Planning Commission Passes University Avenue Plan

Friday July 16, 2004

While a band of neighbors determined to reduce the size of new buildings isn’t claiming victory in the battle over University Avenue, one affordable housing developer is ceding defeat. 

“The neighbors against development have won,” said Todd Harvey, project manager at Jubilee Restoration. “No affordable development can go up under those rules.” 

After six months of fierce debate, the Planning Commission has agreed on the framework for new zoning regulations along University Avenue. In an attempt to come closer to what was specified in the 1996 strategic plan for the avenue, on average the new zoning would reduce the size of new buildings by 25 percent—and in some locations 40 percent—from what is allowed under current zoning.  

The commission is expected to approve a final draft of the plan at their July 28 meeting. After that it goes before the City Council for consideration. 

“I think we’ve got it,” said Commissioner Gene Poschman, one of four members of a Planning Commission subcommittee that met four times over the past month to break a deadlock. “There are a few hang-ups, but the important thing is to get this through and give [residents] protections.” 

Development along University—dormant for years—has come fast and furious recently. Five projects totaling 391 units are in the works between Martin Luther King Jr. Way and San Pablo Avenue, much to the chagrin of some neighbors. They argue the new structures are too big and bulky, don’t provide viable ground floor retail space or parking, offer little sidewalk or streetscape amenities, and—thanks to a state law that grants developers 25 percent more space for high-density projects that include low income housing—balloon well beyond zoning restrictions. 

To address their concerns, the City Council asked the Planning Commission to rewrite zoning rules for University to comply with the avenue’s strategic plan approved in 1996, before the construction boom. 

The strategic plan called for generous setbacks and two-story buildings along the avenue and three-story buildings on intersections designated for commercial activity, called nodes. 

While the new zoning rules won’t fully implement that vision, it amounts to a substantial reduction in development capacity. 

When developers utilize the state density bonus law, buildings will rise to four stories on the avenue and five stories on the nodes. On the north side of University, new buildings will require strict solar setbacks. The step down designs will reduce building capacities by 40 percent on the retail nodes and 25 percent elsewhere. 

Buildings on the south side of the street will sport a box-like shape, with a required 20-foot rear set back. Developers, though, will have the option of employing a six-foot setback, planting tall trees as a barrier to adjoining properties, and removing bulk from some of the building’s upper floors. 

To promote retail development, all mixed-use projects must include 30 percent of the ground floor for commercial uses. Only one quarter of the commercial space can go for office or other non retail uses. However, a developer can reduce the commercial requirement to 20 percent of the ground floor space with a permit from the Zoning Adjustment Board. 

At the urging of neighbors, the subcommittee struck from the plan proposed incentives for developers to add streetscape or retail improvements. Instead, for most projects, such amenities as sidewalk corners that bulb out and pedestrian scaled lighting will be required. 

Neighbors and commissioners said the subcommittee meetings, also attended by developers and architects, generated a much needed back and forth dialog. But Harvey, who attended several meetings, said they amounted to the commission’s capitulation to what he called “NIMBY” (not in my back yard) interests. 

“The subcommittee went through the NIMBY’s checklist, for lack of a better term, and implemented all of their suggestions,” Harvey said. “Now the only places we can develop are San Pablo Avenue and downtown.” 

Harvey said his biggest concern was the reduction in housing density. “We’ve lost a quarter of the buildings with the solar setback rules. All those units that would have been there to pay for the building aren’t there anymore,” he said. 

Current Planning Manager Mark Rhoades understood Harvey’s concerns, but said his top priority was implementing the strategic plan. 

“We’re hoping the standards aren’t so egregious that they stop affordable housing development,” he said. “We hope, but we’ll see.” 

Chris Hudson, a for profit developer who is building a project at the corner of University and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, said it was too early to declare all new development on University dead, but added that his company would find it much more difficult to make projects work. 

In all, the new zoning rules will cost the University Avenue corridor about 75 potential apartment units. Berkeley is prohibited under state law from reducing its housing capacity, but Rhoades said that new opportunity sites designated along the avenue would compensate for the capacity lost by reducing the building envelope. 

Some issues remain. Ellen Lasher of Lasher’s Electronics feared that the 30 percent requirement for commercial space wouldn’t be enough for retail shops like hers to thrive. Because most University Avenue lots are narrow—the average size of lots on the retail nodes is 5,500 square feet—she doubted new developments would include substantial retail and parking spaces. 

Part of the Planning Commission’s recommendation to the council will include a call for reviewing parking requirements. On University Avenue, the city requires two parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of commercial space and one parking space per 1,000 square feet of residential space.  

That’s not enough parking for shops to thrive, said Kristin Leimkuhler, of Plan Berkeley, which organized avenue neighbors during the zoning debates. She is calling for the city to study the idea of placing “pocket” lots along University to encourage more car commuters to frequent University Avenue shops. 

Leimkuhler is also concerned that the plan would not guarantee wide sidewalks on University and would offer more generous setbacks to neighbors living on the north side of University.