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Downtown Plan Panel Revolts Over UC Project

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday July 25, 2006

The citizens guiding the shape of Berkeley’s new downtown plan staged a second revolt last week—this one focusing on UC Berkeley’s planned hotel complex. 

The impetus came from Planning Commission Chair Helen Burke. 

Overriding the wishes of chair Will Travis and Planning Director Dan Marks, members of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) voted 15-2 to hold a discussion and vote on Aug. 30 to create a subcommittee to focus on the project—potentially the largest new downtown building in decades. 

Meeting last month, DAPAC members had voted 18-0-1 to open up the previously closed meetings of the joint city/university committee advising city planning staff on technical issues of planned university development in the downtown. 

Marks said he objected to last week’s proposal because it would pose new demands on a limited staff already fully committed to other aspects of the plan. 

But when it came time for a vote, the only DAPAC opposition came from Travis, appointed by Mayor Tom Bates, and Dorothy Walker, appointed by Councilmember Betty Olds. 

Travis is executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission and Walker is a former UC Berkeley assistant vice chancellor for property development. 

Burke said a subcommittee was needed in part because the hotel proposal could be the centerpiece of a revitalized downtown and because the city had already undertaken an extensive review of the site. 

When she first offered a motion to form the subcommittee at last Wednesday’s meeting, Travis objected, saying DAPAC couldn’t act because the vote proposal hadn’t been included in the public notice distributed before the meeting. 

The motion was reworded to schedule a discussion and vote at the next meeting, scheduled for Aug. 30. 

Carpenter & Company, the firm the university has picked to develop a hotel and conference center at the northeast corner of the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, has already begun to calculate the mass of the building, which could reach 12 stories or more. 

Two other major projects have been proposed for the same intersection—a remodel or move of the downtown BART Plaza and the conversion of Center Street between Shattuck and Oxford Street into a pedestrian mall—possibly including a restored Strawberry Creek. 

“Because there are three different projects planned for area, I felt DAPAC needed to weigh in,” said Burke. 

Burke said she contacted eight other DAPAC members before the meeting and found that all were concerned the task force hadn’t looked at specific aspects of the downtown. 

“At the meeting, I found I had tapped into a feeling of frustration with the pace of things. It’s like we’ve been big sponges, absorbing all this information, but we hadn’t started to develop a consensus. The members felt it was time to get going.” 

Before the meeting, Burke said, she received an email from Dan Marks objecting to her idea as “out of sequence. He said, ‘There aren’t enough resources and Matt Taecker already had too much to do.’” 

Taecker is the planner hired specifically to work on the new downtown plan, which was mandated in the settlement of the city’s lawsuit against UC Berkeley and the way it handled its Long Range Development Plan for expansion through 2020. 

Burke said Marks spoke to her again in the hall outside the meeting room in the North Berkeley Senior Center before the meeting. “He said he wouldn’t have the committee micro-manage the staff,” she said. 

Burke said she suggested that the committee work without staff support. 

“That’s fine by me,” said Marks Monday. “We simply do not have the staff resources to support it.” 

Marks said he had raised objections because Taecker “already has his hands more than full” with a landmarks subcommittee and management of the environmental review process. 

“Our feeling is that we should get into specifics” of the hotel project later, he said. 

“In the normal process, you get the vision down first, the goals and alternatives—the big picture stuff. Then you get down to details. Pulling out one area now seems a little out of sequence,” he said. 

Even with studies of the hotel under way, Marks said, “We don’t expect to hear anything from the developer for two or three more months. There’s plenty of time to work with the developer.” 

Travis said he opposed the motion because “my concern is that this will be a diversion. My role is really keeping the process moving along. Getting into the details of Center Street—something all the members are deeply interested in—will take more energy and divert us from our other tasks. 

Travis said that once the subcommittee finishes its assignment, the panel will report back to the rest of DAPAC, “which will have to go over everything again.” 

“That said, the committee made it clear they wanted this.” 

The university has announced plans to add 800,000 square feet of new projects in the expanded downtown area encompassed by the new plan, along with 1,000 new parking spaces. 

Marks said the university has issued assurances that all the development will occur on land the university already owns in the city center, including the old state Public Health Building north of University Avenue.