The City Council voted Tuesday to shrink the size of new buildings along University Avenue, ending an eight-year fight for clearer zoning guidelines on the city’s major east-west traffic corridor.
But a group of residents along the avenue who back the new zoning rules still question whether the reform will be enough to stop developers from supersizing buildings.
The council narrowly voted to pass the entire recommendation submitted by the Planning Commission.
At first the council deadlocked 4-4-1, but immediately after the vote was recorded, with no motion to reconsider, Councilmember Maudelle Shirek reversed herself and voted to back the plan in its entirety. She joined Mayor Tom Bates and councilmembers Gordon Wozniak, Betty Olds and Miriam Hawley in voting to adopt the plan. Councilmembers Linda Maio, Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington favored sending the residential-only option in the plan to the Planning Commission for further study, and Margaret Breland, who has a substantial part of the plan area in her district, abstained.
In other matters, the council approved a cost-savings plan to shut down City Hall on five days over the next three months, signed off on the purchase of “vandal proof” parking meters, set a quota on medical marijuana distributors, and held off on what to do with the city’s Creek Ordinance.
The new zoning rules for University Avenue are aligned to a strategic plan approved in 1996 that called for concentrating larger retail spaces at designated intersections and implementing strict setbacks to keep buildings from towering over adjacent homes.
The new rules allow buildings on University Avenue to rise up to three stories along the avenue and four stories at the retail nodes. However, developments often end up taller and bulkier, neighbors say, because of a state law that allows developers to exceed the height limit by including a certain percentage of low-income tenants, or designating space for cultural use.
Members of Plan Berkeley, a group organized around building on University Avenue, urged the council to pass the commission’s recommendation, but also requested that a clause allowing some residential-only buildings on the avenue be returned to the Planning Commission for further discussion.
They feared that without ground-floor retail space, the buildings could more easily qualify for additional space under the city’s interpretation of the state law. Adding to their concerns, earlier this month Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill increasing the bonus density, from 25 percent to 35 percent, allotted to developers who satisfy certain requirements.
The new state allowance could swell residential-only buildings to five-stories or swallow the stricter building setbacks called for under the new rules, said Plan Berkeley’s Stephen Wollmer, who charged that the diagram shown to the council didn’t accurately display the size of the projects under the new law.
“At this point, I’m just glad it got passed the way it is,” said Richard Graham of Plan Berkeley.
The new zoning rules include a recommendation that the council commission a parking feasibility study on University Avenue to address concerns that a shortage of spaces has hampered retail growth.
Planning Director Dan Marks said that development on University Avenue, independent of the new zoning regulations, would likely slow and migrate to San Pablo Avenue since University Avenue had become saturated with new buildings.
Critics of Berkeley’s controversial creek law claimed a small victory Tuesday when city staff recommended that the Planning Commission serve as the venue for considering revisions to the law.
However, the staff report didn’t reach councilmembers until late Tuesday afternoon, prompting the council to delay a vote on the staff recommendations until next week.
Advocates of strengthening the city’s creek ordinance had called for the council to create a special taskforce to revise the law. A homeowner’s group, Neighbors on Urban Creeks, backed by several of the more moderate members of the council, countered that creek advocates could dominate a task force agenda.
The creek law, which prevents most development within 30 feet of the center line of a creek, has become controversial in the past year when creek advocates began pushing for more protection for watersheds and their opponents demanded looser restrictions for property owners.
City Manager Phil Kamlarz said he recommended taking the issues to the Planning Commission because a taskforce would take longer to form and get up to speed on the issues.
The staff report called for dividing work on the creeks ordinance into three phases:
Phase one, which the report estimated could be completed in three to six months, would take up a proposal for removing the 30-foot setback requirement from the ordinance and instead requiring all new developments to submit studies showing that they would not damage a creek. Phase one would also consider removing the 30-foot requirement entirely for areas where a creek has been culverted underground and rethinking the definition of a creek.
Phases two and three, costing an estimated $500,000 over several years, would include an assessment of key creeks and the establishment of new creek protection policies followed by a feasibility study of daylighting culverted creeks on public property.
The council voted unanimously to bank on another new type of parking meter. The manufacturer insists that this one is vandal-proof. Parking meter failures cost the city an estimated $1 million in lost meter revenue every year.
The city will spend $332,460, not in its budget, for 32 pay stations that will replace 284 single space meters on the southside of the UC Berkeley campus. They are scheduled to be installed by the end of January.
The meters, manufactured by Cale Parking Systems, rejects foreign coins, plastics, wood, and all other slugs preferred by meter vandals, according to a report from Peter Hillier, the assistant city manager for transportation.
Hillier told the council that if the meters prove successful, the city would expand the pilot area.
In other votes, the council approved a voluntary time off program designed to encourage city employees to use their accrued vacation days. Last year the city spent nearly $1.5 million buying back vacation days from employees who had accumulated more than the usable limit of 320 hours of vacation time.
The council also passed the first reading of an ordinance to limit the number of medical marijuana dispensaries to no more than three and prohibit them from within 1,000 feet of a school or each other.
After deadlocking last week the council voted 7-1-1 to increase the compensation given to tenants when their landlord chooses to leave the rental business from $4,500 to $7,000.