the size of new developments on University. 

Meanwhile, the big picture remained nearly identical to the start of the process in February: The staff still recommended buildings that would range from three to five stories depending on their location and various incentives offered to developers; residents griped that the prescribed buildings would be too bulky and would encroach on adjacent neighborhoods; developers complained that new restrictions would cease future construction, and planning commissioners bickered amongst themselves.  

Before the night was over, one commissioner left without warning, and a second left after an argument with a fellow commissioner. 

What has changed is that now the commission has one last meeting—June 9—to hammer out all its loose ends and make a final recommendation to the City Council.  

The deadline would give the council an opportunity to enact the new zoning before its summer recess. After years of complaints from residents that zoning rules on the city’s major east-west route allowed for bigger and bulkier buildings than called for in a 1996 strategic plan, both the council and the Mayor’s Task Force on Permitting and Development concluded new rules should be expedited so no additional developments are allowed to be submitted under the current guidelines. 

Still, some commissioners thought they needed more time and a different process. 

“This is a charade,” declared Commissioner Zelda Bronstein. “It’s completely unrealistic for this commission to put to the City Council a viable, realistic and well thought out plan.” 

She wanted to form a working group of commissioners, staff, residents and developers to talk through unresolved zoning issues. 

Evan MacDonald, a developer formerly of Panoramic Interests, and Robin Kibby, a resident who wants to limit the size of new developments, both welcomed the suggestion. 

Five of Bronstein’s colleagues on the commission did not.  

“This has not been a charade,” replied Commissioner David Taab. “I don’t want this to be railroaded. I want the commission to vote on it.” 

Commissioner David Stoloff concurred, saying that the public hearings had offered plenty of dialogue and that the commission had “covered quite a lot of territory.” 

Bronstein never asked for a vote, but bad blood from the heated exchange apparently carried over into the next discussion. 

During a debate on granting developers bigger concessions if they supplied more commercial parking, Bronstein pressed Commission Chair Harry Pollack to explain his support for the larger concession proposal.  

She asked if Pollack’s position was based on testimony given minutes earlier from Chris Hudson, a developer, and after Bronstein continued to insist on an answer, Pollack replied, “Zelda, you know what, it’s time to behave.”  

Bronstein walked out while her ally on the commission, Gene Poschman, muttered, “We sure don’t know what we’re doing about parking.” 

Bronstein’s premature departure marked the second consecutive meeting that a planning commissioner left early after a squabble with a colleague. Two weeks ago, Commissioner Rob Wrenn left after Commissioner Jerome Wiggins blasted a commission task force on the proposed UC hotel and convention center for not having representatives from South Berkeley.  

With Bronstein gone, and Wiggins having left a few minutes earlier, commissioners Taab, Stoloff, Pollack and Tim Perry recommended that staff consider increasing the amount of total space a developer could win from offering street improvements and increased concessions given to developers for building more commercial parking and bigger retail spaces.  

Originally, staff had proposed granting developers incentives that would add up to no more than 0.3 percent of the floor area ratio of the lot. While commissioners threw out different proposals before settling on 0.5 percent, Commissioner Susan Wengraf complained, “We’re just picking numbers out of a hat. It’s crazy.” 

Residents who have fought to limit the sizes of new developments were disheartened by the turn of events. 

“We got squashed like a bug,” said Kristin Leimkuhler, who had worked over the past two weeks, at the request of city staff and the commission, to devise three-dimensional designs of buildings under the current zoning proposal. 

For Robin Kibby, who works with Leimkuhler as part of PlanBerkeley, the visuals demonstrated that months of debate hadn’t changed much on University Avenue. 

“We entered this process so we wouldn’t be looking at big box buildings and that’s exactly what this has produced,” she said. 

The staff’s zoning proposal does shrink the base size of buildings along University. In terms of housing capacity, buildings on the north side of the avenue—where generous setbacks are required so buildings don’t shadow neighboring dwellings—housing capacity would be reduced 40 percent on most of the avenue and 24 percent at intersections targeted for retail growth. On the south side—which has a less generous 20-foot setback—housing capacity would decrease 23 percent on most of the avenue and remain unchanged on the targeted intersection. 

But several residents feared that when developers employed a state law that lets them builds 25 percent more housing space for projects that include affordable housing—as all large Berkeley developments must—they will end up with more boxy buildings that rise to four and five stories tall. 

Developer Chris Hudson offered a solution. Insisting that the current staff plan would make private development unfeasible, he suggested that the city drop its requirement to house low-income tenants in 20 percent of units in all new apartment buildings with more than four units. Without the requirement to create below market housing, he said, developers wouldn’t need to use the state density bonus to make a profit. 

“If you want three and four story buildings, promote market rate housing,” Hudson said.  

In response to concerns raised at the last meeting, city staff set height standards of 55 feet (five stories) for buildings, such as a senior home, that would be exempt from the new zoning rules. In addition, Berkeley Current Planning Director Mark Rhoades pledged to rework various incentives offered to developers so the additional building space they receive would be proportional to whatever “public amenity” they provided. o