DAPAC Demands Access, Hears Downtown Hotel Plan

By Richard Brenneman
Friday June 23, 2006

The city’s downtown planning committee flexed its muscles Wednesday, demanding access to a previously closed tax force. 

And the developers of a proposed new university-backed hotel at the heart of downtown made it clear they want fast approval for their project. 


Closed meet challenge 

Members of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) voted 18-0-1 to open up meetings of the previously closed technical advisory committee (TAC). 

Former City Councilmember Mim Hawley abstained. 

Members said they were irked that they could receive only second-hand accounts of the meeting of experts helping the city staff and UC Berkeley officials on key details of the planning process. 

“I don’t find that you telling us for five minutes about what the TAC did really helps me understand,” Lisa Stephens told Matt Taecker, the planner hired by the city with university money to direct the planning process. 

Stephens and other DAPAC members had been barred from attending the first of three scheduled TAC meetings. 

“I know this is a sensitive issue,” said DAPAC Chair Will Travis, who urged the committee to postpone the discussion until after the presentation on the UC-backed hotel/convention center/condo complex. 

But members wanted a decision, and opted to hash out the issue instead of holding a discussion about their individual visions for the future of the downtown. 

In the end, members voted for a resolution mandating that all meetings attended by a majority of TAC members would be noticed as public DAPAC meetings where no action would be taken. The meetings would also be open to the public. 


Fatal delays 

If the city stalls the final go-ahead for the proposed new UC-backed downtown hotel complex beyond “a year or two,” the deal could die. 

That was the ultimatum handed down Wednesday by Richard L. Friedman, CEO and president of Boston-based Carpenter & Co. 

With construction costs at record highs of about $300 a square foot for similar projects and China consuming most of the world’s building supplies, any longer delay could prove fatal to the project, he said. 

“I heard about the four-year approval for a supermarket,” he said, referring to the long battle over the just-approved new Berkeley Bowl at Ninth Street and Heinz Avenue. 

The still-unnamed hotel could become the tallest new construction in Berkeley since the construction of the 13-story Power Bar building in 1971. 

“It’s unbelievable that Berkeley doesn’t have a great hotel,” Friedman said. “This is a tremendous opportunity” 

One of the country’s leading builders of upscale hotels, Carpenter was picked by UC Berkeley to develop a hotel at the northwest corner of the Shattuck Avenue/Center Street intersection. 

He shared his vision of the hotel—and the admonition—during Wednesday night’s meeting. 

DAPAC is working on a new downtown plan mandated in the settlement of a city lawsuit that challenged the university’s Long Range Development Plan outlining expansion plans through 2020, much of it into the downtown area. 

Though the hotel is a private development and will only lease its site from the university, the facility has been a key element in the university’s plans because of the need for upscale rooms for university visitors and guests. 

One Sept. 1, 2003, the university and Carpenter signed the first of a series of exclusive development agreements, which finally culminated earlier this month in the announcement that the details had been resolved and planning would begin. 

The City Council responded by appointing a UC Hotel Task Force, which developed a series of recommendations during a series of eight meetings. 

Peter Diana, vice president and general counsel for the firm, praised “the incredibly thoughtful report” prepared by the task force, and explained that many of the group’s suggestions would be incorporated in their plans. 

“The task force recommended 175 to 225 rooms, and we’re proposing 210,” he said. The ultimate design will also open up the hotel to Center Street, as recommended in the report, and the building will also contain condominium units, another recommendation. 

Similarly, all 200 parking spaces will be underground, another task force recommendation. 

Friedman and architect Gary C. Johnson of Cambridge Seven Associates, who will be designing the project with an as-yet-to-be-hired area architect, said they had no problems with closing Center Street, another task force recommendation. 

But Friedman said closing the eastern lanes of Shattuck Avenue where the roadway splits at Shattuck Square would be a deal-breaker. 

“If you closed Shattuck and Center Street, you wouldn’t have a hotel,” he said. “It would be a non-starter.” 

Several task force members have called for closing the eastern lanes and relocating all traffic to the west. 

The Massachusetts trio received a friendly reception from DAPAC members, answering questions. 

Planning Commissioner and DAPAC member Gene Poschman asked if the university was receiving any special accommodations from the hotelier. 

“This is a market rate hotel,” said Friedman. Though UC would probably be the largest single source of clientele, there was no deal on rates, he said. “We’re not subsidizing them. They’re not subsidizing us.” 

When Poschman asked about ownership of the land, Friedman said Bank of America, the current owner, would only sell to the university, because of a deal that gave the bank tax benefits. 

DAPAC member Patti Dacey said she was excited about the project, “but one of my concerns is that the hotel honor the historic character of the downtown.” What she heard, she said, “has made me feel better.” 

Asked about rates, Friedman point to the company’s Charles Hotel near Harvard Square in Boston, where rooms average about $250 a night. 

“Could you charge more for Stanford and USC fans,” quipped DAPAC member Jenny Wenk. 

Friedman smiled.