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Downtown Plan Panel Begins Discussion of Key Issues By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday November 25, 2005

After the new committee charged with charting a new plan for downtown Berkeley held its first meeting Monday night, many of the participants said that they wondered just how they could accomplish their tasks in the comparatively little time they have. 

The tables accommodating Berkeley’s new 21-member Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) and its supporting city staff circled nearly halfway around the commodious general purpose room of the North Berkeley Senior Center Monday night. 

Most of the 21 appointees were on hand, and all had something to say—as did many in the audience. In the words of committee Chair Will Travis at the end of the three-and-a-half hour session, “We’ve covered about everything but dogs off leash.” 

But the biggest player—UC Berkeley, itself the reason for the committee’s existence—was conspicuous for its silence. 

Jennifer Lawrence, the university planner who represents the school’s interests in the process, is not a committee member. She spent the meeting mostly in silence, sitting with Berkeley city staff. She commented briefly during the introductions, including the statement, “I’m excited by all of the energy in the room.” 

No university officials sits on the panel itself, though they have been invited to participate in the discussions on a non-voting basis, a fact that bothered panelist and former City Councilmember Mim Hawley. 

“One of the first things we should do is have a dialogue with the university about their plans,” she said. 

UC Berkeley is the reason for DAPAC’s existence. Creation of a new downtown plan—covering more land than the city’s existing plan for the city center—was mandated in the settlement agreement ending the city’s suit against the university after the school unveiled its Long Range Development Plan through 2020 which included more than a million square feet of development within the city proper, most of it downtown. 

Travis drew nearly unanimous applause when, near the end of the meeting, he declared: “I view our role as not finding out what UC Berkeley wants to do but telling them where they can do it. Our challenge is to find a way to work with the university and the city.” 

Matt Taecker, the principal planner hired by the city with university funding to shepherd the process, spent most of the meeting standing before large sheets of paper taped to the wall, marking down points raised by panelists for consideration in the planning process. 

By the end of the meeting, his sheets had ticked off a laundry list of concerns, with check marks added to denote how many times the points had been raised. 

The most frequent cited issues had already been raised before the panelists spoke, during the extended public comment period at the start of the meeting. These included: 

• Preservation of historic buildings to preserve the unique character of the downtown. 

• Maintaining the base allowable heights of buildings in the current downtown plan. 

• Daylighting Strawberry Creek, at least along Center Street between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue and possibly all the way to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. 

• Transportation management to reduce car traffic and encourage downtown workers to use public transit. 

• Measures to encourage the development of affordable housing. 

• Incentives to bring more services for residents of downtown Berkeley, especially a grocery store. 

• More green spaces and other amenities to encourage pedestrian traffic. 

• Adoption of measures to enhance the existing Arts District. 

• Adoption of new parking measures, though opinions were split on whether to encourage more or less parking. 

• Provisions to encourage more economic vitality. 

Panelists also addressed the bonuses included in city codes that allow developers to exceed the height limits specific in the existing Downtown Plan and zoning codes. 

Rob Wrenn, who serves on both the Planning and Transportation commissions, called for the elimination of the cultural arts bonus, which allows developers to exceed building height limits if they create space in their buildings dedicated to housing cultural events. 

In its place, Wrenn called for a “green” building bonus, which would grant extra space if developers designed environmentally sensitive structures that reduced energy consumption. 

The green bonus won wide endorsement, in part because of the existence of national recognized standards—the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System—eliminated the ambiguities that have troubled the application of the cultural bonus in Berkeley. 

“The arts bonus is badly broken,” said panelist and Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman. “The ways in which it has functioned are bad and worse.” 

Though without naming the project—the so-called Seagate building planned for Center Street—Poschman observed that “one downtown development took a 12,000-square-foot arts space and turned into an additional 52,000 square feet of residential. It’s obvious that it has to be looked at again.” 

Another panelist suggested implementing a program that would instead create living spaces downtown for lower income artists. 

One significant action that resulted from Monday’s meeting was an agreement on when the group would hold its monthly meetings—the third Wednesdays of each month, the only date that didn’t pose conflicts with the other city commissions, on which many members serve. 

Another issue resolved concerned the presence on DAPAC of five members of the nine-member Planning Commission, which triggers the requirement under the state’s Brown Act that the meeting be legally noticed as a meeting of the Planning Commission. The ruling was that the remaining four Planning Commissioners may also attend and participate in discussions, but they will not be allowed to vote. 

Another issue apparently resolved was the pronunciation of the new group’s acronym, “daw-pack,” a coinage used by Taecker. q