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Condos Dominate Planning Agenda

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday June 27, 2006

Planning commissioners will be juggling political hot potatoes Wednesday night, ranging from condos to landmarks and Telegraph Avenue. 

Condos appear in three different forms—a new condo conversion ordinance, a proposed “in lieu” fee that would allow condo developers to pay the city instead of adding units for low-income residents, and a bid to turn the Library Gardens project into condos. 

The “in lieu” fee was a unanimous recommendation of the density bonus task force, a special group that consists of members of the Planning and Housing Advisory commissions and the Zoning Adjustments Board. 

Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman said the proposal could lead to the creation of three or four times as many low-income housing units than are built under the current system by directing the fees toward low-income housing projects. 

City Housing Director Steve Barton agreed: “With the fee, we’ll be able to create quite a few more affordable housing units.” 

Under the existing law, developers of condo projects with five or more units are required to include units affordable to would-be buyers earning up to 120 percent of area median income. 

Soaring housing prices have created a huge gap between the inclusionary and market prices, rendering the final costs of the units far higher than affordable housing units the city could fund in cooperation with non-profit developers, said Barton and Poschman. 

Barton cited the case of a $700,000 market rate unit which a developer might be forced to sell at $200,000 under the existing code. 

Under his proposal, the developer would pay a fee amounting to 62.5 percent of the difference—$312,500 in his example. The $700,000 sales price would yield the developer $387,500, minus the city transfer tax and broker fees, compared to the $200,000 under the current ordinance. 

Affordable housing developers would use the money, allocated by the city’s Housing Trust Fund, to build new housing or rehabilitate existing structures—“which gives you a lot more bang for the buck,” Barton said. 

Poschman said that of the 107 communities in California with inclusionary laws, “more than 80 have in lieu fees.” 

But if the goal is more housing, the fee offers a proven way to get many more units. 

One potential source of opposition, Poschman said, comes “from a kind of nostalgia for having the inclusionary units in the same projects” which funded them. 

Councilmember Dona Spring, who appointed Poschman to the Planning Commission, shares that concern. 

“If I weren’t assured that we would get more housing” from the fee, “I wouldn’t support it,” she said. 

Barton’s measure also opens the door for developers of projects already in the development pipeline to pay the fee to opt out of previously approved inclusionary units. 

“If Library Gardens decides to sell units, they could apply,” he said. 

Developers of that nearly complete 180-unit project at 2016-2022 Kittredge St. will appear before the commission Thursday asking for approval of a map that would allow them to turn the previously-approved apartments into condos. 

Another building that could apply would be the Arpeggio on Center Street, the nine-story condo project scheduled to break ground by the end of summer. 

Under Barton’s proposal, units that are used to gain a density bonus—low-cost units in addition to the inclusionary units that are used to win approval for a larger project than would otherwise be allowed—would still have to be sold to low-income tenants. 

In the case of the Arpeggio, that would include the 12 units reserved for those who earn less than half the median income. Another 11 units reserved for those earning up to 81 percent could be opted out through fee payments he said. 

Poschman said another proposal is in the works that would allow for another fee for those units. 

The third condo item on the commission’s agenda is a report from Barton on the city’s existing condo conversion ordinance. 


Other business 

Commissioners will also comment on the latest draft of Mayor Tom Bates’s proposed revisions to the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance—yet another law the City Council hopes to decide on before the start of the summer recess. 

The Landmarks Preservation Commission bogged down in their review Thursday, in part because the draft they were given was heavily larded with glitches and conflicts. 

Landmarks and Planning have been at loggerheads over the ordinance, with each panel coming up with its own proposal, only to be trumped by the Mayor, with an assist from Councilmember Laurie Capitelli. 

Commissioners are also being asked to set a hearing on a new ordinance governing the height of fences and accessory structures on residential lots, as well as by-right installation of solar energy collectors. 

The final item on the agenda is a call to set a hearing on zoning amendments sought by the mayor to help business on Telegraph Avenue. 

The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Avenue at Martin Luther King Jr. Way.