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Planners Hear Mixed Pleas On Density Bonus Issues

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday September 15, 2006

On Wednesday the Planning Commission grappled with diverse recommendations on mixed-use and multi-family residential projects in Berkeley’s commercial districts from the city staff and the Joint Subcommittee on Density Bonus. The commission ultimately voted 5-4 to urge the City Council to take no action on any of the recommendations at this time. 

City staff and the subcommittee had agreed on five of the seven recommendations they passed along to the Planning Commission, but remained divided on the other two issues. They disagreed about the location of required open space and whether or not the construction of a fourth story on buildings in the San Pablo commercial district should require a use permit. 

While city staff agreed with standard planning guidelines and suggested that San Pablo would benefit from having high-density housing, the joint subcommittee argued that building high-density four-story buildings in an underdeveloped area like San Pablo, full of single-story buildings, would not be in keeping with the neighborhood’s character.  

Board member Susan Wengraf said she wanted to correct the misconception that the joint subcommittee had put forward these recommendations only in response to Proposition 90, the state measure on the November ballot that seeks to limit municipalities’ power to use eminent domain and limit development. 

“The City Council had asked the subcommittee to work on this a long time before we found out about Proposition 90 in August,” she said. “You can say that it is because of Proposition 90 that these recommendations are moving forward so fast.” 

Developers at the meeting vociferously defended their right to build high-density housing along San Pablo. The residential community was not well represented at the meeting. 

Laura Billings, a developer with a green condominium project on San Pablo, urged the commission not to pass the proposals because they would severely impact development in Berkeley.  

“Downzoning from five to four stories would complicate development and discourage developers from Berkeley,” she said. “It would also affect affordable units that are included in these buildings. We need to create some areas in Berkeley where high density housing is encouraged. We are excited about density. We are excited that we are able to create meaningful residences for young homeowners.” 

Bob Allen, a member of the Joint Density Subcommittee, said that the State Density Bonus Law had hijacked ZAB’s ability to enforce zoning laws in Berkeley. “The State Density Bonus Law allows the development community to ask for any modification on our zoning code as long as they can prove that it is required to make the project feasible. It is very poorly written,” he said.  

Chris Hudson, a developer, commented that it was not the state law but the city that was causing the problem. 

“Berkeley likes to control every aspect of everything that’s happening in the city,” he said. “Soon we will be talking about not just a 30 percent reduction in mixed housing but a 100 percent reduction. I have two pieces of land on San Pablo and I think it will be very unfair if the city starts exempting projects that are in the process. I have a project coming up at 1915 MLK and I don’t think we would have a project at all without the density bonus.” 

Charles Krenz, owner of 750 and 800 Potter street, the sites of Weatherford BMW and The Berkeley Iron Works, urged the board to reject the changes to the San Pablo zoning rules or to carve his property out of it. 

“I can see the city’s point that it might not feel right to have a 50-foot building adjacent to much smaller structures along San Pablo, but this is not the case between Ashby and Potter streets down near the freeway,” he said. “I am next to a 75-foot-tall existing structure. Other buildings in the area are typically greater than 50,000 square feet in area. In short our scale is already big, it should be allowed to stay that way.” 

Dana Ellsworth, who spoke on behalf of commercial property owners, also expressed concern at the fact that the entire process was being rushed. 

“If the subcommittee was working on this for so long, why weren’t commercial property owners notified about this before?” she asked. “It is important to listen to developers. We want to develop. We want to be in Berkeley and bring in more people to live, work and shop here.” 

Alexander Quinn, a resident of Sacramento Street, said that by decreasing housing units, people who wanted to buy homes in Berkeley were being pushed out to places such as Tracy and Vacaville. 

“If we are adding housing, we are encouraging people to live in Berkeley,” he said. “Let’s be a progressive leader and encourage housing on the transit corridor.” 

Jesse Arreguin, ZAB board member, said the Housing Advisory Committee had agreed with the joint subcommittee’s recommendations. 

“We need to look beyond the rhetoric of downsizing,” he said. “The subcommittee spent many months working on these recommendations and they are in the best interest of the city. These recommendations will allow both the ZAB and the City Council to have more discretion.” 

Board member Susan Wengraf said that while the city wanted to encourage development along its major transit corridors, it also wanted to protect its neighborhoods.  

Board member David Stoloff said that it was important to get feedback from the 3,500 residential property owners who were being affected by the downsizing.  

“It is unfortunate that the community is not being involved. It is very un-Berkeley,” he said. 

Helen Burke, chair of the Planning Commission, warned that if Prop. 90 passes, only the option of upzoning to allow for increased development would remain. “This is the last opportunity for the city to look at possible downzoning,” she said. “The city needs to retain its flexibility in this area.”