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Density Bonus Committee Explores Retail, In-Lieu Fees By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday January 27, 2006

Members of the joint commission formed to look into the city’s density bonus are moving closer to formulating suggestions for a new ordinance. 

The panel, drawn from the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB), Planning Commission and the Housing Advisory Commission (HAC) gathered in the city’s Permit Services Center Tuesday.  

ZAB members Dave Blake and Bob Allen presented an update on their efforts to formulate a policy governing the use of ground floor retail space as a basis for granting builders the right to add an additional floor to buildings than would be otherwise permitted. 

Blake noted that as the law is currently administered, the 55-foot permissible height created to encourage higher ceilings in four-story buildings has been used by developers to squeeze in a fifth floor. 

“The result is horrible buildings without enough ceiling height,” Blake said. “We both agree that developers should be required to add more height to the first floor.” 

The ZAB members are also looking into minimum depths for retail space, in part because some buildings have been allowed a bonus for creating space as shallow as eight feet. 

“Dave and I keep talking through this to find what kind of inducement would attract better buildings and better retail,” said Allen. 

“If neighbors are going to have to put up with big buildings, the least we can give them is decent retail,” said Blake. 

One limiting factor is that developers also use part of the ground floor to provide required parking. 

Allen cited the large number of lots on University and San Pablo Avenues that are 100 feet deep. Because two rows of parking and a center lane require a 60-foot depth, the maximum depth of retail is limited to 40 feet, he said. 

“For any less than that, perhaps it should not trigger the density bonus floor,” he added. 

Planning Commissioner David Stoloff said that he agreed that the city should establish minimum sizes for ground floor retail spaces. 

“I am very interested in pursuing the notion of requiring ground floor commercial and not giving bonuses,” said fellow Planning Commissioner Susan Wengraf. 

While 55 feet is a maximum height for wood-framed buildings, structures built with metal stud framing can reach six to eight stories, said Allen, noting that the metal framing is included in plans for the six-floor Oxford Plaza Apartments that are part of the David Brower Center complex. 

Wengraf said the ordinance should also include minimum heights, a suggestion raised at last week’s meeting of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee meeting, where a panel of experts faulted the city for permitting single-story construction along the Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. 

Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman said the city should also considering adopting in-lieu fees, where developers who didn’t want to include now-mandated units for low-income tenants could pay a fee to the city’s Housing Trust Fund that would help fund new affordable housing projects. 

Some members objected, saying that including lower-income tenants in upscale projects was a positive force, in alignment with Berkeley’s more egalitarian nature. 

“We can drop the inclusionary requirement, but that’s not a Berkeley value,” said city Planning Manager Mark Rhoades. 

Poschman countered with the observation that 80 percent of the city’s affordable housing is being provided by non-profit buildings. 

Blake said he favored the in-lieu fees as a means to establish a broader range of housing in the city. “I hope we would start using in-lieu fees in a controlled way to provide really high quality units for retirees,” he said.›