One long-standing bone of contention that the City Council might be able to resolve Tuesday is new zoning rules for University Avenue. After five months of debate, the Planning Commission reached a compromise last July that aims to decrease the scale of new buildings on the avenue.
The council will take up the issue Tuesday at a jam packed session. Also on the agenda are the increasingly divisive issue of retooling the city’s creek ordinance and a plan to reduce the cost of unused vacation time.
Both Livable Berkeley, a pro-development organization that wanted to see taller buildings on University and neighboring streets, and Plan Berkeley, a neighborhood group which had raised concerns that buildings on University had grown too tall and bulky, have recommended that the council approve the compromise.
However, Kristin Leimkuhler of Plan Berkeley said her group would ask the council to reconsider allowing residential-only buildings on the avenue as called for under the plan. Because buildings without any ground floor retail would have more apartment units, she feared they could grow to five-stories under a state law that gives bonus space for including affordable housing.
Since the Planning Commission finalized the new zoning rules, Governor Schwarzenegger expanded bonus space in such buildings from 25 percent to 35 percent.
Unused Vacation Pay
After paying city workers nearly $1.5 million last year for unused vacation days, Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz is proposing that city hall go on vacation Christmas week and hoping that city workers follow suit.
The voluntary time-off program is directly tied to the city’s structural budget deficit, which has grown to $7.5 million for the coming year.
Under the union agreement, city employees may accumulate and carry over up to 320 hours, or about eight weeks, of unused vacation time. The city must pay employees for vacation time earned over that limit. Last year the city failed to budget for one-third of the nearly $1.5 million it spent “buying back” unused vacation days.
Under Kamlarz’ plan, non-essential services would be closed on Friday, Nov. 12 and the four work days between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Employees would have the option of reporting to work for pay, using their vacation time or taking leave without pay.
Police, fire and garbage collection and the library would all run at full strength.
Kamlarz said he wanted the city to test the program this year to determine if the program could work. The council next year could be asked to impose mandatory days off to save money, he said.
Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said ultimately the city should make sure future labor deals don’t allow workers to cash in excess vacation days.
“I worked for UC and it was use it or lose it,” Wozniak said.
On Tuesday the council is scheduled to decide the venue for revising the city’s embattled creek ordinance.
Two weeks ago, under heavy pressure from over 400 homeowners, the council amended the law, assuring property owners’ right to rebuild after a disaster. The question remained whether to send the ordinance to the planning commission for revisions or create a special task force.
Councilmember Wozniak sent a e-mail warning to homeowners, “If you do not make yourself heard now, the same people, who put in the original ban of rebuilding ‘by-right’ in a disaster, could end up rewriting the ordinance.”
Phillip Price, a creekside resident, said in a responding e-mail, “The original Creek Ordinance did not ‘contain a ban on rebuilding by right in a disaster,’ nor was such ban the intent of its writers, again as Wozniak claims.”
Juliet Lamont, a member of Friends of Five Creeks, broadcast her own e-mail accusing Wozniak and others of spreading myths about the ordinance “to foment anger and more hysteria.”
The 1989 law, designed primarily to restrict the construction of new culverts that push creeks underground and are prone to collapse, forbids new construction of roofed buildings within 30 feet of the centerline of a creek or culvert.
Creek advocates want the law strengthened so other types of construction like parking lots are also banned and they want to extend the 30-foot rule in areas where creek beds are wider. Opponents have called for the law to be suspended or at least applied only to public property.
A planning department recommendation will not be released until Tuesday. City Manager Phil Kamlarz said one option might be to create a “hybrid” commission with members from commissions on planning, public works and parks and recreation. He added that any revision to the law will cost several hundred thousand dollars, much of it for consultants to measure the widths of the city’s creeks.
Since the city doesn’t have the money budgeted to pay for the process, Councilmember Dona Spring, a creek advocate, said she wouldn’t be surprised if the council chose to let the ordinance stand until the city’s finances improved.
“We’re in a budget cutting mode,” she said. “Right now, there isn’t much we can do.”