UC Berkeley’s choice of an architect for a new downtown museum and film center complex won only big thumbs up from those who commented on it at last week’s meeting of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC).
But committee members’ own, often conflicting, visions for the downtown skyline sent thumbs twitching in all directions, some of them aimed at city planning staff.
The event was the latest gathering of the panel responsible for formulating concepts for a new plan for the heart of Berkeley.
Kevin Consey, director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), offered the latest in his series of pitches for the $125 million project planned at the site of the UC Press Building.
“This will be the largest investment in downtown Berkeley since the 1973 BART station,” he said.
Museum officials picked Japanese architect Toyo Ito to design a building that will occupy the western half of the block between Oxford Street on the east, Shattuck Avenue on the west and Addison and Center streets of the north and south, respectively.
“I find it really exciting that we are looking at such really exciting architecture,” said DAPAC member and former City Councilmember Mim Hawley.
“Our intent is that it will be an architectural landmark for the East Bay,” replied Consey.
While architecture seems inherently most akin to sculpture because it’s three- dimensional, Consey said the building might embody the two-dimensional filmed image as well through “an animated skin facade that could be used to broadcast films and shorts.”
With three theaters inside instead of the current one, Consey said, the Pacific Film Archive will be screening films during its entire schedule of opening hours, now envisioned as 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The new building, which will replace the landmarked UC Press Building, will enclose 138,000 square feet above ground, almost precisely half of the allowed 275,000, Consey said.
A preliminary design should be ready by February, he said.
Juliet Lamont, a DAPAC member who is an environmental consultant and urban creeks advocate, said she hoped DAPAC members would be able to share their concerns with the architect, including visions of a Center Street plaza that might include a daylighted Strawberry Creek.
“Mr. Ito is fully aware of all the machinations and inputs related to the downtown and the planning process,” Consey said, including views of the city task force that offered recommendations for the hotel and conference center the university is developing at the western end of the same block. “He will make presentations during the design phase to DAPAC and the landmarks commission and all appropriate entities for comment,” said the official, who added that “it is very much our desire to have it in a green space,” permitting outdoor programs from spring to summer.
Consey said museum officials have had several meetings with Carpenter and Co., the Boston firm picked by the university to develop the hotel complex. The two developments will share some basic infrastructure elements, he said, including common utility hookups and entrances to the underground parking facilities planned for both.
Visions on paper
While Consey’s presentation went smoothly, conflicts emerged among attendees when Matt Taecker, the city planner hired to work on the new plan, presented graphics offering the staff’s translation of some of the visions for downtown laid out earlier in essays submitted by DAPAC members.
While two alternative visions for a greener downtown—“Nature in the City” and “City Beautiful”—sparked some mild disagreement, discussions turned more critical when it came to alternative visions of the future of Berkeley’s skyline.
City staff had prepared a PowerPoint presentation with slides showing the impact of both the current downtown plan and the alternatives proposed by DAPAC members. including several choices for the placement of high-rise buildings in the urban core.
Though the city has a nominal five-story limit in most of the area, exceptions derived from the state-mandated inclusionary housing bonus and the city’s own cultural density bonus can result in higher buildings.
The nine-story Gaia Building incorporated both, as does the Arpeggio, now being built on Center Street across from the new Berkeley City College building.
Those examples sparked another in the ongoing disputes over the allocation of bonuses, with Planning Commissioner and DAPAC member Gene Poschmann leading off.
“If Rob Wrenn were here he would have exploded by now,” said Poschmann after Planning Manager Mark Rhoades had explained the application of the bonuses.
Wrenn, a former planning commissioner now serving on the Transportation Commission, has been a critic of the application of the cultural bonus, which Poschmann said “is being administered entirely differently than was envisioned in the General Plan and in the Downtown Plan.”
He singled out the Arpeggio, which he said was being allowed to build an additional 65,000 square feet of residential space in exchange for building 10,000 square feet of cultural space.
“That’s crazy,” said Poschmann, noting that staff had concluded that the Arpeggio’s builders were in fact entitled to build 14 floors.
One slide that elicited gasps from several members depicted a 10-story building at the northwest corner of the intersection of University and Shattuck avenues, a project that could be made feasible by a combination of bonuses.
“If you’re actually talking about increasing height, you’re really talking about going above 14 stories,” said Wendy Alfsen.
Retired UC Berkeley administrator and DAPAC member Dorothy Walker, who has said that she favors taller buildings at some locations, said the group should be focusing on where the taller structures should rise.
Taecker said the existing downtown plan favors “more of a low-rise scheme” in its call for preserving the scale and historic character of the existing area.
While some members criticized city staff for offering variations that included more high-rises, particularly in the area surround the BART station, Travis said “This is not staff setting the agenda. This is staff giving us back what we said.”
Lisa Stephens said she favored a five-story limit along Shattuck, while Hawley said that the downtown could handle “quite stunning buildings that are tall.”
Patti Dacey said that cheaper building materials used because of skyrocketing building costs meant that new buildings wouldn’t be first rate or be built by first rate architects. She cited a PG&E energy expert’s report stating that five-story buildings were the most energy efficient.
By the end of the session no consensus had been reached, leaving the discussion open for renewal early next year.