DAPAC Discussion Highlights Tensions Over Downtown

By Richard Brenneman
Friday December 08, 2006

Tensions within the panel helping to draft the new downtown plan emerged more clearly Tuesday night during a fast-paced meeting. 

While the existing plan for Berkeley’s city center stressed historic preservation, the dominant theme emerging in the discussions of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee can be summed up in one word: sustainability. 

“The big problem I see is that when I look at buildings downtown, and I see buildings that are designated as structures of merit, many of them are not worthy of that,” said Dorothy Walker, a retired UC Berkeley vice chancellor appointed to DAPAC by City Councilmember Betty Olds. 

Carole Kennerly and Jenny Wenk agreed. 

The same trio is among the seven committee members who made a successful proposal to create a DAPAC subcommittee to help organize city/university collaboration on the 800,000 square feet of uses the university wants to add in the city center. 

The other four are Victoria Eisen, former Councilmember Mim Hawley, Planning Commission James Samuels and Linda Schacht. 

While DAPAC members were unanimous in endorsing the committee, the one tension that emerged was over its composition. 

Samuels said the absent DAPAC Chair Will Travis had told him he planned to appoint the seven proponents, himself and UC Berkeley’s three ex officio representatives to the panel. 

“That’s exactly why we would want more,” said fellow Planning Commissioner and DAPAC member Gene Poschman. 

“I agree,” said Patti Dacey. 

The seven initial proponents had voiced the least sentiment for a strong preservation emphasis, and Hawley said the committee had no good reason even to refer to the earlier plan. 

But the vote came down for a committee that could include up to 11 DAPAC members—one short of a quorum of the full committee. 

Each of the proponents volunteered to serve with Travis—a given. Three other DAPAC members who have indicated more sympathy for preservation also volunteered—Poschman, Jesse Arreguin and Wendy Alfsen. 

Jennifer Lawrence McDougall, the UC Berkeley principal planner assigned to the downtown project, reminded the committee that the university had presented them with clear goals for downtown space in March. 

The university is bankrolling the plan, the result of a settlement agreement that ended a city lawsuit challenging the university’s long range plans through 2020. 

The university has plans for the old state Department of Health Services building site that occupies much of the extended block bounded by Berkeley Way on the south, Hearst Avenue on the North, Oxford Street on the east and Shattuck Avenue on the west. 

Some DAPAC members have suggested using the western end of the site for a major retailer or mixed use housing over retail development. 

McDougall warned that the university plans to use much of that site, with the intent of building a community health campus providing space for both classrooms and community services. 

While the university might allow some development there by the city, it wouldn’t approve any plan that didn’t allow the university its full allocation of 800,000 square feet. “We don’t want you to be surprised,” she said. 

The university is paying the salary of Matt Taecker, the planner who is drafting the plan for the city, as one of the conditions of settlement of the lawsuit. 

The university came in for heavy criticism earlier in the meeting during the public comment period when Doug Buckwald and Sharon Hudson urged the panel to adopt mechanisms that would ensure that neighbor complaints are heard during construction of university projects. 

“There’s nothing about residential livability” in the documents before DAPAC Wednesday night, said Hudson, who said the plan needed a mechanism of handling neighbor construction complaints. 

Buckwald, who came to the meeting straight from the grove outside Memorial Stadium where he is coordinating support for tree-sitting protesters challenging university plans to demolish it to make way for a high tech gym complex, said DAPAC would be accepting a major failure if it failed to develop a mechanism for resolving complaints. 

“If you want lots of construction problems downtown, let UC have complete carte blanche,” he said. 


Other tensions 

The “street behavior” conundrum was back on the table again Wednesday, with Hawley leading the charge. “I would like to put it back on the table. It’s a critical economic issue,” she said. 

“I’ll second it,” said Samuels., 

Wenk agreed, saying Center Street merchants spent considerable costly efforts cleaning up sidewalks and the street. 

“Whose behavior are we talking about? Are we talking about the homeless?” asked Winston Burton, who works to find jobs for the homeless. “It’s not an economic issue to me.” 

The lack of public restrooms was the real economic issue, said Lisa Stephens. 

Poschman said he was concerned because in the draft of themes prepared by city staff, UC was considered only under the sustainability heading. “It is nowhere else in the outline,” he said. 

Other members said the sustainability section also needed more attention to shadowing, greenhouse gases and recycling. 

“Urban infill,” said Walker. 

Environmentalist Juliet Lamont urged the addition of 10 to 15 strategies for promoting sustainability. 

“We need to do more development, because that’s the thing that will make us more sustainable,” said Walker. 

Density without more services wouldn’t help, said Arreguin. 

The debate continued, covering topics ranging from the benefits of retrofitting old buildings versus construction of new, the relative benefits of high rise versus shorter buildings, the need for more public transit pitted against the need for more public parking, and the issue of whether developers could “game” green building standards. 

“This has been an extraordinary discussion,” said city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks when the dust finally settled. “You guys have put a lot on the plate.”