Commission Delays University Avenue Zoning

Friday June 11, 2004

The Planning Commission decided Wednesday it wasn’t ready to rezone University Avenue after all. 

Scheduled to vote on zoning guidelines that promised to moderately scale down the size of new buildings and anger just about everybody involved, the commission instead opted to set a new deadline and take a different tack. 

With commissioners still in disagreement and residents still breathing fire, the commission voted unanimously Wednesday to establish a four-member subcommittee to recommend a new zoning overlay, set for commission consideration July 14. 

At its last meeting, a majority of the commission scoffed at delegating the matter to a subcommittee, but in the ensuing two weeks, most recognized that any recommendation to the City Council passed Wednesday would come from a divided commission and face stiff opposition from neighbors and developers. 

“We weren’t ready to vote,” said Commission Chair Harry Pollack, one of several commissioners to change course and embrace the subcommittee proposal. “At this point it seems like an appropriate way to come up with a recommendation the Planning Commission can support as a whole.” 

Pollack will sit on the subcommittee along with commissioners David Stoloff, Susan Wengraf, and Gene Poschman. After three months of regimented public hearings, where residents are allowed just three minutes apiece to speak, the commission hopes the subcommittee will allow stakeholders a chance to work through unresolved issues. 

Missing the June 9 deadline, however, means the new set of zoning rules won’t be ready for City Council approval until after its summer recess.  

Following years of complaints from residents that the current rules allow 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 urged the commission to consider new zoning rules for the University Avenue area. The new zoning rules were supposed to be fast-tracked in order to prevent new developments from slipping in under the current guidelines. 

Four projects already submitted will be immune to new zoning restrictions. However, Planning Director Dan Marks said no development team is presently approaching the city with a new proposal for University Avenue. 

To address neighborhood concerns that new buildings would be too massive and not transition well to surrounding residential districts, the planning staff Wednesday proposed new setback requirements. 

In the front, buildings would be required to provide an average two-foot setback, while on the sides, setbacks would be zero for first and second floor commercial space and five feet on residential floors above so tenants receive more light and fresh air. For corner buildings, the setback would be two feet on University Avenue and eight feet at the adjacent residentially zoned parcel to ease the transition to smaller private homes. 

Building heights would remain three stories along the avenue and four stories at specifically targeted intersections. However, residents fear that developers will continue to use a state law that lets them build 25 percent more housing space for projects that include affordable housing, as all large Berkeley developments must. 

The bonus, residents have argued, leads to intrusive buildings that tower over neighboring houses and lack sufficient space for viable ground floor shops or commercial parking. 

Planning commissioners hinted Wednesday that parking and commercial viability issues were emerging as a top priority. In another about-face, a majority of commissioners—two weeks after asking staff to consider boosting incentives offered to developers for a wide variety of improvements—expressed a preference for limiting any incentives to building designs that promoted parking and commercial viability. 

“After two months of ignoring commercial issues, it’s coming down to stores and parking,” said Richard Graham a neighbor, and member of Plan Berkeley, a civic group that has participated in the zoning process. 

Wednesday’s twist of events left Graham and other residents hopeful the commission could pass a new zoning regulation the neighbors could accept. 

“It’s taken us a long time to get down here, but we’re happy to be where we are,” said Kristin Leimkuhler, also of Plan Berkeley. 

The University Avenue rezoning subcommittee is scheduled to meet at 4:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday of next week (June 14 and 15) at the Permit Center.