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Public, Press Excluded from Downtown Advisory Meeting

By Suzanne la Barre
Tuesday May 09, 2006

A meeting last week on development in downtown Berkeley was closed to the public. 

Members of the Downtown Area Plan Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), a subset of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC)—the task force charged with revisioning downtown Berkeley—met behind glass doors on the second floor of the city’s Planning Department building Friday. Those who attempted to listen in, including this Daily Planet reporter, were told the meeting was private. 

Director of Planning and Development Dan Marks referenced Friday’s meeting, the committee’s first, in an April 14 communication to DAPAC. The correspondence outlines the scope, membership and tentative schedule for the committee, including the announcement that the technical team would gather May 5. It does not offer further details, such as time of day and location, nor does it expressly state whether meetings are for public consumption.  

The congregation of unpaid experts, billed as technical advisors to DAPAC, is stipulated in the same City Council resolution that approves the formation of DAPAC. The resolution does not specify whether those conferences are to be held privately. 

At the last DAPAC meeting, members were told they were not allowed to attend technical committee meetings, a provision that smacks of secrecy, said DAPAC member Jesse Arreguin. 

“If a central part of the planning process is at the Technical Advisory Committee level, why can’t the public or the DAPAC attend?” he said. 

Downtown Area Plan Principal Planner Matt Taecker replied that committee members need space to meet without the glare of public scrutiny. 

“It’s a safe environment for them to just blurt stuff out,” he said, adding that such an occurrence is common in other cities.  

Resident and EBMUD staff member Steve Wollmer agreed that public entities often meet in private to bandy ideas about. But he’s not sure whether Friday’s meeting, which he happened upon by chance (he was subsequently asked to leave) should have been open. 

“As an employee of an agency, I know there are times you need to be frank, but is that serving the public? I don’t know,” he said.  

John English, a retired city of Oakland planner and a member of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association who attended the last DAPAC meeting, was less ambivalent. 

“You have an important public process, preparing a new plan for downtown. The [TAC] meeting involves a lot of people, so a meeting like that is not at all like an internal staff meeting,” he said. “I think they should make them public meetings, just like DAPAC meetings are public.”  

Committee members are all professionals with “a personal or professional interest in the city” who are willing to offer expert advice at no charge on matters related to the downtown planning process, Marks wrote to DAPAC in April. 

Among them: well-known urban planner and architect Peter Calthorpe; former San Francisco Planning Director and current UC Berkeley professor emeritus Allan Jacobs; additional UC Berkeley professors including DAPAC ex officio member Linda Jewell (who was invited to participate on the committee before she joined the DAPAC in March, Taecker said); architectural historians Sally Woodbridge and Michael Corbett; Fourth Street developer Denny Abrams; ELS Architecture founding principal Barry Elbasani; commercial real estate broker John Gordon; Alameda County Planning Manager for BART Val Menotti; Design Review Committee members Burton Edwards and Charles McCulloch; AC Transit representatives, more architecture firm principals and others.  

A total of 26 members were invited to join the committee; all but two attended Friday’s meeting, Taecker said.  

Those in attendance touched on several issues during the short time the Planet reporter was present, including the advantages of high-density buildings and streets with indivdual “personalities.” (Kittredge should be “urban and hard-edged”, said one unidentified speaker.) The possible impact of Bus Rapid Transit, an expedited AC Transit bus line now under consideration for implementation from San Leandro through Oakland to Berkeley, was discussed. The general focus was on how to make Shattuck a well-designed, beautiful boulevard, Taecker said later. 

Planning staff is supposed to present points from Friday’s meeting to DAPAC by May 31. 

DAPAC is the product of a settlement agreement reached between the city of Berkeley and the University of California in May of 2005 over UC’s plans to expand further into downtown and other parts of Berkeley.