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Downtown Plan ‘Vision Statement’ Generates a Lot of Words and Paper

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday November 21, 2006

Anyone attending the panel charged with producing a new downtown Berkeley plan on Wednesday night would have heard a lot of words and paper flying over a very short statement. 

With a year of meetings under its belt and less than a year left to finish a complex new plan, the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee has yet to draft any of the basic elements that will go into the plan itself. 

The latest debate, which has generated a flood of paperwork and long hours of discussion, centers around a one-paragraph vision summary that is supposed to declare the intent of the new plan for an expanded downtown area that must cope with a million square feet of UC Berkeley expansion. 

The current downtown plan, created in 1990, contains a succinct summary describing its vision: 

“The Berkeley Downtown Plan seeks to establish the Downtown as a compact, economically vital historic city center with a defined core area and transition zones buffering residential neighborhoods. The plan respects the City’s values for protecting its historic character, cultural diversity, social equity, and human scale of development, while improving economic vitality and the physical environment.” 

DAPAC staff have now generated the draft of a new summary, based on vision statements submitted by individual committee members, which was discussed but not approved on Wednesday. Their version is greener and adds new emphases: 

“Create an economically vital, inclusive ‘green, sustainable downtown’ that is the heart of the City, celebrates its historic roots, is oriented towards pedestrians with plazas, tree-lined streets and other amenities, and accessible to all segments of the community. Downtown shall be a high-density residential neighborhood in its own right, with a highly diverse housing stock serving all segments of the community, with safe streets and supportive services.” 

But for all its high-minded sentiments, this statement will be a minuscule fraction of the final plan. The 1990 document, covering a smaller area, runs to 196 pages, noted Gene Poschman, and this one will probably need to be even longer. 

A member of the Berkeley Planning Commission, Poschman also serves on the DAPAC, which is now hammering out its recommendations for the document mandated in the legal agreement between the city and UC Berkeley which ended a lawsuit. The settlement was conceived and approved behind closed doors by university and city officials. 

The suit arose when the university announced a Long Range Development Plan through 2020 that proposes—among other things—to add a million square feet of uses on off-campus land downtown. 

“We don’t want to get stuck on the vision statement,” city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks told DAPAC members last week. “We tried to identify the points where I think we have general agreement.”  

“We need to add a jobs and housing balance,” said Dorothy Walker, a DAPAC member and retired UC Berkeley administrator. “There needs to be a reference to new and green architecture,” not just historic buildings. And add tax revenue generation too, she said. 

Wendy Alfsen said she wanted to keep a key phrase in the 1990 statement—“protecting its historic character”—rather than the proposed “celebrates its historic roots.” 

Former Councilmember Mim Hawley wanted to celebrate historic resources, but to add the words “while looking forward to the future.” And strike the “high density” before “housing,” she said. 

Take out the word “economic” before vitality in the revision, said Lisa Stephens, and add a sentence reasserting the need to buffer a high-density core from surrounding residential neighborhoods. 

“The more I read the 1990 vision, the more I like it,” said Jenny Wenk. 

“‘High density’ turns me off,” said Poschman, who attributed the push for housing to a “fiscalization of land use policy” that sees new construction as a revenue generator for governmental coffers. 

Another impetus for housing, he said, came from the unrealistic quotas set for the city by the Association of Bay Area Government. 

Juliet Lamont saw strength in both statements. 

“The 1990 statements says downtown is just perfect, thank you very much,” said DAPAC Chair Will Travis, who urged members to “dream the grandest dreams and keep 1990 for 1990.” 

“You just explained exactly what my paranoia is,” said Patti Dacey in response to Travis’ calls for dreaming. 

“Keep it short and inspirational,” said Steve Lustig, one of the university’s ex officio representatives to the committee. “But we have not talked about how to maintain economic and cultural diversity. 

“It’s really important we get economic vitality in,” said Raudel Wilson, a DAPAC member and recipient of a campaign contribution from Travis in his recent unsuccessful run to be the downtown’s representative on the City Council. 

Planning Commission Chair Helen Burke said she liked another tweak, with the phrase “an economically vital green downtown” used in the vision statement “because green and economic vitality can go hand-in-hand.” 

“It should be short and sweet, with a focus on housing, arts and entertainment and better green space,” said Rob Wrenn, who also wanted to keep the high density emphasis—but in the plan’s body and in the accompanying zoning ordinance changes. 

Poschman had noted earlier that the zoning ordinance changes needed to realize the 1990 plan were never implemented. 

Supporters of the new statement included James Samuels and Linda Jewell, another UC ex officio representatives. 

Another concern was how to address the always controversial issue of “street behavior,” specifically the conduct of high school students, eccentrics and the homeless. 

Lisa Stephens said she was concerned that incorporating the term might stigmatize poor people, students and others over what she termed a trivial problem. 

“I agree,” said Winston Burton, who works to find jobs for the poor and homeless. “Behavior is a community standard, not an economic development issue.” 

“It’s not a behavior problem, it’s a perception problem,” said student and Housing Commissioner Jesse Arreguin, who added that housing shouldn’t be considered an economic development issue either. “We need housing because people need to live here.” 

Add street behavior to the plan’s section on pedestrians, said Hawley. As for separating housing development from economic development, that was fine. “We could soften revenue generation for people who don’t like revenue,” she said. 

Billy Keys, who runs security for Berkeley High School, said street behavior could be subsumed in the concept of making streets safe and inviting. 

Lamont said she agreed with Hawley, Keys and Linda Schacht that ”a safe and inviting environment is an economic draw.” Maybe street behavior could be addressed elsewhere, but keep the safe and inviting, she said. 

In the end, committee members voted 10-6 to include wording about the importance of revenue generation. They agreed unanimously to include language setting out a goal of figuring out how to pay for public amenities. 

As for sitting down to tackle the plan itself, members like Poschman and Arreguin are pushing for immediate work, while Travis and the staff are urging patience, with the promise that the actual drafting will commence with the first meeting of the new year. 

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Marks told the committee. “We’re moving forward.” 

“I’m no so sure,” Arreguin said later.