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High-Rise Tower Plan Proposed for Downtown

By Richard Brenneman
Friday February 23, 2007

Should downtown Berkeley sprout a highrise-studded skyline, complete with 14 new 16-story “point towers” as a solution to regional government demands that the city add new housing? 

That was one of the solutions offered by city planning staff at Wednesday night’s meeting of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee. 

The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) has issued preliminary figures that will form the basis of a new mandate that would force the city to prepare the way to add 2,700 new housing units over the next seven years. 

Though the figure isn’t final and Planning Director Dan Marks said his staff is appealing the figure, ABAG has decreed a “smart growth” policy that mandates cities with major transportation facilities and job access to accommodate the lion’s share of regional development. 

Under the proposed guidelines, the city would have to prepare for a total of 5,450 new housing units by 2035. 

ABAG doesn’t require actual construction—only that the city be willing to accept the totals if developers are willing to build the new housing. Failure to comply could mean the loss of some state funding and programs. 

The high-rises—called “point towers” because they are set back from lower street-frontages—would each be as tall as the Wells Fargo Tower, one of two tallest buildings in downtown Berkeley. 

Located at the northwest corner of the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, that tower faces across Center Street Berkeley’s currently tallest urban structure, the Great Western bank building, otherwise known as the Power Bar building, located at the southwest corner. 

A third, even taller building is planned for the northeast corner of the same intersection, the UC Berkeley-promoted Berkeley Charles hotel and conference center, which would feature 19 stories of hotel rooms and condos atop three floors of meeting and dining space. 

The high-rises were presented as one of two scenarios for land use and housing, a baseline scenario based on current zoning and policies and the tower-studded high-intensity model. 

The baseline model assumes development limited to four- and five-story projects, the heights determined by current zoning as well as cost-effective construction techniques. Both models include the university’s requirements for 800,000 square feet of new downtown uses as well as 1,000 new parking spaces. 

The baseline model would add 1,800 new housing units, compared to 3,000 for the high-intensity plan, with an 850-square-foot average unit size. 

A new plan was mandated in the settlement of the city’s lawsuit challenging environmental documents prepared for the university’s Long Range Development Plan covering the years through 2020. 

Looking at the point tower scenario, member and architect Jim Novosel said “density for density’s sake sucks,” agreeing with fellow member Juliet Lamont that any plans should include greenery. Winston Burton agreed, and stressed the need to include larger, three-bedroom units among the affordable housing to be created. 

Marks said one possible source of the scarce larger units might be incentives granted to enable construction of the high-rises. 

Dacey asked how high-rises would impact already challenged city sewers and other municipal services, especially when added to impacts of other growth planned by the university on the campus itself. Marks said he would check with city staff. 

Member and Planning Commissioner Helen Burke said she could never support the high-density alternative, “but I would be prepared to support a range of options.” 

All the schematics provided to members, except for the sketch of one point tower at the site of the McDonald’s eatery at University and Shattuck Avenues, were two-dimensional maps, so Wendy Alfsen asked Marks to provide skyline illustrations to show how the 14 towers might impact views of the hills from nearby residences. Marks said he doubted that staff would have time to prepare them.  

No decisions were reached, though a preliminary vote might come soon, said Matt Taecker, the city planner hired with university funds to help draft the new plan. DAPAC must finish its work by November. 


Another chair setback  

DAPAC was created to guide city staff in developing the new plan, though the final decisions on the plan rest with the Planning Commission and City Council. A recent coup on the planning commission ousted environmentalist Helen Burke as chair at the end of a one-year term, replacing her with the more developer-friendly David Stoloff. Traditionally, chairs had served for two successive terms. 

Stoloff, if elected for a second term, would be at the commission’s helm while the new downtown plan is being shaped.  

Burke has been part of the DAPAC majority which has repeatedly challenged decisions by Chair Will Travis. She led the successful fight, opposed by Travis, to form a subcommittee focusing on Center Street, the site of two key university-backed projects, the privately built hotel and the university new Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive complex. 

The committee also voted overwhelming to open up meetings of the joint city/university committee advising city planning staff on technical issues of planned university development in the downtown, overriding the wishes of Travis and the city planning department. 

Members also voted against Travis’s wishes to expand the committee on City Interests in University Properties from seven members to eleven.  

The committee handed their chair yet another defeat Wednesday night when they rejected one of his two proposed nominees to a joint committee mulling the role preservation will play in the future of downtown Berkeley. 

Members rejected Travis’s nomination of Planning Commissioner and architect James Samuels to serve on the joint DAPAC/Landmarks Preservation Commission subcommittee. 

The vote was advisory only, with the power to make the actual appointments reserved by the city council. 

While Travis had proposed Samuels and Novosel, members insisted on separate votes on the recommendation, with Novosel winning on a unanimous vote. After that vote, former City Councilmember Mim Hawley moved Samuels’ name. 

“No reflection on Jim, but he’s already on every subcommittee we have,” said Wendy Alfsen. “I really think everybody ought to have a chance to be on a committee, and nobody should serve on all three.” 

“I didn’t volunteer,” Samuels said. 

“Jim’s knowledge will be very helpful,” said retired UC Berkeley Assistant Vice Chancellor for Property Development Dorothy Walker. 

But the nomination failed on a five-six vote, with five members abstaining. 

Gene Poschman, a member of the planning commission, said that in conformity with the practice of other city commissions, the members ought to have a vote on subcommittee appointments. 

Patti Dacey, like Samuels a former member of the landmarks commission, then nominated Jesse Arreguin, and received a second from Lisa Stephens. 

Arreguin was approved by with 12 votes, with only Walker and former City Councilmember Mim Hawley in opposition. Samuels, Novosel and Jenny Wenk abstained. 


Photograph by Richard Brenneman. 

Planner Matt Taecker showed Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee members one possible example of a 16-story “point tower” on the northwest corner of Shattuck and University avenues, one of 14 that might be erected in downtown Berkeley if planners opt for a high-intensity development model.