ZAB Subcommittee Tackles Density Bonus By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday May 17, 2005

Members of a Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) panel took their first crack at a tough and complicated nut Thursday afternoon: the density bonus. 

Just how much bigger buildings are developers entitled to when they include state-mandated units set aside for low-income tenants? The issue has become a political hot potato in Berkeley, where city officials routinely grant developers extra height above that allowed in city codes and plans. 

One of the first structures to raise concerns was the Gaia Building, developer Patrick Kennedy’s seven-story—or is it nine?—creation at 2116 Allston Way, and the issue has been raised to fever pitch intensity over plans for the Seagate Building, a planned nine-story building set for construction at 2041-65 Center St. 

The Berkeley Housing Department calculated that the Seagate tower was entitled to reach 14 stories.  

The developer’s plans only called for nine stories, and were accepted by the city despite considerable protest from activists who urged the structure not exceed seven floors, the maximum permitted under the Downtown Plan. To add to the confusion, de Tienne later told the Daily Planet that the plans used in the housing department calculation were based on an expensive new technology the developer might not even use. 

“I doubt if anyone is happy with the current process,” said ZAB member Bob Allen. 

“We also need to understand clearly how many concessions we can or should give away,” said his colleague Dean Metzger. 

“The law is not that straightforward,” acknowledged Rick Judd, a ZAB member who is also a land use attorney. 

Developer Evan McDonald, who appeared at the meeting with partner Christopher Hudson, acknowledged that “everyone’s disappointed with the process” while pointing to the architectural-award-winning structures like the Bachenheimer, Fine Arts and Touriel buildings the duo had built for developer Kennedy. 

“They have added 34 low-cost housing units to the city, and all of the projects that have come out of our office we are very proud of,” he said. 

Further complicating the issue is the city staff’s application of its own standards contradicting the specifics of the existing state law. 

“Ours is a bonus for square footage, not density,” said Blake. “It’s very different from the rest of the state.” 

Members asked Principal Planner Deborah Sanderson to provide them with the computer spreadsheet program that staff uses to calculate bonuses, and Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman said he would prepare a detailed report on the statutes and practices used in other cities. 

While ZAB initiated the bonus inquiry, they’ll soon be joined by the Planning Commission and the Housing Advisory Commission. 

The ZAB subcommittee will continue to meet on the issue at 4 p.m. June 1 and continue to meet on the first and third Wednesdays of the month at 4 p.m.