Column: The Public Eye: Downtown Plan: One Good Afternoon, Lingering Suspicions

By Michael Katz
Friday June 23, 2006

Last Saturday, the public finally got to speak at length to the city’s seven-month-old Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (or DAPAC—the only acronym you’ll need to read this column). One unexpected event at this “workshop” was that the inmates promptly took over the asylum. 

Another was that most participants seemed satisfied with the immediate results—although suspicions remain about the purposes and mechanism behind Berkeley’s development of a new downtown plan. 

The revolt began right after city staff planner Matt Taecker gave a slideshow packed with maps, graphs, and design options, then announced the afternoon’s intended format: Participants were to discuss their “issues of greatest concern” about the downtown in assigned “large groups,” then form smaller groups to pursue their favorite topics (things like “UC Growth & Oxford Edge”) by filling in maps with markers or Monopoly-money tokens. 

Playing the Jack Nicholson role from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was current mayoral candidate and former Planning Commission chair, Zelda Bronstein. Quoting current zoning, she challenged Taecker’s account of downtown’s building height limit (she said it’s seven floors, not eight) and area (she said the northern edge is University Avenue, not the Hearst Avenue boundary DAPAC is using). 

“To properly develop any of the ideas you’ve just shown us would take a planning process of several months,” she told Taecker. “The most respectful thing you could do, in terms of self-respect,” she told the audience, “would be to go home right now.” 

Next up, in the role of Nicholson’s Cuckoo’s Nest ally Billy Bibbitt, was mayoral candidate Christian Pecaut. A sign reading “Manufacturing Consent” summarized his view of the workshop. “They need your consent to proceed with this,” he said, referring to city staff. “And if you give it to them, they’ll keep all the power.” 

Then DAPAC chair Will Travis suggested that if people were concerned about the process, they could form a small group later to talk process. This got a round of unintended laughter. 

A speaker from the Star Alliance Foundation (a Berkeley nonprofit, not the United Airlines code-sharing partnership of the same name) admonished us to put goodwill into the process if we wanted goodwill to come out. Yours truly asked Taecker just what our authority was. “We want your raw, unfiltered feelings,” he said. 

DAPAC member Rob Wrenn heatedly addressed the suggestion that staff had predetermined the contents of the new downtown plan. “We will write the plan,” he emphasized, referring to the committee’s 21 appointed members. 

Around this point, enough consent was manufactured to start the large-group discussions. Then a funny thing happened. Most people seemed to decide they liked their “large” group enough to keep it together for the rest of the afternoon. So the idea of small groups organized around specific topics got tossed out, along with the corresponding placecards and the Monopoly money. A few people who found their assigned group unsympathetic reshuffled to other tables. 

A table anchored by environmentally-oriented DAPAC members Wrenn and Juliet Lamont suggested closing Center Street, daylighting Strawberry Creek, and closing lanes on Oxford Street. 

Longtime Berkeley commentator Richard Register, now a resident of downtown Oakland, left our table to start his own small group. He reported reaching consensus on the kinds of things he’s advocated for years: tall, terraced buildings with rooftop gardens. 

Our group was a mix of mostly unaffiliated Berkeley residents, including some UC employees attending as individuals. We filled a flipchart with things we liked most about downtown, and wanted to promote or at least not lose. Several people praised downtown’s independent businesses, and wanted to see the city help them thrive. Someone suggested a free shopper’s shuttle, which others liked. 

Several people mentioned conserving and reusing historic buildings, and filling vacancies before building more capacity. Berkeley Arts Festival director Bonnie Hughes, who lives downtown, said that older buildings often provide better performance spaces. 

“I keep getting shown new buildings with seven-foot ceilings,” she said. “Few musicians can perform gracefully in seven feet.” 

Others said that downtown should preserve sunlit areas, avoiding the shady, wind-tunnel effect of the tall towers flanking Center Street. Some noted the recovery of the top three blocks of upper University Avenue and Center Street, the latter thanks to city and university investments that shouldn’t be screwed up. 

By the time every group reported back, the session seemed to have pleased most people, including some tough customers. “I thought it was interesting that nobody used the game pieces,” Lamont later told me. “They just discussed what they wanted to discuss.” 

Wrenn said the workshop “had some value as another opportunity for the public to put forward their concerns.” He emphasized that “we also want them to submit their ideas in writing.” After this public meeting, or another planned for the fall, he hoped participants would “write a memo saying ‘We had a really good discussion, and here’s what we proposed...’.” 

“I am very pleased with the workshop,” Taecker wrote me, saying that it “provided a clear indication of shared community values for a downtown that is: vibrant, welcoming, greener, and pedestrian-friendly.” 

I heard much less satisfaction about broader questions of why and how Berkeley is developing a new downtown plan, with UC’s funding and substantial involvement. Many other DAPAC members and observers have suspicions rooted in the mayor’s May 2005 closed-door settlement with UC that launched that process. This settlement dropped a city lawsuit over UC’s 2006–2020 Long Range Development Plan. And to feel one’s way around this elephant is to enter a different movie—Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic about different witnesses’ conflicting recollections of a brutal rape and murder. 

Several people criticized the settlement (which you can download from: for giving UC “veto power” over the new downtown plan’s contents. But others point out that the university is constitutionally exempt from local planning controls. 

Under this agreement, UC at least agrees to consider following the guidelines the city develops. Its right to block the release of a new downtown plan is a problem only if you think the city needs to replace its existing one, which was adopted in 1990. 

Does Berkeley need a new downtown plan? Mayor Bates, writing in these pages last Sept. 27, said so. But others disagree. 

And Wrenn and Lamont both told me they were glad DAPAC has scheduled sessions to review the existing Downtown Plan and decide what language to keep. “We can’t meet the deadline if we start from scratch,” said Wrenn, who said he would have preferred to focus on implementing the city’s current Downtown and General Plans. 

“The train has left the station, and you can be on it or not,” Lamont said. “We’re trying to make something good of it.” 

Several other people identified beneficiaries other than the university. In their view, Mayor Bates is pursuing a three-point agenda to please high-density developers and their fans. Replacing the current Downtown Plan would serve the first two points, by freeing developers from its closely specified height limits and design guidelines. The third point, in this view, is the mayor’s parallel effort to facilitate demolitions by weakening the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. 

The convening of a DAPAC “Technical Advisory Committee,” whose meetings are closed to the public and to DAPAC members themselves, was a surprise even to many DAPAC members. “That’s never, to my knowledge, happened in the history of Berkeley planning,” said Wrenn. 

Then there’s money. Under the settlement, UC increases its annual payment to the city for services received. But critics complain that UC gets to unilaterally determine the purposes of much of the new funding, and that the city gives up the right to pursue the substantially larger compensation that it is arguably due. 

Other disagreements could easily fill another column: Is DAPAC’s expanded definition of “downtown” a threat, or a protection, for adjoining residential neighborhoods? Is DAPAC’s appointed membership better or worse than a “stakeholder” model? And what about the real bottom line: the university’s exemption from local zoning, which folks on all sides seem to agree is archaic? 

One clear conclusion I reached after Saturday’s short workshop is that people in all roles are approaching this new downtown plan with goodwill. But they’ll do their best work with close public scrutiny and involvement. 

DAPAC meets the third Wednesday of each month, usually from 7–10 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center. Their contact information is at: