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Council Opts to Create Creeks Task Force, Delays Foothill Bridge

Friday November 12, 2004

The City Council approved a plan Tuesday to create a task force to review Berkeley’s Creeks Ordinance, leaving dozens of homeowners who packed the council’s chambers howling in disgust. 

“This was shameful and disgraceful,” said Former Mayor Shirley Dean after the council voted 7-2 (Olds, Wozniak, no) to establish a creeks task force and reject an alternative plan put forward by Neighbors On Urban Creeks (NUC).  

Fearing that a taskforce would be stacked against them, the group had proposed that the council establish a 12-person committee, with six members appointed by NUC and six members appointed by various creek advocacy groups. 

Also Tuesday, the council returned a plan to remodel the Jensen Cottage to the Zoning Adjustments Board for further consideration, stripped a residential-only building option from a new set of zoning rules for University Avenue, and postponed a vote on whether to allow UC Berkeley to build a bridge over Hearst Avenue. 

After months of wrangling over how to revise the city’s 15-year-old creeks law, the council opted to create a 15-person task force as proposed by Mayor Tom Bates and councilmembers Linda Maio and Miriam Hawley. 

All nine members of the council will make an appointment to the task force, four city commissions will each appoint one member, as will Neighbors on Urban Creeks, the leading homeowner group, which wants to weaken restrictions on development alongside creeks, and a coalition of creek advocacy groups, which want to strengthen the current law. Appointments will be made after the newly elected City Council takes office next month. 

Councilmembers Gordon Wozniak and Betty Olds, who represent sections of the Berkeley hills where most of the affected homeowners live, chastised their colleagues for rejecting the group’s proposal. 

“They’ve made a fair proposal,” said Councilmember Wozniak. “I don’t understand why the council is reluctant to listen to its citizens.” 

Bates said that he feared a committee selected solely by interest groups would be “a wrestling match” and never be able to reach a compromise. 

The task force will be prohibited from discussing the issue of whether the city is responsible for repairing concrete culverts underneath private property. The city maintains that the culverts on private property are the responsibility of the owners. Currently, Berkeley is fighting a lawsuit from a group of neighbors whose homes are threatened by a collapsing culvert underneath their properties. 

The task force will be responsible for reviewing the definition of a creek, determining if culverts should be regulated differently from open creeks, reviewing the current law’s prohibition against new construction near creeks and considering ways to unearth culverted creeks on private property. If no recommendations are forthcoming by May 2006, the restriction on building within 30 feet of a culverted creek would be indefinitely suspended. 

The current law, prohibiting new roofed construction within 30 feet from the centerline of an open creek or an underground creek culvert, came under attack earlier this year when new city maps showed that about 2,400 homeowners, many of whom didn’t know that they lived above an underground culvert, were affected by the law. 


Jensen Cottage 

The council Tuesday voted 6-3 (Olds, Hawley, Wozniak, no) to send back, for 60 days, a proposed residential addition at 1650 La Vereda Road to the Zoning Adjustment Board 

The home, known as the Jensen Cottage, was built in 1937 and designed by William Wurster, the acclaimed architect for whom UC Berkeley’s Wurster Hall is named. 

By sending the item back to ZAB, the council effectively granted the Landmarks Preservation Commission two months to landmark the structure, which would give it authority over external alterations. Last week, City Planning Manager Mark Rhoades told the commission it could not landmark the building because ZAB had already approved the alteration request. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, however, Rhoades said that information submitted to the commission last week “indicated that [the house] is a significant piece of William Wurster’s style.” 

Preservationists argued that the home foreshadowed modernist designs that would become popular in later decades and that the plan to increase the home’s size by about 65 percent would destroy its simple and quaint charm. 

“The original plan was to add one bedroom, but the plan we received is like building another home next to the house,” said Ruth Rosen, a retired UC Davis history professor. 

The home is owned by Marguerite Rossetto, 87, whose son, Louis Rossetto, the co-founder of Wired Magazine, said his mother was seeking the addition because she wanted a bedroom built on the first floor. 

After the meeting, their attorney Rena Rickles said the city had had violated her clients due process rights by allowing opponents of the project a second chance for their appeal.  


University Avenue 

The council voted 8-0-1 (Olds abstained) to approve new zoning laws for University Avenue at the first reading. Bowing to the demands of a group of avenue-area residents, the rules will exclude one section that would have instituted a new zoning provision for residential-only buildings., a group that has fought for reducing the size of new developments on University Avenue, had urged the council to strike the residential-only building from the new zoning rules. They believed that by using a state law that grants extra space for projects including affordable housing, developers would be able to build the residential-only structures up to two stories higher than allowed under the avenue’s strategic plan. 

The Planning Commission will revisit the residential-only option and offer the council a recommendation by April. 

Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman first raised the issue to the council last month when it was scheduled to pass the plan in its entirety. Poschman said, he “dropped the ball” during commission meetings last spring when he failed to calculate the effect of the proposal. 

After the vote, Stephen Wollmer of said he thought the Planning Commission and residents could devise a better option for residential-only buildings that could be a model for other parts of the city. 


Foothill Bridge 

The council voted 7-2 (Wozniak, Hawley, no) to delay a decision until Dec. 7 on whether to grant UC Berkeley permission to build a footbridge 21 feet over Hearst Avenue.  

Mayor Bates asked for the postponement to give the council more time to consider the university’s proposal, even though the city isn’t expected to receive any new information on the bridge before the scheduled vote. The delay means that the newly elected City Council will make the final call on the bridge. 

The university has been seeking to build the bridge to connect La Loma Dormitory on the north side of Hearst to the rest of the Foothill housing complex since the project was proposed in 1988. 

Without the bridge, Tom Lollinii, the university’s assistant vice chancellor for planning, said disabled students would continue to be denied access to La Loma. 

The university has rescinded three prior requests for the bridge in the face of council opposition, but this time UC Berkeley is offering the city $200,000 in pedestrian safety improvements along Hearst and granting it veto power over the design of the bridge. 

Still, councilmembers Olds and Spring reiterated their opposition to the project. 

Noting that access to the bridge would require an elevator and a key, Spring, who uses a wheelchair, said she wouldn’t be able to use the bridge.  

“I don’t think it’s accessible,” said Spring, who favored building a tunnel underneath Hearst that could be used by all pedestrians. University officials have said a tunnel would not be feasible at the site, though they have not produced any study of the tunnel option. The bridge would be available to all residents of the dorm, but not the general public. 

Wozniak, whose district includes the housing complex, countered that the bridge would clearly benefit members of the community. “This is a good thing and we should move ahead and get it out of the way,” he said.